Photo: Ann Stratton
This is how bad it was: I couldn't stand the sight of peanut butter.
Normally, I gobble it up by the spoonful. But in the fall of 2004, I was 20 weeks pregnant and undergoing the second round of a grueling form of chemotherapy that left me so nauseated, even the aroma of cooking made me want to throw up. Yet I needed to eat, needed nourishment for this baby despite the toxic cocktail of drugs being administered to combat stage 4 anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
The treatment is known as CHOP therapy. Each letter stands for a drug. But I like to think it's called CHOP because it chops up cancer cells and gets rid of them. I pictured the drugs with boxing gloves, delivering knockout punches to the deadly invaders. Food played no part in my imagery of recovery until the day I got a call from my friend Kristi Piehl, at the time a colleague at the TV station in Dayton where I'm a news anchor. "I'm bringing over chicken enchiladas," she announced. "Great," I said with false cheerfulness. "Yuck," I thought to myself. How could I dig into chicken enchiladas when I couldn't even stomach looking at a jar of peanut butter? Kristi arrived with a basket much like Dorothy's in The Wizard of Oz. Instead of Toto, the cloth concealed a warm meal that quickly spread the smell of home-cooked food throughout my kitchen. Amazingly, I didn't feel an immediate urge to heave. Instead I watched in anticipation as Kristi emptied her basket: enchiladas, tortilla chips, tangy cheese dip, and my favorite dessert, crème brûlée.
Before she left, Kristi also fed my appetite for industry gossip with delicious dish. She hadn't been out the door more than a few seconds before I stuck a fork into the enchiladas. As I swallowed, I made one of the many discoveries I was to accumulate during this journey: Food takes on a new flavor when someone else cooks it—someone who wants nothing more than for me to get better and deliver a healthy baby.
So began Meals for Michelle, a small brigade of friends, neighbors, and coworkers who brought me three home-cooked meals a week. At first I said no; I couldn't accept that kind of help. There were so many other cancer patients with fewer resources, fewer support systems. Thank God my friends ignored me. They brought chicken with sautéed mushrooms, squash bisque, and an Oreo cookie cheesecake that melted in my mouth.
They also brought comfort and chatter. The visits reconnected me to the outside world. I was fed up with being couch-bound. Only a few months earlier, I'd learned I was pregnant with a long-awaited second child. These were supposed to be the carefree days of getting the baby's room ready and helping my 2-year-old prepare to become a big brother.
Those happy hopes had exploded the day the doctor I'd consulted about a lump in my neck gently scooted his stool up against my chair and took my hand. I could tell by the look in his eyes that something was wrong. "Michelle, you have a rapidly expanding large cell lymphoma. You'll need chemotherapy right away—and I don't know what it means for your baby." I sat crying uncontrollably as I waited for my husband, Steve, to arrive. Coming home to my son was both comforting and heartbreaking. I lunged at him, hugging tighter and longer than usual. "I have to be here for him!" I thought desperately.