Andrea and Grace have a lovely history together. Please enjoy the first post of a three post installment in their new series, The Fork in the Fight. Look forward to reading Part 2: Butternut Squash Curry Bisque recipe and Part 3: Breathing Into Self-Awareness later this week!
The Fork in the Fight: recipes for restoring our souls and thriving in the face of cancer
Part 1: Our Story
Andrea Ridgard and Grace Van Velden
There was light in their eyes. We met Adriaan first. He was working with our friend, Holly, who invited us out for drinks after work. His laugh was, and still is, the most captivating of any I know. I don’t recall the exact next steps of our relationship from there, or even the date when we first met, but I know I instantly fell for Paula’s loving presence. There could not be a more genuinely loving being in my life. Chris and I adopted this delightful couple as friends, mentors, our first real family-friends of our own—as family. Our connection grew as Chris and I would just stop by the Van Velden home, often after church on Sunday. We’d discuss world affairs, marriage, careers, family, and always it would be accompanied with tea and milk as well as some of the more authentically polite exchanges I have witnessed. Of their children, I most remember David at this time, curious, and eager to sample cookies that we shared when we gathered. He’d emerge from the world of video games and adolescence to say hello and sit with us for a moment. Jane was coming into her own, and Grace was as elegant as ever, even as a teen. These young people were mature, connected, beautiful, and welcomed these new friends of their parents as their own. During this time, Grace was in remission, and preparing for university. She’d decided on Michigan. When Paula shared with us through tears on the couch in their cozy family room that the cancer was back, it was as if time froze, and us with it. We began talking about food, and healing beyond the medical procedures and treatments. Without hesitation, I offered to consider cooking for her myself. It was one of the more important quick proposals I have made (I tend to be one to jump in feet first!)
At the time I had just begun working with a new farm business incubator and was getting to know the local food scene. I was geeked about sharing local, organic and fresh food with Grace. My husband and I had recently bought a home with the intention of growing a bit of our own food as well. Not only did I have the opportunity to support a friend and her family through a tremendously trying time, but the chance to share my love for growing and cooking food were meeting needs of my own to tangibly express love, care and healing energy.
Throughout the process of sharing food, Grace and I began to cultivate a relationship of our own. As she regained strength and the treatments became fewer, we were able to spend more time together. I began cooking for her roommates when she resumed her school work, and was able to learn about her ambitions in Public Health. Everytime I think of starting a wellness center, bed and breakfast or any cooperative healing space (which is quite often), Grace immediately comes to mind as an integral part of its success. We have become family, and now colleagues as well. The deep and loving connection between my husband and I and the Van Velden family, and the way I saw Grace’s family wrap their arms around her is the blessing I wish upon caregivers and patients alike. Of course, there is much to learn from experience, and I imagine that in our journey you will see the challenges we faced, and ways we recommend doing some things differently. But with the main ingredients of love, patience, and respect, building a nourishing life even in the midst of turmoil is possible and an incredible gift to all involved.
At seventeen, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a rare and painful form of juvenile bone cancer. I underwent ten months of chemotherapy and a fourteen-hour surgery that replaced two-thirds of my right humerus with an allograft. Facing mortality at that young age was terrifying and isolating, but it taught me to become my own friend, to be self-examining, and to be resilient of spirit even when my mind and body cannot. It was these powerful lessons that enabled me not only to survive my re-diagnosis at twenty, but to thrive in spite of it.
I credit much of this ability to those kindred spirits who drenched my soul in positivity, who crawled into the hospital bed to cuddle me while the nurses weren’t looking, who laughed with me, who cried with me, who carefully styled my wig and dressed me, and who filled me with healthy and healing food. Yes, food. During treatment it seemed like there was little in my life, or even in my own body, that I had control over. Andrea gave me back some of that power.
It is an incredibly intimate thing to be fed by someone when you are ill. It is something that many of us share only with mothers or perhaps close family. When Andrea heard I had been re-diagnosed, she told my family she wanted to cook for me. In my second diagnosis, I wanted to be kinder to myself, and to focus my energy on building myself up. Andrea is an especially talented cook, and it was through her healthy, fresh, and delicious meals, that I felt that I was enabling my body to keep fighting. I looked forward to her menu emails, and our banter over the deliciousness of cinnamon (or in my opinion, the lack there of) kept my heart happy.
Having cancer was a powerful event in shaping my character, and being a survivor has become one of the most positive experiences of my life, something of which I am proudest. My exploration with Andrea into which foods made me feel great and which ingredients were the best for me, has grown into a life passion for healthy living, cooking, and gardening. Since battling cancer twice, I have fallen in love, graduated from university, lived abroad in my native South Africa, travelled, and moved across the United States to start a new chapter in a full and happy life. And, I have had the distance of time to reflect.
I once believed that having cancer meant my body had failed me, and I’m sure many others are burdened with this thought. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It took me time to appreciate my body as an ally. I am not sure that I ever would have fully learned this had I not begun to focus on feeding my body, and my soul, while I was in treatment. I am grateful for the love of healthy food and the connection to my body that was built as Andrea and I began our friendship.
It may seem small, but I know that food can be an empowering building block when facing seemingly insurmountable health issues. It is a way to nourish your own body, a way to lend strength to someone you love and who may be struggling with the side effects of treatment, and it is a way to deepen the connection between the patient and the caregiver who share, in different ways, the emotional weight of battling cancer. My and Andrea’s story is one of many possible stories. I hope that through our posts and recipes you will feel inspired to share your own food and recovery stories, and more emboldened to throw the spatula at cancer.
From the beginning, our arrangement for food preparation was an open conversation. Below is an excerpt from one of our first exchanges in March 2011, after the re-diagnosis and before treatment began.
Grace: Andrea, your food is absolutely delicious!
Andrea: so glad you like it!
Grace: especially the amaranth & date bars, but really, I love everything
Andrea: How are you doing? ooh, glad you like those! I like them too (saved a few for us)
Grace: and so does my boyfriend, I had to stop him from eating all of it
Andrea: haha! Yes, keep them for you!
Grace: I’m doing really well, thank you. I’ve got a good grip on what’s going on and the track ahead. It really is going to be such a wonderful treat to look forward to these meals
Andrea: OK, so glad to hear all of that. And please continue to be honest about how you like the food and if you have special requests
Andrea: I am trying to do some research about what would be most healthy and healing for you, but want to include you when and wherever you are interested. I know you have a lot going on, so I will stay out of your way, but don’t hesitate to make suggestions or inquiries, OK?
Grace: I will be 100% honest. I think it’s going to take a little getting used to but I’m pleased to be getting such raw & fresh food. It really tastes fantastic and I would love to cook with you sometime, too. Absolutely will let you know what I’m thinking 🙂
Andrea: You are so welcome. So happy to be working with you in this way. I know you and I have not spent so much time together yet, but I feel so close to your family. You are so dear to me, Grace.
This was an experimental process bathed in a lot of love… just like The Fork in the Fight is. Sharing our story with you is new and exciting, and yet, we don’t know how it will land with you. We invite you to keep us posted by commenting, asking questions, sharing what worked for you and what did not work for you when eating or feeding a loved one in treatment. We look forward to learning how we will all grow in this process of sharing our stories.
In each The Fork in the Fight post, we will include ingredients and instructions, photographs, and conversation surrounding why that recipe was picked. As this is a forum for focusing on healing and restoration from diagnosis, throughout treatment and all the way to remission, occasionally (including in this post!), we will also share a non-food related “recipe” for something we have learned along the way: a breathing technique, a yogic practice or position, or a strategy for staying self-loving.
We are excited to explore our shared experiences of recovery, relationship building, and self-love with you. Stay well and take time for yourselves during this busy holiday season.
With love and gratitude,
Andrea and Grace