A Conversation with Dr. Luis Pineda: Chef and Cancer Doctor, Part I
Oct 28, 2014
“I see cancer patients in the hospital every day,” says hematologist/oncologist Dr. Luis F. Pineda. “They don't eat. They lose their appetite. They get served typically three meals a day with a big tray full of food. They open the lid and get overwhelmed with the food aroma coming all at once. The presentation is poor. Then the nutritionist brings the meal shakes and then, two days later, you have 20 meal shakes sitting on the table. That’s when we have to put tubes into their nose going into the stomach so they can get the nutrition, and finally you put IVs and then you give them nutrition that way.”
In 2003, after three decades of seeing an erosion of his cancer patients’ appetite—and, therefore, their overall quality of life—Dr. Pineda enrolled at Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham. He started applying this new-found knowledge two years later, when he founded Cooking with Cancer, a non-profit organization that combines the art of cooking with science and medicine to create recipes to fulfill cancer patients’ nutritional needs without sacrificing taste. With a website, free recipe book --Prescription to Taste: A Cooking Guide for Cancer Patients -- instructional DVDs, cooking workshops and lectures, Cooking with Cancer’s mission is “helping those afflicted with cancer to enjoy a better quality of life through good food.”
We asked Dr. Pineda about the challenges and rewards of combining the skills of cancer doctor and chef.
What made you finally decide to go to culinary school?
“I have always loved cooking, but I have never been a good cook. I always wanted to go to cooking school but it was actually my daily life with patients with cancer that motivated me to actually do it. Sometimes (because of the effects of either the disease or the treatment), their quality of life is just down to zero. To me it was very important to deal with that issue because, after all, the quality is more important than the quantity of life.
I thought that going to Culinard was going to bring me the opportunity to take care of my people better, and it has. You know, in essence, it has given me the motivation, the inspiration to go ahead and tackle that problem. And it's an interesting concept because I was not thinking in terms of nutrition for them. I was thinking in terms of quality of life.”
Tell us about Cooking with Cancer.
“Cooking with Cancer became an institution that formalized the thought process I was having in regard to quality of life in cancer patients and food. We give lectures all over. We go to churches, we go to UAB, we go to Culinard. We have been invited to talk in Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and California. We have been recognized internationally in Europe. We work with UAB in the Comprehensive Cancer Center and we give lectures together with Culinard.
We are recognized by multiple national and international institutions, such as the American Cancer Society. We have come up with videos that we distribute for free to patients so they can see the executions of the recipes. We have a recipe book that we distribute for free for people who request it.”
How do you test the recipes you develop?
“We get cancer patients and their families to test the recipes we’ve developed and, one time, we were showing a recipe for jalapeno pepper soup. Pepper has a chemical compound in it called capsaicin that basically has a biochemical effect on the brain. It stops the nausea and vomiting as well as activates the receptors in the mouth so that they can taste again. It’s a clever recipe because you add milk to it. Milk is the only antidote that we know to the pungency of pepper so you can actually adjust the pungency of it. We were tasting samples of the soup with patients and their families at Culinard. A child there had brain cancer and had gone through radiation and chemotherapy. She was still bald and kind of thin. Obviously her nutrition was not up to par. She wouldn't eat; she wouldn't try anything, even sweets.
We were passing the samples and then we realized that she was asking for more and she expressed that she really liked this stuff. For me, it was a moment of pleasure and a realization that I was doing the right thing, that, really, all these efforts end up causing real results.
I will keep on doing this until the day I die. I may quit medicine but I would never quit being a chef and trying to do these things for my patients.”