June 16, 2016


The Meals to Heal Cookbook: 150 Easy, Nutritionally Balanced Recipes to Nourish You During Your Fight with Cancer. By Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta. Da Capo. $18.99.

     One of the serious psychological elements involved in cancer is the feeling that your body is no longer your own – that it has been “taken over” by the disease and that, in fact, the disease is “in charge of” your life. The impression is exacerbated by the reality that cancer treatments can be time-consuming – and not only the treatments themselves, but also the time needed to go to doctors or medical facilities to receive them, to wait to be seen, and so on. The result is that a lot of one’s waking time can be tied up by and with cancer – and one’s mental time gets tied up as well, with thoughts about the disease, the treatment, the prognosis, the reactions of friends and family, and more. So anything that can restore a cancer patient’s sense of control over his or her life can be a genuine aid to healing.

     Furthermore, a frequent effect both of cancer and, sometimes to an even greater extent, the treatments for cancer, can be appetite disturbance, which may range from having no interest in food at all to finding formerly delicious foods nausea-inducing or simply so bland that it is hard to muster the enthusiasm to eat them – or, indeed, anything. It is this aspect of the cancer fight that Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta address in their over-optimistically titled The Meals to Heal Cookbook. The meals in this book will not heal cancer or even slow its spread, but they do have the potential to keep cancer patients occupied doing something positive – preparing the meals means asserting control over one aspect of life – and may, by strengthening the body and thus its immune system, help marshal the body’s own defenses as a supplement to whatever therapy doctors are prescribing.

     Many of the specific recipes in The Meals to Heal Cookbook will be familiar to vegetarians – the book has a strong vegetarian orientation and will be of little value to those who prefer a mixed diet (it contains only a single recipe that uses shrimp, for example). The details of ingredients and food preparation are also middle-of-the-road for vegetarian cookbooks, expecting readers to know or familiarize themselves with buckwheat groats, agave nectar, hemp milk and more. However, where Bratton and Iannotta excel is in understanding that people fighting cancer may not have the time or inclination (or strength) for extensive food preparation: many of the recipes are time-consuming, but some can be prepared quickly, and a special icon indicates which those are. Even more important is the list of nutrition-related side effects of cancer and/or cancer treatment that the authors provide with every recipe, in a bar along the side of the page. They suggest, by using plus signs next to specific feelings, what side effects a particular recipe can help counter. This list of side effects is reasonably comprehensive and very helpful in choosing specific recipes to try. It includes lack of appetite; nausea, vomiting or heartburn; constipation; diarrhea; fatigue; mouth sores; dry mouth; chewing or swallowing difficulty; taste aversion, with separate categories for sweet and for sour-and-bitter; lack of taste; and being bothered by smells.

     Few cancer patients will experience all these side effects, much less all of them at the same time – response to the disease and to treatment changes as therapy progresses – but virtually all people with cancer will encounter some of these side effects some of the time. There is no chapter list giving recipes for specific side effects, but the book’s layout allows readers to use the pages as a flip book to find side effects containing a check mark and then look at whatever recipes turn up. If your primary complaint is mouth sores, for example, and you are looking for something in the “Soups & Stews” chapter, a quick flip-through turns up “cool cucumber avocado soup,” “Tuscan white bean vegetable stew,” and “carrot ginger soup with cashew cream,” among other recipes; and the flipping shows not to try “orzo kale soup,” “asparagus potato curry,” “sweet potato black bean chili,” or other recipes in which the “mouth sores” box does not contain a check mark.

     The recipes themselves are laid out very clearly, with the ingredient list set off from the instructions, prep time and cooking time clearly given at the start of each recipe, and a nutritional analysis provided at the end. Commentary is brief and to the point: hummus and cucumber tartine “is a great light meal for those looking to consume small, frequent meals to manage symptoms and improve nutritional intake,” for instance, and for those considering “baked tofu and broccoli over wild rice,” when “experiencing diarrhea or nausea try replacing the broccoli with well-cooked zucchini or squash and substitute mild white basmati rice.” The types of food given in The Meals to Heal Cookbook are not unusual, ranging from breakfast items to salads, sandwiches, main courses, side dishes, sweets and more. And, as noted, neither are the recipes themselves highly unusual, at least for committed vegetarians. But the purpose of The Meals to Heal Cookbook is not to create new and exciting foods or to help readers find ways to make mealtime more interesting. The book is intended specifically to help people with cancer regain control of a basic element of life – eating, and thus providing the body with the fuel it needs – in a way that acknowledges the special challenges caused by cancer and cancer treatment. For that particular special-needs audience, the book is useful, well-presented and sensitive to the difficult realities of everyday life with a disease whose course and treatment alike can both seem overwhelming.

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