When Cancer Treatment Ended, My Passion For Change Didn't

If you'd told me ten years ago if I'd be a leader in the world of culinary medical initiatives, collaborating on programs with Columbia University, backed by data and studies funded by the NIH, I would have asked you what you were smoking. And yet, that is what happened.

I come from a family of foodies and world travelers. I began cooking at 12, learning Italian specialties from my mom and sturdy British classics from my Dad. Cooking continued to be a passion throughout my life, even as I pursued a career in fashion and design. In the early 90s, many in fashion were lost to AIDS. I cooked and cared for a designer friend during the last six months of his life. This experience taught me not to be afraid, and I was grateful for that when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2001. It had completely taken over my right kidney. I was so sure I was going to die I started to plan my funeral. I was literally making myself crazy.

Then one day about a week before my surgery, I had what I call my 'Scarlett O’Hara' experience: I was in my kitchen, and as I looked down at my feet, I realized that at that very moment, I wasn't dying; in fact, I was actually OK.

I took a deep breath and made a pact with myself: until my doctors told me it was the endgame, I was OK.

I made the decision to stay present, and not think about things I couldn't control and drive myself mad. I felt a huge weight lift off me. I was going to live, and enjoy it, until I died.

I was extremely lucky. I had surgery to remove the offending organ and life went back to normal. Three and a half years later, it was a different story. My second diagnosis was an unrelated, triple negative breast cancer that required surgery, chemo and radiation. I decided to take a hiatus from work to deal with my treatment.

This decision changed my life. Taking that step back from my work helped me to see what was happening around me. Listening to a friend one day at Gilda's Club describe her problems with taste, I realized I could use my own experiences of cancer treatment to help others like her. I began to understand that my cooking skills enabled me to cope with treatment side effects in ways my fellow travelers in cancer couldn't. I started to offer advice, recipes and then free classes throughout my cancer treatment and truly became a part of the cancer community.

But then treatment ended. I returned to my old life -- I started taking clients back on, talked them through fashion projects… but in the middle of a discussion about color and trends, I realized that my heart was no longer in it. What I wanted was to go back to the people in the cancer suite who needed help. My cancer experience had given me a very different perspective on my life and now, I realized, I had to do something with it.

In 2007, Cook For Your Life was born. CFYL’s mission is to give the cancer community the practical knowledge, tools and inspiration to cook their way into a healthy survivorship. To date, we have helped over 9,000 cancer patients and survivors through our cooking classes, and over three million users around the world through our website. Cancer patients can even join a cooking class online to learn how to cook for their lives.

Looking back, there were signposts that pointed the way that I didn’t immediately see. I believe it is important to stay flexible and be inquisitive, because the doors that open in life may not lead to where you first thought of going.

Trust where the path takes you. You'll know when it's right.

How did cancer affect your life's work? Share with us in the comments below!

On August 4th, join CookForYourLIFE at Feinstein's 54 Below, New Yorkfor music from Broadway shows, pop songs, and a few original tunes. Tickets can be purchased here.

Photo courtesy of the author