One: I love to cook. Since a decent restaurant job in college, I have spent 30 years making home-cooked meals for myself, family and friends. I love variety and newness and cultures and of course delicious taste. And just as central to my life, cooking a meal often provides satisfaction and peace – or “mindfulness,” the Buddhist concept of presence. So this is my passion.
Two: I have brain cancer. While my wife and I seek the most cutting edge therapies to keep me well, I also fight to focus on love, friendships, exercise, projects, study, laughter – and cooking and eating well, for both nutrition and pleasure. These actions disarm illness and provide daily life with purpose. So this is my project.
Once I connected these two insights, I uncovered a third: We have few solid answers to food and cancer, and especially brain cancer. After surgery, I asked my caring oncologist how I should change my diet, and here’s what he said: Eat what you like. There is no evidence that food choices affect cancer. This is common. At a recent two-day brain cancer summit, the topic was completely ignored. Yet humans eat, on average, three meals a day every day of our lives. And I have seen hundreds of studies – many non-U.S. — about how various foods, along with their herbs, vitamins and minerals, may have a positive impact on a variety of cancers. OK, most are tested on mice, but they’re a start. But to the mainstream medical community, food studies are inconclusive, and certainly not the priority for discussions with newly diagnosed, scared patients.
On the other hand… Picture a giant list of one bazillion books, newspapers, magazines, websites, TV shows, You Tube videos and more that collectively cover humanity’s often rhapsodic passion about food and cooking. At the broadest level, voices stream out base desires. You may need extra-gooey chocolate chip cookies. You may need simple recipes because you hate to cook. You may crave the huge, greasy nightmares you see on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on Food Network. You may want experimentation and cutting edge ideas, food you’ve never seen or tasted before, or access to the flavors and textures of mysterious lands far away. The interests you can explore are endless!
You narrow your choices considerably when you drop down to focus on food and health. Here, thoughts about diet and nutrition (simply meaning the rules you follow) can help the body and the brain as diversely as losing weight, combating diabetes, or feeling happy. Thousands of food blogs (here’s one I like) offer creative recipes for healthful eating ideas. Take another step deeper and you will uncover rigidly defined diets such as Atkins, Paleo, Ketogenic, Vegan, Raw and others that share one claim in common: they help you by narrowing your list of food choices.
Even further down, you can encounter knowledge of industrialized agriculture and processed foods and the poison they deliver. With completely different tones, challengers like Michael Pollan and Food Babe take on ill-raised meats, GMO-influenced vegetables, chemically altered fluids and other sins from Big Business that, since the 1950s forward, have created pandemics of disease in pursuit of profit. And you can also embrace a nutritional renaissance. The fight is on. Just look at any supermarket section in all major areas of the U.S., and you’ll find more organic produce, more grass fed meats (though we need more still), more experiments with processed goods (though some taste awful – I’m talking to you, Triscuit), more total wins (all-coconut ice cream, mmm). The times, they are a-changin’.
Your exploration becomes even narrower with the topic of food and illness. One of the most personally relevant cookbooks I’ve adapted is The Grain Brain Cookbook by David Perlmutter, a board-certified neurologist who presents a well-researched approach, and some terrific recipes, that eliminates carbs, wheats and sugar from your diet. It might not be for everyone, but he proposes that his eating plan can help reduce chronic headaches, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, seizures, anxieties, insomnia, schizophrenia, depressions and more challenges to the health of the brain.
Oddly, not once does his book (nor the preceding Grain Brain) mention brain cancer.
Eventually – you’re now so far down the hole, you can barely see the sky and the support team that holds your rope — you find a small shelf of thoughts about food and cancer. 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 sugar. This advice is critical, and I personally commit to it.
But when the suggestions are explored, things become more complicated. Every single food item has unique properties and therefore impacts, none of them certain, so debates abound. How much less is “less” when applied to negative foods? Grains of any kind? Which fish naughty, which fish nice? Carrots? Soy? Coffee? Peanuts? Maple syrup? Raw? Nearly every eating choice you research – even the top scorers — attracts different approvals and disapprovals. The “Ten Best Health Foods” list is published often, and never the same way twice. (One of the more frequent is flaxseed, but good luck making it an interesting addition to a dish.) I’m so glad dark chocolate is a regular.
I live in greater Los Angeles, with uncountable Hispanic, Latin American, Asian, European and Middle Eastern eating options in my neighborhood. Their cultures about food are so complex and different from one another that each one needs a dissertation about cancer patient 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.
And at this level of search, cooking as an act of pleasure has taken a backseat. The deeper you study the topic of food and health, the further you may disrupt your simple joy of cooking. It’s less about your childhood, your mother, your kids, your curiosity. It’s about sticking to a list of guidelines. It’s easier to make another kale and quinoa salad. (Hold the dressing, please!)
And finally are the teeny handful of sources about food and brain cancer. We have two reasons to have so little. First, brain cancer is rare; by far, breast cancer is most common among women and prostate cancer is most common among men. (Also more common are colorectal, melanoma, urinary, lymphoma, thyroid, kidney, lung, leukemia and others – not that any are good things.) A few long-term survivors of brain cancer (Ben A. Williams, David Servan-Schreiber) have credited foods and nutritional supplements for helping their remissions, but they don’t speak much about the creativity and joy of cooking, at least not in their books.
And second, brain cancer is different. It’s different technically. Brainfacts.org: “The brain is the only organ known to have its own security system, a network of blood vessels that allows the entry of essential nutrients while blocking other substances. Unfortunately, this barrier is so effective at protecting against the passage of foreign substances that it often prevents life-saving drugs from being able to repair the injured or diseased brain.”
And brain cancer is different functionally. Brain dictates life. It’s the central processing unit of our 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 life itself is hard to avoid.
Whoa, I’m getting deep. Let me list some of my basic food decisions. They won’t surprise anyone who has considered healthful eating habits. The emphasis is on vegetables and fruits and lean meats and fish and perhaps complex grains. I have reduced carbs and try to select the healthiest that remain. I have dramatically reduced sugar. The reasoning seems irrefutable – cancer cells eat sugar, and specifically glucose, to grow. Even those inside your skull. They love it whether delivered by bread, pasta, cookies, candy or ice cream. On the other hand, when it’s your mom’s birthday, you have a slice of cake.
I’ve completely eliminated many sugar delivery items, and one of them is hard liquor. I once loved a Negroni, an Old-Fashioned, a Sazerac. I can live without cocktails. Fortunately wine and particularly red wine is not only tolerated, but generally recommended in moderation. (But define moderation!) I often have a small glass with dinner. And a brewski on weekends, especially with friends. I’m full after one, so I always choose a rare micro-brew.
I should also briefly mention my personal commitment to taking daily supplements, including herbs, vitamins and minerals. For more on this parallel effort to maximize health, try starting here.
Here’s what you’ll find by following this site:
The Recipes category shares recipes I have followed or invented that are enjoyable to make and taste wonderful.
The Questions category explores unresolved opinions about foods and cooking styles, and how I personally make the choices I do.
The Voices category lists thinkers about food, cooking, health, illness and cancer. I plan to write brief summaries of the most important sources over time, but recommend you seek personal knowledge.
The Good, Bad, Ugly category is fun times indeed. We have a long way to go for humanity to recognize how we’ve changed our food processing and eating habits in the past 50 years, how it has harmed our health in many ways, and what we are doing about it today. We have a long way to go, but again, the nutritional renaissance is underway.
I am no expert, and regardless of your situation I am definitely NOT preaching what you should do. I’m just recording my own choices and behaviors. Like you, I have to decide what to cook and eat (or eat what someone else cooks) every day. And I need to have fun doing it, and I need to share the experience with family and friends. And when sated and spent for the day I think, what shall I cook and eat tomorrow?
Expressing ourselves creatively is a particularly effective way to replenish the body and soul. So whoever you are, keep your ass in the kitchen. And tell me about it if you’d like. If you’ve read this far, I hope you have thoughts of your own to share.
Then please consult your doctors about personal dietary choices. Some drugs and foods might react negatively when connected together. Listen to their recommendations, do the research, and draw your own conclusions based on all your needs. You’ll know it when things are going well or awry.