Life lessons for one cancer survivor and her family.
By Mia James
As warm, savory platters of lasagna, rigatoni, and risotto brought the unmistakable aroma of home-cooked Italian fare to Rebecca Goniwich’s kitchen, the 46-year-old mother of three from Sudbury, Massachusetts, was transported to the Sunday mornings of her childhood, when she’d awake to a house filled with the smell of her mother’s spaghetti sauce. The memory offered precious comfort, particularly because Rebecca’s mother is no longer living and she remembered the sense of security she’d felt as a child as she confronted a most uncertain time in her life: diagnosis and treatment of bilateral breast cancer.
This is comfort food at its best—certain ingredients, combinations, flavors, aromas, and presentations that trigger happy memories of celebrations, holidays, and love. Sometimes a meal restores a regular routine, assuring us that normalcy will survive current challenges. In both preparation and mealtime, food also brings family and friends together, which is especially important when illness causes a sense of isolation. And, as Rebecca says, for so many, “Food is love.” So in challenging times—such as a cancer diagnosis—food can swiftly become the vehicle for support and companionship. In addition, as this cancer survivor found, healthy food is central to long-term, healthy living.
Rebecca’s cancer experience began when a regular mammogram detected a tumor in one of her breasts; the lump in the other breast didn’t show up on the mammogram but was detected by her physician (she cites the circumstances of her diagnoses as cause for women to follow all screening practices, from self-exam to mammography). After lumpectomies failed to leave clean margins, or remove all cancerous tissue, Rebecca underwent a bilateral mastectomy. The radical surgery was the start of a series of complications. Tissue expanders implanted at the time became severely infected. The infections caused intense pain and required six additional hospital stays. Chemotherapy was also very rough on Rebecca: she lost 10 pounds, her hair—which previously hung the length of her back—fell out, and she was so weakened after each administration that she’d have to spend four days in the hospital on an IV.
Parents who are diagnosed with cancer often speak of the delicate balance between their roles as mothers or fathers and the demands that treatment places on their time and energy. For Rebecca this task was daunting. Her middle child, a son, is severely autistic and requires a level of care that would seem tremendous even in the best circumstances. Rebecca’s husband took over many of the family’s needs; but while she proudly recognizes his support of her and his success at handling her responsibilities, it was clear that she and her family could use help with day-to-day tasks. And because time and energy for home-cooked meals was scarce, a natural way for friends and family to pitch in was by preparing and delivering food to the Goniwich home.
With the assistance of Lotsa Helping Hands (www.lotsahelpinghands.com), an organization that coordinates volunteers to organize meals and transportation for those in need, the Goniwiches posted information about meals they needed, including particular preferences. Volunteers could view the list and sign up for specific days and meals. The program, as Rebecca explains, made it possible for everyone who implored, “What can I do?” to contribute where there was a real need.
The response was overwhelming. Friends’ names quickly appeared on Rebecca’s volunteer roster as did her children’s former teachers as well as complete strangers. The generosity of all involved was incredible—packages often contained main courses flanked by appetizers, wine, and even flowers; and meals were sometimes brought from great local restaurants. “My favorite meal was when someone brought a complete roast beef dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, veggies, and rolls,” she recalls, adding with gratitude, “That was so much work to just give it away.” Volunteers were also mindful of Rebecca’s predilection for Italian cooking, often bearing the fragrant pasta dishes that sparked girlhood memories. She even learned new approaches to old standards, explaining, “My husband and I found it very interesting how many different ways there are to make rigatoni.”
As she and her family were fed, decadently at times, Rebecca discovered that the food brought by friends did far more than fill their bellies: each platter, casserole, and picnic basket carried with it a sense of community and belonging that she had never encountered. “The community of friends that developed around the meals prepared for my family and me was truly jaw dropping—amazing,” she says. She describes the role this support played in her recovery: “It was as if the cancer was the enemy, all my new and old friends helped me fight it off, and the food was a weapon of destruction.”
Rebecca explains that while cancer itself can be a lonely experience, she had felt somewhat isolated prior to her diagnosis due to the demands of caring for an autistic child. She says that because of the amount of time her son requires, her social world was largely composed of her involvement in the special-education community. This certainly offered fulfillment, but Rebecca could also feel cut off from the larger community in which she lived. Not so after her cancer diagnosis—the steady stream of food volunteers soon became an extended family. Rebecca now credits their meals and companionship as a “huge part of my healing.” Through food, she says, she felt loved, wanted, and a real sense of belonging: “I had never felt so loved, cared about, and appreciated in all of my life.”
Now that Rebecca is healthy, the meals, goodwill, and community of friends—old and new—who supported her and her family through treatment remain a major part of their lives. She and her husband and kids have adopted some new family favorites from recipes prepared for them, and they’ve enjoyed exploring in person the restaurants from which friends had ordered some of their take-out meals.
The network that developed around supplying meals for the Goniwiches has also given Rebecca a natural audience for her campaign to inspire others to get properly screened for cancer. Having asked herself upon diagnosis, What am I meant to learn from this experience, and what am I supposed to do with that information?, this audience is welcome indeed. One way she has reached out is by posting monthly bulletins on the Lotsa Helping Hands Web site. With this candid chronicle of her experience, Rebecca hopes to drive home the importance of mammograms and breast self-exams. “I could have been embarrassed about losing both breasts, however I decided to stand tall and bare it all in hope that I could be the reason someone else’s life might be saved. It is my way of giving back to the community of people who helped my family and me.”
When Rebecca ponders how her experience has changed her life, she says that one of the major lessons learned was the value of taking care of herself. Food, she explains, is central to this awareness, for both nutrition and emotional support. This commitment to living and eating well may also have long-term benefits for Rebecca and her family beyond her recovery from breast cancer. Because her family is plagued by heart disease (both of her parents died of it), healthy eating and a sensible lifestyle are particularly important. Reflecting on her family history, Rebecca says, “Having cancer may have saved my life in a different aspect. Through all the healthy food I was brought during all those long months, I was able to get my cholesterol down 120 points.” Furthermore, she adds, “I knew I needed to be a better role model for my children.”
Rebecca had the tissue expanders removed and her breasts reconstructed in December 2005. Her hair has grown back—curly this time, just as she wished for in the seventies when trying to capture Farrah Fawcett’s feathered look. And now, as Rebecca pauses in her kitchen between shuttling children to and from activities, she shushes barking dogs and declares, “I feel better than ever!”
Tags: Cancer Prevention