Culinary Medicine: Fighting Cancer with Food – Leah Mueller

My husband has stage four colorectal cancer, and I am his chef.

Cooking for a stage four patient is tricky. Cancer destroys the appetite. You need fuel to fight a ravaging disease. Like an invasive parasite, cancer seeks to gain ascendancy by taking over a body, devouring its cells, and starving the host.

The so-called cure only makes mealtime harder. Between the disease and the chemo, patients don’t feel much like eating. Cancer drugs have changed little in fifty years. Chemo and radiation are like pesticides that kill unwanted and beneficial insects alike. Their toxins destroy healthy cells as well as unhealthy ones. Meanwhile, the disease plows through its host with impunity, shoving willpower aside.

I watch this progression with horror. Russ’s weight has plummeted,

and his normally robust appetite has dwindled to that of a picky

toddler. Sometimes he spends most of the day vomiting. The doctor

says this is normal.

It’s so fucking unfair. The two of us always loved food. Eating was our

shared bond, a pastime we enjoyed more than any other.

Despite a lifelong struggle with income, I’ve always possessed a gourmet palate. I wear ragged socks and buy the cheapest toilet paper, but the one thing I refuse to skimp on is food. After all, it has to go inside my body.

The irony of my husband’s colorectal cancer diagnosis took our friends by surprise. “But…your diet is so HEALTHY!” a few of them stammered. Tests revealed that Russ had the genetic markers for his specific malignancy on both his mother’s and father’s sides. A rare affliction, but enough to push him into the high-risk category. Add a toxic boss and a sedentary desk job to the mix, and it was like he had a bullseye on his back.

During our nineteen-year relationship, Russ and I have gone through many food phases—gourmet tuna casserole when our kids were young (they used to beg him NOT to put blue cheese on top), buttermilk pancake and nitrate-free bacon breakfasts, and finally, my current incarnation as a vegan chef.

As a vegan married to a cancer patient, I encounter a lot of none-too-subtle judgment. Despite the recent explosion of vegan food items in stores and restaurants, popular bias remains constant: we’re obsessive freaks who eat nothing but twigs, cardboard, and salads. I’ve lost count of the number of well-meaning Facebook friends who’ve asked Russ, “have you tried PROTEIN shakes? They make some really good ones now.”

During the past few months, I have become obsessed with protein, researching the number of grams in pecans and peanuts, scouring the internet for culinary wisdom. I learned that quinoa is a complete protein source. For several weeks, I fixated on burritos. A serving of avocado contains a surprising amount of protein—nearly four grams. Adding black beans and brown rice increases the tally by fourteen grams.  Throw in some fried tofu and you have a whopping total of thirty grams of protein.

Russ has a difficult time chewing now, so tortillas present a challenge. I have turned to softer cuisine. Applesauce/pecan pancakes with crushed raspberries. Protein shakes from the blender—the real kind, made from fresh fruit. Creamy asparagus soup with coconut milk and nutritional yeast. Butternut squash with Earth Balance.

And finally, the desserts, which Russ can always eat, no matter how nauseated he feels. Chocolate peanut butter pie atop an almond flour crust. Banana pudding and coconut whipping cream. Strawberry cheesecake made with a mouth-watering combination of cashew cream and vegan cream cheese.

I have discovered the powerful joys of maple and agave syrups, the mellow sweetness of coconut sugar. No need for the vile white stuff. I create desserts that taste like magic.

I never cooked so much in my life. The perfect storm of Russ’s cancer, his post-diagnosis expulsion from his job and the ensuing loss of income, the interminable pandemic, and our recent move to a small town with few viable restaurant options forced me to become a gourmet vegan chef.

Early in his diagnosis, Russ reported his lack of appetite to his oncologist. The doctor, a middle-aged Indian man with the demeanor of a sage, shook his head and said, “Food is medicine. You must eat.”

I took this to heart, even as Russ struggled to remember. I can’t reach inside his body to replace the cells lost to chemo. I can’t snatch the tumors from his liver. But I’ll do my best to keep him alive with the tastiest, most nutritious meals I can create from the recesses of our small kitchen.

Cooking is the best gift I can offer. Much more tangible than the vapid but earnest exhortations of online friends: “You’ve got this!” “Have you heard the good news about kombucha/cannabis/chaga mushrooms?” It’s so frustratingly American to treat a terminal illness like it’s either a sporting event, or a problem to be fixed using sheer muscle power.

The hugging arms and praying hands emojis bother me most of all. These folks don’t even take a few seconds to type, “I’m sorry.” Social media has turned us into idiots. We order greasy food at drive-throughs, then go online and give fast food advice.

Not me. Because food is medicine, and I enjoy cooking more than ever. I love to stand at my counter and measure ingredients into a bowl. I feel like a mad chemist inside a lab, but more relaxed. The soma-like endorphins help me pretend that Russ and I are a normal couple, ready to devour a hearty meal together.

I enjoy the fantasy for a few minutes, until I remember the truth. Reality punches so hard that it takes my breath away, but only for a moment.

My husband wants to live even more than the cancer does. If I create new meals, and he eats them, we might outrun those insidious, devouring toxins. I have plenty of time and pages of new recipes. We’ll see who wins the next round.

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Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Bisbee, Arizona.  Her most recent books, Misguided Behavior, Tales of Poor Life Choices (Czykmate Press), Death and Heartbreak (Weasel Press), and Cocktails at Denny's (Alien Buddha) were released in 2019. Leah’s work appears in Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. Her essay "Firebrand, The Radical Life and Times of Annie Besant" appears in the book "Fierce, Essays By and About Dauntless Women," which placed first in the nonfiction division of the 2019 Publisher's Weekly Booklife contest.