Navidi, an avid cook with a love of farmers markets and a background in catering, was appalled. But she was also at a loss.
Fabien’s body, his digestive system, his taste buds and even his cravings were being ravaged by his illness, Stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and by his medical treatments. He would go for days without eating. When he did, he had trouble keeping down even his favorite foods. Navidi didn’t know how to feed him anymore, but she was convinced fast food was not the answer.
“So I started with the basics,” says Navidi, a Washington resident. “I grabbed a pot, put a chicken in, added some vegetables. There were days when he’d have chicken soup at 10 a.m. because it worked for him. Now that’s what I tell other parents: Start with the chicken.”
That back-to-basics approach is the backbone of Navidi’s free Cooking for Cancer classes at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and her cookbook, “Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids with Cancer.”
“I never thought I’d be here,” Navidi says, stirring a pot of red beans and rice soup with kielbasa, which is simmering on a hot plate in a corner of the hospital’s kitchen-less pediatric oncology waiting area. The room, filled with art projects and board games — and now, thanks to Navidi, the smell of simmering sausage — is a place where children pass the time between checkups and treatments. Eight years have passed since her own son was here, undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and blood transfusions.
Navidi is no longer the worried mother — 19-year-old Fabien’s cancer is in remission — but there are plenty of other parents in that position. Navidi’s job is to share recipes that might lighten their burden or, at the very least, distract them during the long hours spent waiting.
A holistic nutritionist, Navidi began volunteering at MedStar Georgetown in 2008. “I pretty much just asked, ‘Can I take a little spot and make smoothies?’ ” She would do prep at home, pre-cooking anything that required a stove or oven, and showed up at the hospital with bags of groceries.
Navidi’s commitment and willingness to pay for food and supplies out of her own pocket drew the attention of Aziza Shad, chief of MedStar Georgetown’s pediatric hematology-oncology program. Shad helped find grant money to fund the program and encouraged Navidi to compile her recipes into a book.
“As an oncologist, you have to make sure your patients are in good shape nutritionally,” says Shad. “If a child doesn’t eat well, he can’t handle chemotherapy well. Nutrition is medicine. It’s all connected.”
Shad says cancer treatment has a major impact on appetite. Sores can develop in the mouth, throat and gastrointestinal tract. Foods that are raw, acidic or greasy become hard to digest. Food, even water, can begin to taste metallic due to changes in the lining of the mouth. Stress on the body leads to new cravings.