Teaching Kitchen Would Help Nourish Cancer Patients for the Fight of Their Lives

On her first day of chemotherapy at Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute, Janet Hansen plucked a piece of a jade plant from the infusion suite atrium. She dubbed it her “cancer plant” and hoped they would survive together.

Janet was 55 when she developed a sore throat that turned into a lump that proved to be cancer, the beginning of seven years of treatment that included three surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

“When you go into the cancer institute, it’s a wonderful place to be. It’s your world when you have cancer, and everyone is there to help you,” she said. “They are there to help you, but I thought about what I could do to help myself, and that was work on my attitude, my sense of humor, and my diet. My body had to be strong enough to survive the radiation and the chemotherapy.”

For patients like Janet, who struggled to stay nourished during her treatment, Benefis aims to work with donors to add a teaching kitchen during a “re-visioning” remodel of the cancer institute.

The project also will involve increasing the size of the infusion suite and pharmacy and expanding the
genetic counseling program.

Janet rapidly dropped weight as she struggled to swallow and battled fatigue, radiation burns, lost teeth, and food texture issues during her treatment. Her throat still swells until she has an opening only the width of a pencil. She must twist her head to swallow, and choking is a constant risk. Every bite counts when you can take so few, and she has had to comb through magazines and Internet guides for nutrition advice.

With advanced cancer like Janet’s, appetite loss and fatigue are major factors, said Amanda Lucas, an SCI nurse practitioner specializing in palliative care. Taste buds change, too, and patients often are frustrated because nothing tastes good.

Too much weight loss during cancer treatment can seriously impact quality of life, particularly by causing worse levels of fatigue.

The plan for the teaching kitchen includes using the space for classes with trained dietitians and chefs to provide patients with tips so they can better tolerate treatments and reduce complications. They’ll have strategies on how to incorporate different flavors, textures, and nutrients into patients’ diets, while also giving input into how to wash and prepare food differently to adapt to being immunocompromised
as a result of aggressive treatments.

Nearly 80% of cancer patients experience malnutrition at some point during their course of treatment.
The teaching kitchen also would offer a place where people walking the same challenging paths have camaraderie as they work on staying nourished, Janet said.

“It’s good to put your heads together and get new ideas,” she said. “Having a teaching kitchen at SCI would have been helpful. I spent a lot of time by myself, experimenting, and not knowing what to do.”

Janet learned from another patient about a vegetable juice recipe that helps her feel better. She took speech therapy, which helped her develop different muscles to help with swallowing.

“When you’re sick with cancer, people think it’s like being sick with a cold, but there’s not a word in the human language that can explain how sick you really are,” Janet said.

“That last chemotherapy was a real hard one on me, and your body’s got to survive that stuff,” she added. “If you have a place right there to get your information from, it could save your life.”

Cancer taught Janet about nutrition, and it also taught her about life. She learned who would stick with her in hard times and about the strength within herself. It brought her family closer together.

As for her “cancer plant,” Janet overwatered the succulent and watched it wilt. She, too, had her “oh no” moments when her future was in doubt. Now the plant is doing well and has a stem as wide as her wrist, and she’s been cleared of cancer.

“Sitting here cancer-free is something I never thought would happen,” she said. “SCI has become to me a safe haven. It’s where hope of survival is. It’s like a family. No one understands what you’re going through unless you have cancer or work with cancer patients. At Sletten, everybody gets it. It’s a great feeling to know that when you go there, you’re in a safe place, and they’ll have what you need to help you get better.”