Where to turn if you get cancer? Don’t forget the dietitians

Elise Cushman dishes in a post-cancer cooking class in the kitchen at the Coop Food Store in Centerra.

Getting cancer, as I did, is a bad break. Surviving takes getting good breaks in turn, and here’s one of mine: I’m married to a registered dietitian. 

I was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia on my birthday (!) in April 2010, and within days I was hospitalized for an initial round of treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. I emerged several weeks later with my cancer in remission -- but with no trace whatsoever of an appetite.

Home again, I lost so much weight so quickly that my doctor had to postpone my second round of chemo. My life hung in the balance. I just couldn’t eat.

That’s when my wife, Brenda, invented what must be the best medicine ever: the Ben & Jerry’s milkshake calorie bomb, featuring a homemade blend of Chocolate Fudge Brownie, an Ensure nutrition drink, and two scoops of protein powder.

At first she served me a half-inch of it in a juice glass. It was all I could get down. But one sip led to another -- and before I knew it, I was glugging three big glasses a day. It jump-started my appetite. I began gaining weight again, and strength with it, my body now fueled for the additional treatments and recovery that followed.

Here’s the good news for others: Patients at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center don’t have to be married to a dietitian to benefit from their expertise.

The center employs four dietitians with specialized training in cancer, and their services are available free to patients and caregivers. It’s as simple as calling to make an appointment -- which Brenda did, back in the day, intent on getting the best possible advice.

Registered dietitian Elise Cushman

I spoke with one of those dietitians, Elise Cushman, who brings what I’d describe as determined creativity to her work. She’s even developed a one-page list of calorie-packed foods that are easy to sneak into a cancer patient’s meals. It’s full of good stuff: peanut butter, avocados, heavy cream, cream cheese, maple syrup, butter.

“I tell everyone, pun intended, everything is on the table so far as what they can eat,” she said.

Cushman sees patients in Lebanon and St. Johnsbury. Four times a year, she also gives cooking demonstrations for patients and caregivers in the kitchen at the Coop Food Store in the Centerra complex in Lebanon. Support for that comes from fundraising through The Prouty and other events held by the Friends of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

In the demonstrations, Cushman’s focus shifts from pounding calories during the crisis of treatment toward a healthful, plant-centered diet for life after.

“What I focus on is what’s in season, ways that get more fruits and vegetables and fiber into the diet,” she said, “and making sure the flavor profile is there.”

Brenda made the same transition with me. At first that didn’t sound like quite as much fun as Ben & Jerry’s milkshakes, but I tell you what: Being alive on the other side of cancer to enjoy what is very good food with someone you love is pretty darn easy to swallow.

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