Culinary therapy: How learning to cook helped me deal with the stress of thinking I had cancer

Culinary therapy: How learning to cook helped me deal with the stress of thinking I had cancer

Culinary therapy helped me get through a rough patch this year:
It didn’t start out as me seeking solace or trying to get through the day. I’d just had a partial nephrectomy to remove a tumour from my left kidney, as well as a c-section to remove two teratomas from my ovaries. At this point, I still thought that I had had kidney cancer — the doctor was 90 percent sure — and the dietitian gave me a strict set of rules to follow. I wasn’t allowed to eat salt, protein, fats, oils; anything that was difficult to digest was a big no-no.


Culinary therapy: a necessary step towards healing


I realised after the first meal out of the hospital that I would have to learn to cook. My husband’s grandmother prepared a delicious chicken schnitzel for dinner, followed by hearty, creamy oatmeal for breakfast, and it hit me: Everything contains salt. And it’s not exactly fair of me to expect other people to fit into my eating plan. I mean, can you imagine a life without salt, or biltong? A life with only two cups of coffee a day? I could barely conceive of such a life, and yet, I was in it. I had to do this by myself.

So I studied the list that the dietitian gave me, and I got to work on my new lifestyle.

Surprise! I like cooking!

Before, if you scrolled to my Instagram page, you would have seen pictures of books, travel destinations, or pictures of dogs reading books. (#pippathereadingdog is everything, by the way.)

What you would never have seen, are pictures of food prepared by me. I hated cooking. I despised everything about it. Cooking made me feel anxious and useless; all those terrible feelings that come with failing adulthood manifested in the kitchen.

So imagine my surprise when I realised that I like to cook. What the hell happened?

I found that I enjoyed cooking

Cooking forced me to slow down. To enjoy the process, instead of focusing on the end results. Yes, I might make mistakes. Yes, I may burn something. But I learned to enjoy the journey; the slow-chopping of vegetables, the combining of herbs and spices to create a delicious taste in the absence of salt. Cooking oatmeal or making seasoning from scratch, instead of relying on premixed foods.

And I haven’t made anything complicated either; I’ve found beauty in simple dishes made simply, but this time I’m in charge. All those feelings of terror have melted away, and I feel like I can look the world in the eyes again. I can DO something. I can’t tell you how empowering that is.

Food for life

Now, I can’t wait to see what I’ll come up with in the kitchen. I’ve made stir fries with homemade sweet-and-sour sauce (honey and lemon juice) and low sodium soy-and-ginger sauce; wholesome steel-cut oatmeal with roasted almonds, cranberries, unsalted peanut butter and other fruits; pasta with pesto and vegetables; kimchi and bok choi wraps; chicken wraps; roast vegetables served with couscous. My friends and I had a sushi night, and I prepared a simple Korean stew called doenjang-jiggae (soybean paste stew).

Cooking makes me happy


I probably don’t need to follow this diet anymore; it’s been two months since I had the surgery, but I love my new hobby. It makes me feel like I’m taking my life in my own hands, and treating myself with kindness. Sean’s Gran says I even hum in the kitchen while I’m cooking; I didn’t know I did that!

Cooking makes me happy. I haven’t had time for depression, or self-pity. When I start to worry about the money, I plan what I’m making for dinner instead. If I start to fall down the rabbit hole of despair, I make a healthy snack of banana, peanut butter and cranberries. I’ve found a new creative outlet that doesn’t demand perfection from me. It’s something I do for me, for fun, and for the sheer pleasure of the moment. For now, that is all I need.

More about culinary therapy

After realising how much cooking has helped me with health, wellness and mindfulness, I did some reading up on culinary therapy. Here are a few useful links for further research:


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