Can Baking Bread Be Cancer Therapy?

I made a point to continue baking a weekly challah bread after I was diagnosed with blood cancer, and it proved to be therapeutic.

Why is the smell of freshly baked bread so intoxicating?

Everyone who walks into my house on a Friday evening exclaims about the aroma. It’s a smell that makes a house a home and people love having fresh warm bread, right out of the oven. It’s comfort food.

As a cancer patient, I am constantly looking for ways to enrich each day and help destress because being stressed makes it harder to heal.

I never realized how baking bread every Friday has helped me. Almost every Friday night, my entire family comes to my home to celebrate the beginning of our Sabbath together. We are Jewish, and I believe that having faith helps to deal with cancer more easily. I don’t think it matters what your religion is, but for me, having a strong faith has helped me in many ways to focus more on a meaningful life instead of my cancer.  

Before we begin our Friday-night meal, we say a blessing over the challah (a braided egg bread). Though I’ve been baking bread for 20 years, when I was diagnosed with cancer 13 years ago, I decided I would still push myself to continue this tradition, and it’s still appreciated to this day.  

No matter what your faith is or what kind of bread you decide to make, there are benefits! During COVID-19, many people who had never baked before started baking and found it therapeutic. I know people who dropped off homemade bread on friends’ porches to brighten their day during those lonely times. So, before you think this isn’t for you, you might be surprised when you learn the benefits that come from bread baking, especially when you share it with others.  

Recently I listened to a lecture on bread baking by Dr. Beth Ricanati, physician and author of “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” who explains the benefits of baking bread. After listening to her, I added some of her suggestions.

First, Dr. Ricanati suggests that before you begin, decide to bake your bread with a specific intention. Say it out loud andbake the bread in someone’s merit.

I have a friend who is newly diagnosed with cancer and just began chemo treatments. I decided I would bake this bread in her merit. I said her name aloud with the intention for her to get well, and for the chemo to do its job.

The second suggestion I added is to stop at some point and inhale deeply through my nose and out through my mouth. I do this slowly three times. Dr. Ricanati suggests this practice kicks in our parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the part that literally calms us down. This can be done any time you feel stressed, but consciously doing it while I’m baking bread reminds me of how helpful it is and gives me a technique I can use anytime I’m in any stressful situation.

Her third suggestion was very therapeutic. Dr. Ricanati says, “Knead for your needs!” Kneading the dough is a wonderful tactile art. Things made by our hands have health benefits like — knitting, playing an instrument or making pottery. She says it grounds us, makes us calmer, more present, and all while decreasing anxiety in a fun and easy way.

So, before you turn your nose up at baking bread, you might just want to try making some yummy, delicious bread that you and others will enjoy. She also suggests baking with friends, even on Zoom.

Doing any of the tactile arts with others fosters a sense of community, eases loneliness and gives us additional benefits.

Who knew all the benefits of bread baking? Certainly not me, but I knew intuitively that there was certainly something to it.

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