A year ago I was diagnosed with brain cancer.
My name is Joe Arena and I’m 53 years old. While seeking medical treatment, I’m fighting to focus on love, friendships, exercise, study, laughter – and cooking. I strive to eat well both for pleasure and for nutrition. These actions battle illness as well as provide daily life with purpose.
I love to cook and it has been an enduring passion. I’m no pro, but I love novelty and variety, exploring cultures and, of course, delicious tastes. Just as central to my life, cooking a meal often provides peace and mindfulness, the Buddhist concept of presence. I’ve begun to write a blog, www.cookingpatient.com, and this project helps sustain me. In it, I share my journey exploring the relationship between food choices, health, and a delicious dinner.
Picture one bazillion books, newspapers, magazines, websites, TV shows, YouTube videos and more that collectively cover humanity’s interest and often rhapsodic infatuation with food and cooking. You may be looking for a recipe for extra-gooey chocolate chip cookies or your focus may be on experimentation and cutting-edge ideas. You might want a roadmap for preparing good food with limited cooking time or perhaps you are looking for foods that you have never before seen or tasted from lands far away. You can explore an endless variety of interests!
There is also an ongoing nutritional renaissance to embrace. Look at any supermarket section in all major areas of the United States. You’ll find organic produce, grass-fed meats (though we need more still), and there has even been improvement in processed goods (coconut ice cream, mmm). The times, they are a-changin’.
You narrow your reading choices considerably if your focus is on food and health, seeking to guide the body and brain along paths as diverse as losing weight to altering your mood. Take your explorations further and you will uncover rigidly defined diets such as Paleo, Atkins, Ketogenic, vegan, raw and others that share one claim in common: stick to the rules and wellness will follow.
What about food and illness? Your reading choices become even narrower. I quickly learned that we have few solid answers to the connection between food and cancer. This topic is not central in the traditional medical community; it is rarely taught in medical school; it was not raised by either of my thoughtful oncologists or even brought up at a national brain tumor conference I recently attended. Keep searching and eventually, you’ll find a small shelf of books on the topic. The good news is that a basic eating strategy for cancer patients is widely accepted. More vegetables and fruit, protein from lean meats, some fish, and some fats. Less carbs, wheat, dairy, and above all, less sugar. I think this advice is critical and I have personally committed to it.
But behind these recommendations are complications. How much less is “less” when applied to negative foods? Grains of any kind should be eliminated? Which fish is naughty, which fish nice? Carrots? Soy? Coffee? Peanuts? Maple syrup? Raw? Nearly every eating choice I research––even the top scorers- attracts both positive and negative reviews. The “Ten Best Health Foods” list is published often and never the same way twice. The only regular on the list may be dark chocolate.
One of the most personally relevant cookbooks I’ve adapted adopted is The Grain Brain Cookbook by David Perlmutter. He is a board-certified neurologist who presents a well-researched approach, along with some terrific recipes, that help you eliminate carbs, wheat and sugar from your diet. It might not be for everyone, but he proposes that this eating plan can help reduce chronic headaches, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, seizures, anxieties, insomnia, schizophrenia, depressions and more challenges to the health of the brain. But oddly, not once does he mention brain cancer.
Brain cancer–it’s rare and different, both technically as well as functionally. The brain dictates life. It is the central processing unit of the entire body, establishing who we are, how we feel, who and what we love, and a thousand other minute functions. With brain cancer, searching for answers to the meaning of life itself is hard to avoid.
At this level of investigation, cooking as an act of pleasure can take a backseat . The deeper you study the topic of food and health, the further you may disrupt your simple joy in preparing a meal. Now it’s less about your childhood, your mother, your kids, your lover, your curiosity. Cooking becomes about sticking to a list of guidelines.
So far, I have been lucky in that I have never lost my appetite. Many cancer patients do. I live in greater Los Angeles, with innumerable Hispanic, Latin American, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern eating options in my neighborhood. The food cultures and choices are so complex and different from one another that each needs a dissertation about a cancer patient’s do’s and don’ts. Sushi? Some experts say I should avoid it entirely, but recently I had a delicious sushi roll at the cafeteria of the cancer center at UCLA where I went for tests.
I am no expert, and regardless of your situation, I am definitely not preaching what you should do. In my blog, I record my choices and behaviors and share my research and recipes. Like you, every day, I have to decide what to cook and what to eat. I need to have fun and I want to share the experience with family and friends. And when I am sated and spent for the day I think, what shall I cook and eat tomorrow?