Two-time cancer survivor Ann Odgen Gaffney, 65, has a keen appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. In the throes of her cancer journey, it was the little things—heating up a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup, for example, or savoring the delectable sweetness of a perfectly ripe strawberry—that nourished Ann’s body and spirit. Now, the avid home cook and “Cook for Your Life” founder is on a mission to spread the soul-sustaining joy of cooking to cancer patients across the nation.
Ann’s cancer journey began in 2001, when a routine sonogram check-up revealed a cancerous tumor in her right kidney. Shortly thereafter, the Manhattan resident underwent surgery to have the kidney removed. “It was very frightening, but thankfully the cancer hadn’t metastasized so I didn’t require further treatment,” Ann says. “I was very lucky.”
After recovering from the surgery, Ann put cancer behind her and returned to her career as a fashion designer. But then the unthinkable happened: In 2005, four years after her kidney cancer diagnosis, Ann was diagnosed with an unrelated form of breast cancer. “I started to get this weird sort of pain in my left breast. I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” Ann recalls. “Turns out it was triple-negative breast cancer.”
Utterly terrified that she wouldn’t survive a second time, Ann calls the devastating diagnosis a true “horror moment.” “I was virtually planning my funeral,” Ann says. “I realized I was going to drive myself crazy if I kept thinking like that. So I made a pact with myself to live in the present. To look where my two feet were and focus on that.”
Ann looked for a way to stay grounded during the rigors of cancer treatment. Coming from an Anglo-Italian family with an extensive culinary background, it was only natural that she would turn to cooking as a form of solace. “My mother is Italian, my father was English. My dad was a master baker; my mom’s family was all chefs. I’ve always cooked,” Ann says.
Ann’s cooking abilities proved to be a godsend. When bouts of chemo-induced nausea struck, she found comfort in no-hassle, nourishing meals such as chicken noodle soup or poached chicken. “Many people don’t realize that you lose your taste during chemo,” Ann says. “Your favorite foods no longer taste good. It can be quite hard to eat, to find foods that sound appetizing.”
During treatment, Ann joined her local Gilda’s Club chapter, where she formed friendships with fellow chemo patients. She quickly noticed that many of them lacked basic cooking skills and relied heavily on packaged foods as a result. “Many of the people I encountered didn’t even know how to boil an egg. It left them with very few choices,” Ann says. “It was then I realized that helping people cook for themselves and look after themselves could be a very giving and fulfilling venture.”
Recognizing her potential to make a difference, Ann launched Cooked for Your Life (CFYL) in 2007, a nonprofit organization that offers cancer patients and their loved ones free hands-on cooking and nutrition programs. On the foundation’s website, patients can access a free database of simple, nourishing recipes suited to a variety of health needs and cravings. “Everything on the website comes from a survivor’s point of view—from someone who’s been through the treatment and understands how difficult it can be to eat properly,” Ann says.
Increasingly, studies are exploring links between nutrition and cancer, both during treatment and as a means of prevention. That’s why it’s important for cancer patients to consume a healthful, plant-based diet, Ann says. “But it’s hard to eat well when you’re eating takeout all the time,” she notes. “That’s why cooking is so important.”
She adds that the simple act of cooking can be extraordinarily empowering for cancer patients, enabling them to regain a sense of control over their bodies during a time when the body seems to be betraying them. “It’s a wonderful feeling of control,” Ann says. “For once, you get to control what goes into your body. You get an instant result. It’s soothing.”
Each month, CFYL hosts a variety of free cooking classes and nutrition seminars in the New York City area, including monthly classes at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge. But the cooking classes are more than mere educational events—if anything, they have evolved into impromptu support groups. “It gives people the chance to talk about their experiences in a very casual environment,” Ann says. “People open up.”
After years in the fashion industry, Ann has found herself in the unexpected position of giving back to others—just one of the many small blessings that has come out of her cancer journey. Says Ann, “I’m as vain as the next person. Going through the transformations of cancer treatment—losing my hair and everything—has allowed me to step back from myself. It’s allowed me to get older more gracefully … to take pleasure in the small things. For that, I am forever grateful to the experience.”