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Finding Joy in Helping Others

Updated: Dec 27, 2019

Chef Ryan Callahan is an award winning author and chef. He is the author of "Chef Ryan's How-to-Cook Cookbook," "Cooking for Chemo ...and After!," "Cooking for Kids with Cancer," and "Chef Ryan Callahan’s Tasting Journal." Chef Ryan has won two Gourmand Awards for his culinary expertise. Chef Ryan is a hospitality industry veteran with over 15 years of hands-on culinary experience in the kitchen and front of house. When he isn't cooking, eating, talking or thinking about food you can usually find him nestled up with some manga or playing video games on his computer.

I wanted to first start by explaining that I have never had cancer. My mother had cancer and I was her primary caregiver for the first year of cancer treatments and related surgeries. She had HER2+ breast cancer.


How did your being a chef impact your cancer or vice versus?

Being a chef gave me a great advantage over other people who were caregivers because I was able to develop coping mechanisms for the taste and flavor perception changes that occured during my mother's cancer treatments. Because I was trained to develop recipes, and keep a tasting journal I was able to document these taste preferences and these taste changes that my mother was going through. These findings eventually led to the breakthroughs that I developed including Roundness of Flavor and Palate Cleansing.  

How did you cope with cancer?

Coping with cancer I think was more difficult for me than I initially believed. As a full-time caregiver I was fairly isolated from the rest of the world and being a primary caregiver is a round the clock 24/7 job. One of the biggest challenges that I faced was social anxiety. Long periods of isolation would make trips to the grocery store an anxiety filled time.  

What food advice do you have for those facing cancer?

The best food advice I can give you is to eat what works for you, not what other people tell you that you should be eating. I know people who could only drink Dr. Pepper, eat trout and beans, craved peanut butter, or could only eat fillet O'fish sandwiches. That's OK. During treatment eating is so incredibly important because cachexia is a constant threat. Don't let other people guilt you into starving to death. You are your best advocate. Keep a tasting journal of every food that you eat so that you can create a log of what foods work and which ones don't work for you. Knowing what foods taste good to you can help to keep your appetite up and keep you happy and healthy. Eating really is not just essential to existence, but essential to your quality of life. I really recommend working with a dietitian as well.

How did you bring joy and humor into your life during that time?

For me the best source of joy was keeping a routine and making plenty of "Me Time" inside of the routine. I watched a lot of funny movies, and family style animation.

How does cancer continue to impact your life?

For me, cancer continues to impact my life because if it wasn't for my experiences with cancer, I would never have founded my organization Cooking for Chemo. Because of Cooking for Chemo I am able to work with cancer fighters all around the globe, and help them to live a better quality of life. For me knowing that I get to help people every single day makes a huge impact in my life. I draw my strength from cancer fighter's strength, and the letters that I have gotten from people that I have helped inspire me to make Cooking for Chemo better every day. So it is fair to say that cancer affects my everyday life. 

How is having cancer as a young adult unique?   While I myself did not have cancer, I can say that being a caregiver as a young adult left a strong impression on me. I would actually use my mom's cancer as a divider in my life experience. There is everything before cancer and everything after. Cancer changes everything. It changes your perspectives, your goals, your ambition, and your values. Before cancer I was focused on me, myself and I 100 percent. I wanted to open a restaurant, and get the glory as a celebrity chef for myself. But after being a caregiver I realized that this was an empty and quite frankly unimportant way to live your life. I have rededicated my life to be in the service of others, and especially to those who live with cancer. As such I am so much happier, fulfilled, and I take joy in every day that I am alive. What I learned is that this life is temporary, and material concerns are unbelievably unimportant and shallow. If you don't spend every day trying to make this world a better place, then ultimately your life will be empty and hollow. It seems like a harsh thing to say, but in my humble opinion, it is the actual reality of existence. 

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