Figuring out how and what to eat after a colorectal cancer diagnosis can come with challenges, but food can also introduce new passions and bring healing. Meet three survivors who have woven their love of food into their lifestyles.

MARK WEISS

Stage III Survivor • Cazadero, California
Bread Baker

Years ago, shortly after his father passed away, Mark Weiss discovered a 3-acre abandoned property in California’s coastal wine country. As he toured the run-down cottages and former restaurant building, he felt “a deep thrum in my chest that it was waiting for me.”

This was his dream. A former lab scientist for Amgen who later worked in finance, he moved away from Silicon Valley and began pouring everything he had into renovating the property, which he named Raymond’s Bakery after his late father.

The bakery also reminded him of his first memory: baking with his mom. “She had me helping her braid challah. Every holiday we would be in the kitchen for days.”

In 2004, Weiss assumed he felt so run down because of the property renovations, and then a subsequent car crash. But thankfully he saw a doctor who requested a colonoscopy—which happened to be two days before his wife’s scheduled c-section. He was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer at age 32. Everything in his world changed—including his relationship with food.

At first, food helped him cope. “I drove to the store and picked up some rib-eye steaks and veggies,” he said. “Then I went home and cooked my family a hearty dinner to help sustain us through what was to come.” But when he went on a clinical trial that involved three types of chemotherapy and radiation, everything changed.

“I could hardly consume food…it caused such profound nausea that it was impossible to even eat dry toast most days. I couldn't even be in the bakery some days because the smell of bread baking was too much.”

A dreamer who has always been willing to take risks and keep going, Weiss never gave up. Today, he is in remission and loves being a dad and running the Elim Grove Cottages and bakery, which sources organic, local ingredients and welcomes visitors to enjoy the beauty of the Redwoods.

“After treatment, being able to bake for others and be a part of their celebration of life was even more beautiful to me,” he said. “Today I feel so happy and grateful that I am able to be a part of families’ everyday pleasures as well as special times.”

During the start of the pandemic, he baked thousands of loaves of bread for any food pantry, shelter, or clinic that was in need of food. Having survived cancer against the odds, being able to make the most of the gift of life became more important than ever.

“I feel as though I want to make the most of every moment—making this world a better place with the gift of my extra time here.”

Mark's Story

Learn more about Mark's story at the Colon Club.

ULE ALEXANDER

Stage IV Survivor Baltimore, Maryland
FOOD LOVER

“I’m passionate about food! I love cooking. It is not just my hobby, but my true calling!”

For Ule Alexander, his interest in food began during his first job in the hospitality/ food service industry. As a dishwasher serving the back of the house, he picked up on how he could make good wages and impact others’ lives by serving food. He also saw how food was powerful and central to any culture. As his career grew, he moved from the back of the house to the front, and from restaurant to restaurant. After getting his culinary arts degree, he worked toward the dream of managing his own restaurant one day.

“This fits my personality, he said. “It lets me interact with different people and make different products—I love to see how the ingredients come in, prepare and plate a dish, serve it to customers, and see their reaction and how much they enjoy it. It’s nice.”

Unfortunately, the high from cooking for others in Alexander’s life met a low after he was diagnosed with CRC at age 36. Five years prior, he had undergone gastric bypass surgery and adopted a lifestyle of measuring foods, preparing healthy meals at home, and working out every day.

“I was shocked when I was diagnosed,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s impossible.’”

Although Alexander could look back on what led up to his gastric bypass and identify unhealthy eating habits and patterns, he began combating many assumptions.

“People assume your diet was probably terrible when you’re diagnosed—like you’re eating a ton of red meat,” Alexander shared, recounting some of the comments he faced after diagnosis, as well as advice he got from a CRC conference. “Doctors were on stage and talking about food, telling people to eat super healthy, buy organic, and to make their own soups and gazpachos. I was like, ‘but we still have cancer…what are you talking about?’ Does it really matter if I eat nothing but green vegetables all day? I don’t think so—I ate super healthy and still got cancer. I’ve been a little angry with the blanket statement that food causes cancer.”

Cancer shifted his plans and threw Alexander’s life for a loop. In addition to facing grueling treatments and surgeries, his marriage ended and the physical demands of running a restaurant were too much for his body, dashing his hopes of becoming the general manager of an upcoming restaurant opening. Going into true survival mode, Alexander said he felt depressed and lost his relationship with food for a while—eating to live versus living to eat. His appetite waned, as did his interest in trying different restaurants and the social aspects of food that he’d fallen in love with. What brought it back? Surprisingly: COVID-19.

“I moved in with my sister and had nothing to do but sleep and rest, so I’d go to the store to get something to cook that my family hadn’t tried. I'd make it, plate it, and take a picture to post on social media. They’d say, ‘It’s amazing!’ With a new audience to cook for, it reignited my passion and brought life back to cooking for me.”

JENNIFER RATNER

Stage I Survivor • New York City
HOME CHEF

When COVID-19 hit, Jennifer Ratner, a pediatrician in NYC, saw it as an opportunity to dive into her hobbies of cooking and baking.

A foodie who enjoyed frequently dining at her city’s amazing restaurants, Ratner signed up for online cooking classes and began experimenting with a variety of new ingredients and spices from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While it wasn’t cooking for 30 people like she was used to, she enjoyed trying something new.

Ratner also found that the online classes brought even more variety to her pescatarian diet, something she began after being diagnosed with stage I colon cancer in 2018. “I was a healthy eater and in great shape prior to my diagnosis,” she said, but added, “I was looking for a reason I got colorectal cancer, and changing my diet was an easy thing to do.” As a physician, she understands there’s not a “straight line to the data” and even some controversy over which foods cause cancer, but she viewed cutting out some of the foods that are tied to higher incidence of CRC as a simple way to eat for cancer prevention.

“I didn’t typically have bacon at home, but I stopped ordering it at restaurants, and the same with pancetta on a salad and smoked salmon.” She discontinued ordering steaks and stuck to lean, white meats and shrimp, even while dining out.

Because of her medical background, she’s been able to review the data on diet, nutrition, and exercise. She has made choices that work best for her lifestyle. To other patients who are exploring what to eat following a CRC diagnosis, she encourages them to keep trying, to remember nothing is entirely written in stone, and to work hand in hand with your doctor and nutritionist to find a plan that works best for you.

“There are important, specific questions for patients to ask—talk to your physician and nutritionist about things like tree nuts, red and processed meats, coffee, vitamins, supplements, and the glycemic load of your diet. If you’re not happy with the answers, go to someone else. That’s what I did. Don’t be afraid to keep asking around. A group like Fight CRC can help guide you to reliable resources. Ask for publications, nutrition guidelines, and food recommendations.

There’s so much information out there— go find it.”

Get the latest issue of Beyond Blue!

Food. We can't live without it, but for many in the colorectal cancer community, it's hard to live with it. Yet as doctors, nutritionists, and research data all say: Diet and nutrition play an essential role in cancer prevention and treatment. Food is a topic we can't ignore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *