Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thanksgiving Cancer Style

I used to be a foodie.  I cooked "gourmet" as it was called then.  Fresh everything, from scratch.  I  grew my own herbs, shopped farmers markets, had boxes from local farmers delivered to my house weekly with unknown goodies in them I'd find recipes for.  I was the first to find a weird and unknown vegetable and figure out how to use it.   I cooked a different, fresh meal every day, simple meals on the weekday and elaborate ones on the weekend.  They were steaming plates of love, and I know my husband married me for my cooking skills.  I was farm to fork before Farm to Fork became a thing.  I enjoyed entertaining (not because of decorating, and my guests had to step over the dust bunnies, but because of food) and loved coming up with epicurean dishes. I know I am responsible for at least one women becoming interested in food. (Hi Colleen!)

Thanksgiving is a foodie's paradise - as well as a foodie's hell. One has to serve traditional, expected dishes otherwise people get upset. But within that, one can become creative.  In year's past, I scoured Bon Apetit and other cooking magazines for unique recipes to make the old.. new. Yes, I made the green bean casserole that everybody makes -  but I would use fresh green beans, picked that day and lightly cooked in salted water.  I'd french my own onions, make my own whitesauce and use portobellos as the mushroom.  My cranberry sauce might have ginger and jalapeno, my stuffing might be rye. Gravy would be made with hand-picked bay leaves and stock I made myself from the innards.   I'd roast root veggies, mash sweet potatoes with cream or chop them with rosemary.  I was creative with new recipes and tried something different every year.  I'd even sometimes go for a theme:  Southern, with blackened turkey and cornbread dressing,  or New American with Smoked Turkey and garlic mash.  I always had 3 pies made with homemade whipped cream, one of them chocolate.

My larder was, to say the least, loaded.  I overcooked, and everybody had full plates, and seconds and thirds.

But then I got sick and started years of chemotherapy.  I slowly stopped cooking, and my youngest son has grown up very differently than my oldest - much more take-out, much less creativity, Dad as the primary (and uninterested) chef.  I kept up the holiday cooking, but it became difficult.   Standing for a long time is painful, a three day cooking marathon exhausting. Shopping with a low white count was dangerous.  I loved my family but it was too much work.  One year, early on in my chemo days, my stepdaughter did the Thanksgiving cooking, which is a fond memory.  The food was delicious (no small feat for somebody not used to my difficult kitchen).  I got to just sit and eat, a real treat, unusual.

Eventually though, years of treatment have dragged on, the visible sign of my illness - my hair - grew back.  I have been in remission for almost a year.  People are naturally weary of my disease and have started to think of me as well again.  I almost do too, sometimes.  I now plan for the future, buy subscription boxes (this time makeup samples) and am even halfway done with Christmas shopping.  I didn't do those things last Thanksgiving, not convinced I'd be around for a month.   But however long this remission lasts, 2 months or 5 years,  I don't think I'll ever be healthy again; years of cancer treatment has left its wretched mark.  I still need 12 hours of sleep, I still have quite a bit of pain and cramping, I can't stand for long nor can I lift my arm above my head.  For crying out loud -  laughing too much sends me into spasms of pain and hiccups!  I can't laugh!   Five years of ongoing chemo and surgeries have left scars, both visible and invisible.

But I'm not complaining.  I'm thrilled every moment that I am here, even the days the dog gets skunked.

It does mean though, that cooking is still hard and to top it off,  I have completely lost my appetite.  I have no interest in eating, which is why my weight is down to the low 90s.  Although I don't recommend this, I've self-diagnosed myself as having Cancer Anorexia-Cachexia Syndrome.  Or at least the Anorexia part. My doctor is very concerned about my weight although hasn't given it a name.  I am not near the end of my life, (I hope) but I do fit the criteria as outlined. I would never eat again if it was up to me, which is sad considering how much I loved food. I wish I could eat, and I do try but it is painful and the thought of food is repulsive (which is why it's hard to cook).  If I get sick and lose more weight, it takes months to get it back.   In the past,  I could never eat a lot and was always thin, but boy did I enjoy good food. Now, about all I can stand is fruit and it has to be perfect, and I also eat Sprees like a child. I had always thought that when my kids were grown and gone my husband and I would go out to eat regularly, brunch on the weekends, dinners out a few nights a week, and we'd try all the new restaurants we could, as a foodie should. There are many good ones in Sacramento.  That would be our hobby together - and now I have no interest at all.  I'm a good girl, knowing I must, I do eat once a day most days, but my caloric intake is pretty low.

Still,  I like nothing better than my family gathered around my table for the holidays, even the food-centered ones.   I have a specCrapular house, old (built in 1947) uncleanable, Mamie pink bathroom, not enough electrical outlets, too many pets.  But it is full of my family and that's what I love.  I want them to keep coming for holidays - and this year I have a grandbaby!

What what does a person with certain former food standards do when they can't cook to entice their family home for the holidays?

I discovered Whole Foods Thanksgiving Meals.  Not only is delicious,  it's really no more expensive than making your own meal.  For $99.00, you get a 12 pound free-range, antibiotic-free turkey with 4 pounds of mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry, rolls, 8 gravy, and a Pumpkin Pie.  For an additional 50.00, you can add sweet potato casserole, a potato gratin, more rolls, sausage stuffing, mushroom gravy and a cranberry apple pie.

I ordered them both, as I have for the past 3 years, and I know it's enough to feed 15 people with leftovers.  Now all I have to do is make the green bean casserole for my son (this time with Campbell's soup and French's canned onions), a coleslaw recipe that has been in my family for generations, and a chocolate pie, still with homemade whipped cream.  And, we will feast, and I may have a bite or two myself.

I know many stores sell these Thanksgiving meals, and previously, I could not imagine buying one.  But it has become a yearly necessity, and I'm so thankful that they are available. After having one, even healthy, I can't imagine not purchasing it.  The Whole Foods meal is delicious, richly flavored and healthy.    My table will again be full of delectable, if not exactly home-made food, and I will be celebrating not only another amazing year of life, but my oldest son's recent engagement and watching my new grandson experience his first Thanksgiving.

What could be better than that?

I can't wait.


  1. Beautifully written, as always, Ann. I'm sorry you don't enjoy food any longer, but you have your priorities in order...FAMILY COMES FIRST! Have a happy and healthy thanksgiving! And if you have to choose what to eat, always go with dessert!

  2. Why is it that you find it hard to eat? Is it the taste? I would like to understand since i cant imagine how it is to not enjoy eating :)

    1. It's hard to describe. It hurts to eat, for one thing. Just a few bites and I feel very full and like the inside of my stomach is bruised. But there is a mental part too. The thought of food just turns me off. I don't know if that's because it's hurt for so long or what, but I definitely don't want to eat. I get hungry sometimes so then I get a banana or apple or something. My husband buys me these creamy cheesecake I like - it's not solid so I can stand it.

      But most other things I have an aversion to now and I cannot understand why. I WANT to eat again. If somebody puts food in front of me I sometimes eat it but my husband won't do that. He always says "What do you want? Do you want eggs." Well, I WANT NOTHING so I can't answer that question. IF he was the nurse type and just brought me stuff I might eat more. But I am not going to get it myself.

      I assumed it was because I had the radiation on my liver and the radiation field crossed my stomach. That could be but I guess we'll never know. My doctor says I should try to eat more and maybe it would hurt less if I got used to it, but that's easier said than done.

      I'm okay unless I get sick and lose weight like I just did. Then it's hard go get it back.

      People have suggested marijuana but no. :) I have enough memory issues already and so am not going to make that worse!

  3. Oh, Ann, I am Jenna's mother (Jenna is one of your most loyal fans). Just wanted to let you know what an amazing post you wrote. I wanted to laugh, then cry, then rage at the injustice that you have to live with. You are definitely one of those Steel Magnolia women who manage to get thru the toughest of times. Hopefully, you realize what an impact your words on making on a lot of people, and that you have a ton of folks in your corner. Remember that the beautiful words you write will last long after you and I are both gone. Stay strong. Janene aka Jenna's Madre

  4. While I never went quite as far as you've described with from-scratch cooking, I used to be able to spend an hour in the kitchen whipping together something gourmet off the top of my head. Not so much anymore. I'm going to try my hand at a new dish this Thanksgiving, and it's already got me intimidated. I also have never cooked a raw turkey before. This year, my FiL is doing the turkey, but they're also moving a state over next month. If we're on our own for thanskgiving next year, I might have to take your tip and hop over to our own WholeFoods for a meal.

  5. Please write a cookbook! So many readers would buy it! Thank you for your blog!

  6. -Just love the final photo on your video after telling us the Perjeta is working!You're not alone.Many of us are living very similar lives.Mine is grade 4 oestrogen positive primary dealt with in 2000, first mastectomy.Various ops since especially after recurrence found in 2008.15 years after diagnosis & am glad to still be here.Yes - I get tired of it but positivity is the key.No-one knows what is round the corner regards this disease & the longer we live the more medicines are available to us.Take care God Bless. X.


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