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I’ve said before that I was alone when I found out that I had cancer. But in a manner of speaking no one who faces cancer does so alone. Having cancer sets us apart from the rest of the world at the same time it connects us with millions.
When I revealed my diagnosis it became clear to me that I was one face in a crowd of cancer survivors and caretakers. Friends, family, acquaintances and strangers all bared their cancer caused scars, figuratively and literally. I rapidly transformed from the 1 of 8 women who get breast cancer, to a protected member of the 12.5%.
I received expert counsel from a breast cancer “pink tank.” Their collective voice of experience and stories of obstacles overcome provided information and encouragement. Common themes in their survival stories, like “nothing lasts forever” and “go with flow” became my personal mantras, while other things they mentioned did not apply to me. When asked the question what was the most upsetting physical loss brought about by cancer or treatment, my response was a little different than those of other pink ladies.
Breast cancer comes with a lot of loss. Loss of hair, or loss of breasts is often cited when survivors mourn what they lost physically. I lost my hair; but I welcomed the opportunity to relive the fun I had with wigs, hats and head wraps at 21 which was the first time I was medically bald. At that time my head was shaved in preparation for brain surgery. I also lost my left breast, which I memorialized with the nickname Lefty, not only because she went away but also because she wasn’t quite right (get it, come on that’s kinda funny Lefty, lol I crack myself up).
But seriously, unlike women who recall waking to find half the hair from their head resting on their pillow or looking down to see the breast that nurtured their children replaced with drains, bandages, and scars, I was not put off by baldness, and bruises. What made no sense to me was how deeply I mourned my loss of senses. I lost my capacity to taste a broad range of foods and my tolerance to the smell of food above room temperature.
I always knew that food is integral to life. What I discovered is an accommodating palate was integral to lifestyle. The majority of my social activity revolved around essential edible elements. For most of my life, if I celebrated, socialized, networked, or sympathized some sweet or savory delicacy was usually involved. Cooking and eating created intimacy in my relationships. Sampling a new recipe was a sign of trusted friendship; meeting over coffee created common ground with casual acquaintances; breakfast in bed extended embraces shared the night before.
When chemotherapy severely limited what I could cook and eat it was devastating. I was suddenly isolated from giving and receiving in a way that defined me personally and culturally like hair or breasts never would. So finding ways to combat my narrowed senses of taste and smell as well as the digestive distress that came with chemo was the only way I could stay connected to the world I so desperately wanted to remain a part of. The only world I had ever known.
Life Gave Me Lemons
Taste and smell are related. When I asked my doctor how to deal with nausea she suggested sniffing a fresh lemon, which despite my suspicions, worked well. As long as I was in a well-ventilated area the aroma of cut lemon extended my tolerance for the smell of cooking food. That translated into saying yes to invitations to backyard barbecues and open-air cafes. My treatment was during an East Coast summer with pleasant weather so outdoor events allowed me to remain social as long as I traveled with a baggie of cut lemons to inhale and waited for my food to cool. When that wasn’t enough sucking the sour fruit often did the trick.
For a while the lofty lemon salvaged my social standing but in time it was not enough to override the increasing symptoms associated with the taste and smell of a wide range of food. By this time a lot of my favorite foods also left me bloated, constipated or worse. I was relegated to same menu served to fussy two year-olds, only without the sweet treats that made such a limited selection worthwhile.
Meal Train Derailed
When I could no longer stomach the smell of toasting bread or boiling rice, I crowdsourced food prep to a few of my friends. After a few weeks of requesting “No brown sugar in the breakfast cereal,” or “hold the garlic in the soup,” and “leave the meat and red pepper out of the beans and rice next time” I felt both ungrateful and unsatisfied. So I searched the food bloggers and the cookbook section for easy to prepare interesting food that had no or low odor and included the scant ingredients left in my flavor profile.
On the Internet Vitamix blenders and Instant Pot multifunction pressure cookers were mentioned again and again on blogs that specialized in making healthy meals for my new fail safe demographic – families that included finicky toddlers. It turns out that picky eaters are big business among mom bloggers and these ladies really have added a lot of healthy sophisticated choices to what was once dominated by chicken nuggets and grilled cheese. In the cookbook section I discovered the Meals in a Mug genre. It turns out a number of authors make cooking for one quick and easy by relying on a mug, a microwave oven, and a few simple ingredients.
In an effort to “go with flow” as some survivors advised I invested in these new kitchen methods and machines. I actually had fun experimenting with these appliances to make use of my limited ingredients. Now that my taste is returning and my nose is re-acclimated to the kitchen I still prefer cooking with my new toys. The food I make is healthy, with simple ingredients and easy to prepare. Three of my favorite recipes are hummus, quinoa salad, and macaroni and mozzarella in a mug. I add simple lemon basil dressing to each of these potentially bland recipes to turn up the flavor. I enjoy several things about my “anti-chemo cuisine” and my friends do too. I’m back to offering and accepting food as love, now with very little clean up and almost no odor in my kitchen.
Lemon Basil Dressing
|1/2 c. of extra virgin olive oil
the juice of one medium lemon
¼ c. fresh basil leaves
Optional: 1 or 2 cloves of garlic; salt and pepper to taste
|1. Add ingredients to blender in order listed.
2. Blend until smooth
3. Store in a lidded jar; shake before serving