The Chef Who Lost His Stomach to Cancer

“The Next Food Network Star” runner-up shares his struggles with nutrition after a stomach cancer diagnosis and gastrectomy.

I have always appreciated the preparing and eating of food, a passion that shone through during my stint on “The Next Food Network Star.” Mere weeks after taping the 2005 finale, I was diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer, a rare but dangerous form of cancer. I’d soon learn that physicians at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center would recommend removing almost all my stomach and esophagus—a chef without a stomach. The irony was not lost on me.

Some numbers to chew on:

  • I was given a 2% chance of survival.
  • I’ve been told three times I would be dead by morning.
  • I have undergone 15 surgeries in 16 years.

While cancer has taken away some important organs and lead to numerous health complications—like “leaky gut” infections that spread to my brain—I am proud to still be moving forward, climbing the mountain of life one step at a time. Despite cancer’s significant impact on my well-being, I have an incredible enthusiasm for life and for food—still!

As we mark National Stomach Cancer Awareness month, I bring both support and encouragement to patients with gastric cancer, around 27,000 who will be diagnosed this year. Treatment, which typically includes surgery, can bring numerous challenges for maintaining adequate nutrition.

Struggling for Stability

Even facing a much-altered digestive system post-gastrectomy, I felt it was important to take personal responsibility for how I fueled this personal machine, my body. There’s a real connection between what we eat and how we feel, so I knew I had to be deliberate about my quantity and quality of food. The problem was, I had a lot of difficulty absorbing fats and high-calorie foods. For years I struggled with “dumping syndrome,” or rapid gastric emptying, which drained my resources and left me feeling nauseous, weak and tired. Blood sugar episodes due to insulin release frequently left me with rapid heartrate and fears of passing out — just from eating a small meal!

Unfortunately, my reactions to food ingestion were just unpredictable. If I wanted to engage in exercise or any physical activity, I’d skip meals to avoid the crash. Establishing a sort of “personal science” of what I could tolerate, I cautiously narrowed down my food options into “brackets.” I have struggled to gain (and even maintain) weight due to my body not properly absorbing nutrients. In the years following my cancer diagnosis and gastrectomy, I struggled with this limited and sometimes tumultuous experience of getting the right nutrition.

Finding Firmer Ground

High-fiber foods typically help slow down the digestive process due to absorption. But in my case, I needed extra help to absorb the excess insulin that was causing my dumping symptoms. I knew taking some kind of supplement would help support my eating goals, yet I tried so many powders, shakes and bars over the years without success. While skeptical, within the last year I tried a medical nutrition product called Encala that is specifically designed for people who struggle to absorb fat.

Adding Encala to my diet let me expand those “brackets” I permitted myself to eat by binding to excess fat and helping stabilize my blood sugar. Encala adds highly absorbable fat calories and essential fatty acids, helping my body absorb the important vitamins and fat already present in meals, drinks and snacks. My weight has stabilized, and I am now more comfortable engaging in physical activity. I’ve taken up pickleball and really enjoy the fitness, sense of accomplishment and inspiration I get from the community. I am grateful to finally be back on solid ground thanks to a stable eating regimen.

Encala can be blended into drinks or sauces and mixed into everyday meals. As we approach the holidays, I have some great ideas about how to incorporate the product into homemade dishes: in cranberry sauce, shitake mushroom gravy and an herbed butter spread that can top meat, fish or veggies. Mmmm! When I prepare and eat food, I stop to appreciate its quality, savor each bite and “Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow.” That’s the name of my cookbook!

Volunteering for connection

As a survivor of gastric cancer, I want to help others find quality of life and enjoy simple pleasures. I volunteer for two peer-to-peer networks in the stomach cancer community, answering questions and providing guidance. I never endorse specific products, but I share my experience about what’s worked for me. I also create videos for the Gastric Cancer foundation called the Gesundheit Kitchen Series focused on recipes, cooking and nutrition.

I am fortunate to be so inspired by food and to help inspire others to seek the nutrition they require to feel their best. Good health to you, or Gesundheit!

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