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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

Cooking For Chemotherapy: By Chef Ryan Callahan

Written by Chef Ryan Callahan on 
16th April, 2018
Updated: 29th January, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hello Everyone!

My name is Chef Ryan Callahan.

I am the founder of I am a chef who specializes in helping cancer fighters overcome many eating related chemotherapy side-effects. To this end, I founded my organization Cooking For Chemo where we develop and teach cooking techniques that help to overcome these side-effects.

I got involved in the cancer communities

...after I became a full-time caregiver (carer) for my mother while she was going through treatments for breast cancer. Before this, I had already experienced cancer in my life as both of my grandfathers and my best friend in college had all passed away from complications due to cancer and cancer treatments. When my mother was diagnosed, you can imagine my shock to think that I was going to loose another person in my life to cancer. At this time, I was helping some family friends run a restaurant. After my mothers diagnosis, we shut down the restaurant and moved so that I could be closer to my mother. I vowed that I was not going to loose another person to cancer.

Cooking For Chemotherapy By Chef Ryan Callahan

I knew what I was up against before I even signed up to be a caregiver.

Metallic tastes, loss of appetite, chemotherapy treatments, and surgery. I had seen it all before, but only from a distance. I knew that as a chef, I had a better chance than most in coming up with foods that my mother would eat. I had seen friends and family members struggle to eat foods, much less anything of nutritional substance. As a result, the 3 people I lost to cancer died from a condition we now know as cachexia. This is very simply stated in English as systematic starvation. It was only later, after I founded Cooking for Chemo, that I read a study from the journal of cachexia that showed cancer deaths due to systematic starvation can be as high as 70%. I don’t know about you, but as a chef, it is absolutely unacceptable to allow people to starve to death. Period.

Loss of appetite, nausea, and metallic tastes kicked in

I began looking for resources that would help to overcome these obstacles and at the time there simply weren’t any. I reached out to the major cancer resource centers here in the United States, and all they could offer was a tiny pamphlet with about 5 or 6 bulleted suggestions. But when I pushed for more substantial information, all I got was disappointment! No one knew what to do. No one understood why these side-effects were happening. As a result, I became extremely frustrated. But, as a fairly self-disciplined person I was not going to give up. I knew what my challenges were, and it was just going to be a matter of recording and documenting every dish I made to look for patterns in her preferences.

Cooking For Chemotherapy By Chef Ryan Callahan

One dramatic heroic cooking montage later… I remember the moment it all clicked together. I was making a dish called chicken and dumplings. It is a medium weight cream based chicken stew with lots of veggies and small soft dumplings. It is a classic in American southern style comfort food. As I was seasoning the dish, I noticed that the dish was a little heavy in my mouth and I was thinking about what I could do to lighten the taste of the dish. I thought back to some of the Chinese cooking techniques I had learned and thought that a little red wine vinegar balanced by a little sugar could help lighten the dish without creating a sour flavour. So I tried it, found that it lightened the mouth feel of the dish, and then I served it to my mother to try. She ate three bowls. Now, in any other circumstance this would be a moment to think about portion control, but after three months of not being able to eat properly, it was an absolute blessing.

I immediately documented the success, what I had done in the cooking process.

I had a hunch that it was the vinegar added to the recipe that made the difference. Because I was her full-time caregiver, I made every meal, cleaned the house, ran errands, etc. This gave me multiple opportunities every day to test out different herbs, spices, seasoning combinations, and acidic additions. I guess what I’m saying is that she was a bit like a lab experiment for me! But, with every recipe, and every test I was able to document these successes and failures to come up with a road map to culinary success!

I knew that if I had a solution, even half of a solution, I had to get this out to everyone else who was struggling with eating-related chemotherapy side-effects. I pulled up an old laptop and began to write a pamphlet that I could send to every cancer support group in the United States. In the end, it was 18 typed pages. Then I gave it to my wife to read. She looked at me and said “No one is going to understand this. This pamphlet is written by a chef, for other chefs. So we need to rewrite this for the average person who cannot cook and has never cooked.”

This went on to win a 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Award, and has been sold in almost every country that was a former British colony in the world, including Great Britain herself. I never ever imagined that we would have garnered so much success just by trying to help people!

Now that we have a bit of backstory, what exactly is Cooking for Chemo and how is it going to help me?

Cooking for Chemo teaches you how to understand and most importantly adjust for the taste and flavour perception changes that occur during and after cancer treatment. We do this through articles, videos, books, social media, and recipes. All of which are designed to give you the tools you need to win! Everyone likes to win! That’s why video games have an easy mode.

You need to understand and adjust for the taste and favour perception changes that occur during cancer treatment

Cooking for Chemo is built on a few easy steps.

  1. Understanding what flavour is and how you perceive it.
  2. Understanding what has changed for you or your loved one.
  3. Learning cooking techniques, tips, and tricks to automatically accommodate for side-effects in your recipes.
  4. Documenting and studying taste and flavour preferences as treatment continues.

The greatest difficulty we have to overcome in Cooking for Chemo is, believe it or not, stubbornness.

People don’t like to change. They don’t like to do anything different. And learning something new? Forget about it. But these tips and techniques I teach are crucial to getting your loved ones to eat again. So I encourage you to take the leap, and start learning how to combat eating related chemotherapy side-effects.

I had a chance of coming up with food that my mum would like

We do offer many recipes on our website as well

These recipes have the cooking for chemo techniques built into them already. But they are much more effective when you read the techniques articles first! Seasoning amounts tend to be generous, and not all of the seasoning I call for is actually necessary. This ties into the technique idea of tasting as you cook, not for your preferences, but for the cancer patients preferences. I suppose I should also note that my recipes use American measurements, but can easily be converted to metric, or even more simply hop on Amazon and order a set of American measuring spoons, cups and scales. My books include metric and American English to British English conversions charts in the back of the books as well. I’ll never forget when someone asked me what an eggplant was, and I had to use the french word aubergine for an effective translation!

If you are ready to get started

I’d recommend you start on our Cooking for Chemo for Beginners page which is linked right here: Cooking for Chemo for Beginners

Thank you for reading, if you ever have any questions please do not hesitate to reach out directly to me I really do respond personally.

Chef Ryan Callahan

Fun chemo gifts

Thoughtful and appropriate chemotherapy gift hampers

Further Reading

How ‘Ticking off breast cancer’ was born: a site to help with breast cancer treatment

78 Best Gift Ideas For A Chemotherapy Patient

Surviving Cancer: A Miracle Journey by Sandra Hamilton

How To Support Someone Going Through Chemo: Easy and Not So Easy Tips

What Is Chemotherapy And Why Is It Given To People With Cancer?

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2 comments on “Cooking For Chemotherapy: By Chef Ryan Callahan”

  1. Love this. Macmillan have a series of cookbooks for people with cancer / chemo. Each recipe lists the nutritional value including calorific count so weight can be gained. Very helpful guide when you don’t know where to begin.

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