River of Hope
HOW TO COPE: FOOD
As a food writer and gourmet chef, Jennifer Omholt always made food an important part of her life. She routinely threw dinner parties for 14 and loved to sample exotic menus. But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44, just 18 months after the birth of her son, she no longer craved fancy dining spots and rich recipes. Suddenly food wasn’t just about good taste—it was a vital component of staying alive. “I was desperate to find a new way to cook,” says Omholt, who lives in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. “I knew how to cook gourmet; now I needed to learn to cook to heal myself.” Her acupuncturist referred her to an eight-week cooking class, Culinary Solutions for Prevention and Healing, taught by Rebecca Katz, a chef at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, Calif. But it was held on Thursdays—the day she usually had her chemotherapy treatments. Undaunted, Omholt and a friend drove 40 minutes away to the classes in Point Reyes Station, a tiny town on the coast. As they traveled through the cattle-dotted rolling hills of West Marin County to the home where the classes were held, Omholt would feel her body begin to relax. “There were always fresh flowers on the table, and things were always bubbling on the stove,” Omholt says. “It removed me from what I called ‘cancer world.’ I could just enjoy myself and forget about everything.” During the classes, she learned that omega-3 fatty acids decreased inflammation and that kombu, a Japanese seaweed, is packed with health-enhancing minerals. She learned to cook leafy greens like kale and chard—and Katz’s signature Magic Mineral Broth, a tasty vegetable stock high in potassium and other trace minerals that are often depleted by cancer treatments. “For cancer patients, the food has to be packed with nutrients and have what I call the ‘yum factor,’” says Katz, author of One Bite at a Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends (Celestial Arts, 2004). Omholt radically changed her diet, cutting back on unhealthy fats, reducing her intake of meat and dairy products (which she feared might contain hormones), and eating organic produce. Friends and family members offered to bring her food, but they were intimidated when she listed her dietary restrictions. So Katz agreed to teach a series of quarterly cooking classes to Omholt’s caregivers. Every three months for two years, Katz would come to Omholt’s kitchen to show her loved ones how to make health-enhancing muffins, soups, and stews. Omholt says the new way of eating helped get her through six months of chemotherapy, three months of radiation, and five surgeries. “Food played a major role in helping me heal emotionally and physically,” she says. Five years after her diagnosis, Omholt is back to throwing elaborate dinner parties. But these days her menus include dishes like kabocha and butternut squash soup, poached salmon, and desserts sweetened with maple syrup instead of sugar.