Stories of Hope
A Recipe For Recovery
Article date: April 18, 2003
When you face the fact that something can be so devastating and scary and unknown... it gives you a perspective of prioritizing your own world. It gives you a positive outlook.
Breast Cancer Survivor Cooks Up Cancer-Savvy Dishes
When life hands Janet Gaffney lemons, she makes lemonade.
The 57-year-old cooking instructor from Bethesda, Maryland, has always tried to make the best of the challenges that have come her way, whether in her business or in her personal life. This can-do attitude served her especially well when she recently confronted one of the greatest challenges any woman can face: breast cancer.
“My whole focus was getting well,” Gaffney says of the period following her diagnosis last year. So in addition to following the treatment regimen prescribed by her doctors, Gaffney made her area of expertise – food – an active part of her recovery plan.
The result was a series of cooking classes called Cancer Smart that meld good flavors with healthy choices. Gaffney teaches the classes as part of her cooking school, The Art of Cooking.
“I am a cooking teacher and a cancer survivor,” Gaffney says, “and I’m teaching the lessons that are probably available to everybody, but I’m putting it together in a fun-filled way that people can take home and put to use.”
An Unexplained Density On A Mammogram
Gaffney’s cancer journey began in March 2002, after her doctors spotted something unusual on her annual mammogram. At first, she says, she wasn’t nervous about getting called back for additional pictures; it had happened once before with no bad outcome.
But when the technicians developed the second set of films, the unexplained density (bright spot on the x-ray) in her left breast was still there. So they did an immediate sonogram. And then they recommended a biopsy.
“I hate needles,” Gaffney says, “so the thought of a biopsy was very, very scary.”
Gaffney consulted with a surgeon, who examined the films and her breasts. The surgeon found a second area in the left breast that seemed suspicious, and an area of the right breast that didn’t feel normal. The biopsies confirmed that what the surgeon had identified in the left breast was cancer, though the density spotted in the mammogram was not.
Just a few days after getting the biopsy results, Gaffney had surgery to remove the tumor from her left breast, and to remove the suspicious – though not cancerous – tissue from her right breast.
She considers herself lucky. Hers was stage I cancer, a small tumor that had not yet spread to the lymph nodes.
A Badge Of Courage
A couple of weeks after surgery, Gaffney was ready to begin radiation treatments. She was relieved to find that the therapy was not as frightening as she had imagined.
“Radiation sounds devastating,” she says. “The truth of it is, radiation – the treatments – do not hurt. There’s no pain involved.”
Even the side effects were manageable, Gaffney says, because she paced herself during treatment, getting the rest she needed and – most importantly for this cooking teacher -- eating well. Support from her husband Michael was crucial during this time, she says.
“He just pampered me and made me rest, made me take my naps,” she says. “And, wow, what a difference that makes when you let someone help you.”
Gaffney also gives her doctors and technicians credit for shepherding her through her treatment. “They just take you through this in the kindest, most caring fashion,” she says. “They’re very respectful, very good at their job.”
After a couple of initial diagnostic sessions, during which technicians mapped the areas on her body to be irradiated and calibrated their instruments, Gaffney began a series of 34 radiation treatments.
Every Monday through Friday she’d arrive at the hospital, don her surgical gown and lay down on the procedure table. “It took more time to get dressed every morning than to get treated,” she says.
The only outward signs of her treatment now are the lack of hair under her arm where she was irradiated, and three black dots tattooed on her left breast to align the equipment. “You can call them a badge of courage,” she laughs.
She also takes tamoxifen daily, and will continue taking it for a total of five years.
‘You Can Help Yourself’
Throughout her ordeal with cancer, Gaffney focused on healthy eating as a way to improve her prognosis and decrease her odds of a recurrence. She hit the library and bookstores to find the latest information on nutrition and cancer prevention.
The connection was an easy one for her to make. She’s been in the food industry for more than 20 years, both as a food stylist, making dishes look mouthwatering for television and print ads, and as a cooking teacher.
It was her entrepreneurial instinct that led her to parlay her personal interest in cancer prevention and nutrition into the Cancer Smart classes she teaches today. “I thought… if it’s important to me as a cancer survivor, it has to be something I can share with other people,” Gaffney says.
A typical Gaffney cooking class includes about 10 students, who come to her home for hands-on training. Gaffney helps the students prepare the meal, and teaches them a little something about proper table-setting and gracious hosting. Then the class enjoys the fruits of their labor together.
The Cancer Smart classes also include information about how particular foods relate to cancer. Gaffney might discuss the benefits of cruciferous vegetables for instance, or fiber – hoping to help people understand why healthy eating is important.
Many of her students are cancer patients or survivors, she says, but others are simply interested in improving their eating habits.
For cancer patients in particular, that sense of control is important.
“Those of us who are surviving the horror – what you think is the horror – come out healthier because you’re taking better care of yourself,” Gaffney says.
The life change cancer brings can be even more profound.
“When you face the fact that something can be so devastating and scary and unknown, everything else becomes insignificant in proportion to that moment,” Gaffney says. “It gives you a perspective of prioritizing your own world. It gives you a positive outlook.”
Have some lemonade.