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Cancer and the Joy of Food

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, April 13, 2012
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Oncologist and internist Luis Pineda, MD, MHSA, has spent nearly three decades treating people with cancer. He says physicians sometimes focus so intently on killing the cancer that they forget about the humans they're trying to save. Something as basic as enjoying a tasty, nutritious meal can be lost in the after-effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and in the pain and fear of the disease itself. Pineda created Cooking with Cancer, a website and cookbook that he developed at his clinic in Vestavia, AL, after taking two years to train at culinary school to become an executive chef.

On Cooking with Cancer: I have two major motivations. The most important one is that people with cancer suffer, and because they suffer they have a lack of enjoyment with food. You see them in the hospital with trays of food they never touch. And they end up needing tubes into the stomach or being fed intravenously. I felt that was truly inhuman and not coherent to the concept of quality of life, or helping people to enjoy their lives. So that is motivation No. 1. But I also cannot deny that I like to cook.

On the healing powers of food: The complaint is that they can't taste or smell. We can manipulate that. We use a lot of peppers. Peppers will electrically charge receptors in the nose and mouth so they can trigger taste and smell. This stimulation by peppers and the use of cleansing agents in the recipes clean the receptors so they can function again.

On the importance of improving the appetite: It's very significant. If you enjoy eating and if you lose that pleasure and they are telling you that you're going to die with cancer, enhancing that pleasurable experience brings about some hope and desire to keep going and keep trying.

On the shortcomings of treatment regimens: My main problem is that oncology has been concerned about "What kind of drug I am going to use and how much so I can kill the cancer?" I think we have forgotten that it's not just cancer.  There is a human being suffering. I have come to the conclusion after many years of practice that quality of life is more important than duration of life. Survival is important, but not as important as quality of life when you are alive. 


Reprint HLR0412-11


John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.