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How an innovative hospital program helps cancer patients rediscover the joy of food

Dietition Christy Brissette and chef Geremy Capone lead a cooking class at Toronto General Hospital.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The scent of caramelized root vegetables fills the air as chef Geremy Capone spoons the luscious specimens onto a serving platter. He dresses the plate with golden pickled beets, and it's easy to forget that this food is being served in a hospital – a location rarely associated with tempting, gourmet fare.

But here in the basement of the Toronto General Hospital, good food is considered a crucial factor in supporting patients – especially those who are being treated for cancer.

The cooking series, ELLICSR Kitchen, is run by the University Health Network's ELLICSR Health, Wellness and Cancer Survivorship Centre. It's the kind of supplementary program the medical and wellness fields are creating as more is learned about the ongoing role nutrition can play in helping cancer patients recover from palate- and appetite-destroying radiation and chemotherapy treatments – and maybe even keeping cancer at bay. Workshops, one-on-one appointments with oncology dietitians and even cancer-specific meal-delivery programs are springing up across North America.

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The series runs three Thursdays a month out of a slick television studio that would rival any Food Network production, and is hosted by Capone and registered dietitian Christy Brissette. (Webisodes are available online.) They plan the menus together, Brissette making sure to hit the health notes – on potential medication interactions or antioxidant powerhouses – while Capone hits the flavour notes, with the input of participants, who faithfully fill out audience questionnaires about their needs.

Capone says most of his audience is made up of cancer patients who have undergone treatment and find eating a challenge at a time when they need good nutrition the most. The details are individual, but the queries he and Brissette field most often are about side effects, including a lack of taste, not being able to tolerate smells and how to combat a metallic taste in the mouth. Some patients also have a problem with saliva production and swallowing. Brissette, whose clinical practice is focused on head and neck cancers, says some of her patients have trouble with acidic foods like tomatoes.

"For these people, their experience of food has done a 180," he says. "We have to make the experience enjoyable again."

Brissette says researchers are working to fine-tune nutritional advice to specific cancers. One Toronto researcher, Maureen McQuestion, is working with Brissette and patients with head and neck cancers. Where other patients, such as those with breast cancer, may be told to use only a dollop of calorie-heavy olive-oil pesto, this demographic may be encouraged to slather it on their food to gain weight.

Advice can include using lemon peel instead of lemon juice, or rice-wine vinegar instead of other vinegars for those sensitive to acid. Skipping metal bowls or tin foil can reduce metallic flavours, a common problem for cancer patients. To combat dull taste buds, the pair focus on spices, big flavours and the appearance of food. Today's bounty is, indeed, a long way from a hospital tray filled with wan Salisbury steak or worse, a fortified liquid meal replacement.

There is also fun. The pair clearly has a butter-versus-grapeseed-oil shtick, the latter being a good backing substitute for those who need to avoid saturated fats.

"There's no scone police!" Brissette says, after Capone cracks a comment about being allowed to use butter on this rare occasion for his pumpkin scones. She reassures her fans in the audience who may be reeling: "This will still be more healthy than what you get in a bakery."

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Sitting on the seat of her walker at the back of the jam-packed room, Joanne Dickinson, who had major surgery to remove liposarcoma tumours in her midsection this May, says she loves the series and is hungry for the nutritional information she hopes will help her regain her strength and stay healthy. She says where other advisers might just tell her to eat kale, Capone's turkey and kale meatballs were "so tasty. It's the combination they deliver." Other recent hits in her book include cookies made with almond flour. "I'm trying to do a lot of walking, and eating high-nutrient foods."

For others, the weekly event also serves as a social outing.

Marie Maysuik says she's not the group-therapy type – "I just want to get on with my life," she says – but this class feels both social and therapeutic.

"I've changed my eating habits," she says. "You can enjoy the food and talk to people. I served their mussels dish last Easter to my family. You learn to incorporate healthy eating into your life."

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