Ann Ogden Gaffney (Photograph: Joe Gaffney)
When Ann Ogden Gaffney received her first cancer diagnosis in 2001, she was living the dream, working in fashion and traveling the world. While kidney cancer was definitely a setback and Gaffney had to have surgery, she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation and was back at work within three months. Four years later, when Gaffney was diagnosed with unrelated triple-negative breast cancer, it was a different story.
“All of a sudden my world changed,” says Gaffney. Faced with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she took a hiatus from work and planned to use the time to take care of herself. She had no idea that a huge part of that care would take place in the kitchen or that it would change the course of her life.
Cancer treatment comes with devastating side effects, many of which affect the way patients eat. Patients lose their appetite, have damaged or destroyed taste buds, are sensitive to smells, and suffer from nausea, digestion issues, and mouth sores. Food can’t eliminate or prevent these side effects, but as Gaffney discovered, eating the right food can make the process more bearable.
It didn’t happen overnight, but as Gaffney moved through treatment, she learned to work around many of the side effects. Exhaustion was one of the biggest challenges. The days following a chemotherapy infusion are particularly rough, then you feel better and by the time of your next infusion, you’re almost back to normal. The trick, explains Gaffney, is to use this cycle to your advantage.
“I would cook for myself when I felt OK and get ready for it and that would really help,” says Gaffney. She also made good use of her freezer, stocking away food for when she wasn’t feeling well and didn’t have the energy to prepare meals. Then there was the issue of what to cook, since chemotherapy can wreak havoc on taste buds.
“All of a sudden, you drink water and it tastes disgusting,” says Gaffney. Even foods you love start to taste weird. A life-long cook and food lover, Gaffney turned to the kitchen and resolved to cook her way through treatment. Sometimes this meant preparing bland foods that she could tolerate following an infusion. Other times, she made spicy dishes.
“There was a whole gang of us that would seek out spicy food, not right after our infusions, but when we were feeling better, because it would kind of blast that taste out of your mouth,” explains Gaffney. She also found that it’s common to develop a sweet tooth during treatment. Part of it is “feeling rotten and treating yourself,” says Gaffney, but it’s also about having these strong cravings for sweets.
While Gaffney was cooking her way through treatment and recovery, she realized that others weren’t as fortunate. Many of her fellow patients relied on disappointing takeout, and others simply stopped eating or ate very little. Realizing she was having a much easier time simply because she knew how to cook, Gaffney started teaching cooking classes.
The classes were designed to arm patients with simple, appealing recipes, plus the skills and strategies to make them happen; Gaffney also found that learning to cook offers benefits that go beyond the physical. During treatment, your medical team manages so many aspects of your life and while they may give you a diet or restrictions, ultimately, you get to control your diet and that can be really empowering.
“It’s almost like a step back into living and life beyond hospitals and all the medical stuff you have to go through,” says Gaffney. Cooking can also be a distraction and a way to relax. When you cook, explains Gaffney, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, so it keeps you from thinking about things like your cancer treatment.
As soon as Gaffney started teaching, she was hooked: “Seeing people who didn’t think they could cook, and watching their delight at finding out they could, was exhilarating and I realized I wanted more of that — I wanted to help people.”
In 2007, Gaffney founded Cook for Your Life, which offers free hands-on cooking classes for cancer patients, and has offered services to more than 7,000 people. Cook for Your Life is mostly available in the New York area, but Gaffney is eager to expand, and recently partnered with Drexel University to launch an affiliate program in Philadelphia. There’s also a Spanish-language version, which is part of research taking place at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Cook for Your Life by Ann Ogden Gaffney
As part of her expansion plans, Gaffney wrote the recently published Cook For Your Life: Delicious, Nourishing Recipes for Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment. Chapters focus on different stages of treatment with recipes that manage to bridge the gap between easy and enticing.
Recipes are also available on the Cook for Your Life website, which allows patients to search based on where they are in their treatment. An upgraded version of the site will be available soon, and by next spring, the site will be available in Spanish. While the affiliate programs, cookbook, and research are important, Gaffney knows that the Cook for Your Life web site is the key to reaching more people, which is the ultimate goal.
“We know that what we do works. We know that we can help people change for the better,” says Gaffney, who is currently cancer free. “It would be really gratifying to be able to bring that to as many people as we can.”