NEW CANAAN, Conn. -- People who meet New Canaan resident Jeanette Chen -- it doesn't take long for them to realize there's an angel in their midst.
Chen, a married mother of four, cooks healthy dishes for people with cancer, drives them to doctor and chemotherapy appointments, and keeps them company in their homes.
Over the past 12 years, Chen's actions have deeply touched the lives of nine women.
Her journey toward helping people started in 2004, when she learned her colleague Francine at GE Capital in Stamford had a rare form of breast cancer.
"I offered to cook for her. I started spending time with her, and we quickly became friends," said Chen, who is now 54. "We would share things that were going on in each other's lives at that time."
Shortly after this, Chen left her job to be a stay-at-home mother but maintained contact with Francine. "I drove her to doctor's appointments, visited her at home and brought her meals," said Chen. Although she has no professional cooking experience, she has always loved to cook.
"Francine loved eggplant lasagna and soup, so that is what I would make for her," Chen said.
When Francine passed away at the age of 39, "It was really tough," Chen said. "But I realized just giving a little bit of my time meant a lot to her."
In 2007, Chen began cooking for a woman named Thuy who was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer. Many of Chen's visits to Thuy were in the hospital.
With each person Chen cooked for, she said she learned something new. "I noticed that when people don't feel well, they gravitate toward comfort foods," she said.
For Thuy, this was boiled peanuts. "Thuy grew up in North Carolina and this was her happy food," Chen said. "She was craving it, so that's what I made for her."
Chen also learned people who are going through cancer treatment tend to be affected by the aroma of food. In light of this, she makes her dishes at her home and brings them to people's homes instead of cooking the meals in front of them.
She also tries to make her dishes as visually appealing as possible. "When people have a diminished appetite, which tends to happen during cancer treatment, the presentation of food can play a big part in determining if they will want to eat it," she said.
Six years ago, Chen started a blog called Jeanette's Healthy Living. Her husband, Michael Chen, had urged her to share the recipes she was using for people with cancer.
"However, over time, my blog has expanded into healthy family-friendly recipes that I was making for my four boys," she said.
The blog now has over 1 million followers. On her blog, Chen has created a list of cancer-fighting recipes.
"When hearing my story, my hope is that others will be inspired to help cancer patients, friends or people in their community," she said. "A little bit of our time can mean the world to someone in need of nourishment or companionship."
Chen said she feels that helping these women has given her a sense of purpose and fulfillment. "I find it really rewarding when you are giving to other people," she said. "You get back so much more than you give."
Foods that Chen recommends for people who are undergoing cancer treatment include:
- Soups: Easy to chew and swallow for people undergoing chemotherapy or radiation who may develop mouth sores, nausea or have diminished appetites.
- Smoothies: You can get a lot of nutrition in a smoothie and it's easy to ingest.
- Lentils: Very high in fiber and protein
- Blueberries: Help lower blood pressure
- Hummus: Has protein and is pureed so it's soft and easy to eat
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts and cabbage: Helps reduce inflammation
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