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Cookbook aimed at cancer patients feeds whole family

Thursday, August 02, 2001

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

First, the good news: Cancer research is making great strides in developing new and efficacious treatments for all sorts of cancers once thought unsurvivable. The bad news: The treatments -- with few exceptions -- make you sick.

Dr. Gerald Miletello coauthored "Eating Well Through Cencer" with Holly Clegg. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Radiation and chemotherapy target the uncontrolled growth of malignant cells and in the process destroy healthy cells. The patient is left weak and nauseated, depressed and anxious. Often the patient has endured a surgery that has left him or her unsteady and feeling helpless.

The list goes on. Neutropenia -- low white blood cell count -- knocks out the chemo patient's resistance to infections.

The appetite suffers. Nothing smells or tastes right.

Other unwelcome side effects include mouth sores, difficulty swallowing, diarrhea and/or constipation and usually temporary lactose intolerance.

Even the most optimistic prognosis for recovery can't alleviate the unwanted side effects while the treatment follows its course. It's no picnic.

But eat you must, because healthy cells need to fight back, to flourish despite the bombardment of the body by toxic chemicals and radiation.

But what do you eat when your stomach is revolting and just the thought of food brings on waves of nausea? What can caregivers do to make sure their loved ones are getting enough nutrition to bolster the body against the onslaught of chemo hell?

These are the questions that Dr. Gerald Miletello, an oncologist with 15 years of experience treating cancer patients, fields often in his private practice in Baton Rouge, La. Proper nutrition is paramount in the body's ability to fight cancer, and yet, Miletello recalls, "only two hours was devoted to nutrition in medical school."

"There's nothing magical about a cancer diet. You don't need a radical diet," he stresses, just a thoughtful balance of regular foods with an emphasis on low-fat, high-fiber recipes.

Miletello figured the time was right for a cookbook that delivered more than just platitudes, so he approached Holly Clegg, a veteran cookbook author and fellow Louisianan, with the outline for a cookbook that would guide nutritionally challenged chemo patients and their families through treatment and post-chemo maintenance.


"Eating Well Through Cancer" ($19.95 plus shipping) is available through Holly Clegg's Web site, www.hollyclegg.com, or through amazon.com.


"Eating Well Through Cancer: Easy Recipes & Recommendations During & After Treatment" began to take shape.

"The two of us got fired up. Holly gave me 400 recipes," Miletello says, and so began the process of organizing the book. A dietitian did the nutritional analyses, including diabetic exchanges, because many of Miletello's patients also have diabetes.

"Eating Well Through Cancer" is organized by chapters devoted to the day of chemotherapy; neutropenia; diarrhea; constipation; sore mouth; snacks; advice for the caregiver; and post-treatment healthful eating.

The recipes are designed to be enjoyed by the whole family. A sick person doesn't need to feel further isolated by a special clinical diet. The cookbook abounds in family-sized casseroles, pastas, salads and yummy desserts, such as the Mock Chocolate Eclair, a true keeper.

Miletello prefaces each chapter with doctorly advice. "Food is medicine. You have to eat to get through these treatments and back to normal." He offers tips on easing the discomfort that waxes and wanes, depending on where the patient is in his cycle of treatment. Most recipes include a "Doc's note" from Miletello for working the food into a balanced diet.

Clegg's recipes tempt with concoctions that don't stint on flavor while holding down the fat content. Because many chemo patients lose weight during the course of treatment, there are recipes for calorie-heavy treats. Soft foods soothe sore mouths and sluggish tongues. High-fiber foods help constipated bowels relax. Sometimes too well.

Miletello recounts a family anecdote about the recipe for Honey Bran Prune Muffins. His brother called up one day to rave about the recipe. "His family loved the muffins. But they all had to leave church early that Sunday ..."

The cook and the oncologist stress simple recipes that anyone can make from readily available ingredients. No running around to specialty shops for rare ingredients or out-of-season produce. Cancer patients cooking for themselves must conserve their energy, so the recipes require little kitchen time.

Clegg's other cookbooks, including "Meals on the Move: Rush Hour Recipes," stress recipes for busy lives, and this cookbook is no exception, a fact appreciated in the Miletello household, where both spouses are doctors (she's an anesthesiologist) and three teen-aged daughters are constantly on the move.

"Eating Well Through Cancer" offers many practical tips for caregivers and friends who want to pitch in, because the sad fact is that cancer has touched just about everyone's life, be it a relative or a friend or a coworker. During the creation of this cookbook, the subject became highly personal for Clegg, whose father was diagnosed with larynx cancer.

Miletello knows first hand the importance of a healthful diet. A lean, fit-looking tennis player, Miletello, 48, received his own grim diagnosis three years ago: multiple sclerosis. Once he got over the shock, he decided he wasn't going to let it slow him down.

Although he stresses that there is no such thing as a guaranteed anticancer diet, he's a great believer in the benefits of prevention through healthful eating. He advises simple steps such as consuming five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, limiting fat consumption, eliminating smoking and limiting alcohol intake.

Miletello, whose interest in cancer research brought him to Pittsburgh recently to hook up with doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is excited by the changes he sees in oncology on almost a daily basis.

"One of these days we'll get to the bottom of this," he says with conviction. He points to a 2 percent improvement in cure rates as reason for hope.

But more important, he says, is the better quality of life enjoyed by many cancer patients. Living well is the best revenge.

Betsy Kline recently finished chemotherapy for ovarian cancer and wishes this cookbook had appeared last year when she was living on peanut butter-cheese crackers and flat ginger ale.

Related Recipes:

Mock Chocolate Eclair
Blueberry Pancakes
Yam Biscuits
Waldorf Pasta Salad

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