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Finding Freedom in Food

by Hanna MadsenSurvivor, Adenoid Cystic CarcinomaSeptember 10, 2021View more posts from Hanna Madsen

I throw back the last bit of hot khachapuri with a bit of water in the Tbilisi airport. My stomach growls, but I don’t have time for another before boarding. I immediately think about what I can eat in the Dubai airport before my flight to Amman. Every bite of food requires a bit of strategy and planning. Following a rare cancer diagnosis and failed chemotherapy, my entire tongue and some other bits were removed in late September 2020. I re-taught myself to eat twice – once after surgery, and again after radiation. I was told to be careful, to stop — but a feeding tube was not an option for me. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t eat with family or friends. My body shrank, but I only fed myself to survive. So, I had to eat — however I could and whatever I could — anyway.

I started with squash soup and soft bread in melted butter at my parents’ kitchen table in Cape Cod. I moved on to roasted sweet potatoes rolled in olive oil and steak spices with sautéed tomatoes and spinach when I moved back to Washington DC. I found that savory flavors — oil, butter, salt — complimented soft solids and were easy to make. Berries in a glass of warm milk. Apple crisp. Cauliflower mac ‘n cheese. Enchiladas (no spice!) – chili, curry, black pepper and other spicy spices do not mix well with post-radiation. Omelets. Boiled, sautéed or mashed vegetables. Then came the job offer in Afghanistan. Meat and rice country. I could eat neither.

I was very wrong. There was sabzi – soft spinach carefully stir fried with olive oil, cumin and garlic. There was eggplant, okra and green beans — all stir fried in olive oil, cumin, garlic and tomato. There was bolani – a thick crepe stuffed with leek or potato. And aushak — an Afghan dumpling stuffed with leeks and topped with garlic yogurt and lentils in tomato sauce. With practice and concentration, I even taught myself how to eat a pomegranate. Very, very slowly. With lots of water.

I was wrong again in Zanzibar. I learned to make a sweet coconut milk vegetable curry capturing the spices and Indo-Arab-African influences of the Zanzibar islands. Ginger root. Coriander. Cumin. Curry. Fried in olive oil and onion and then drenched in coconut milk. I nibbled on beignets dipped in cardamom coffee. I ate bits of garlic naan between swallows of water infused with fresh fruit.

And I was wrong again in Georgia. I devoured ajapsandali – a summer stew of eggplant, tomato, onions, peppers and garlic in olive oil. And I inhaled khachapuri amreli — a literal bowl of bread with cheese, egg and butter inside. I learned how to take quick sips of wine followed by food or water to mitigate the alcohol burn.

There are tips and tricks to eating after cancer treatment and surgeries like mine, of course. Avoid anything too hot or too cold. I always ask for no ice and hold my finger to the food to test its temperature. I avoid anything too hard that won’t melt quickly (biscottis, dry cookies, granola bars, apples) or sticky (looking at you, peanut butter!). I largely avoid spice because it tastes like literal fire. (Thank you for that lesson, random Pakistani restaurant in Dubai!). I drench salads in heaps of dressing. I cook often to try and find sweet, savory flavors that I can taste. Honey mustard. Cumin. Coconut milk. Butter. Olive oil. Salt. Chocolate. Coffee. Cheese.

I’m still shy when eating with or in front of others, but there is no choice. When people gather around a table, they want to chat. I ask what questions I can as I use water, cheek muscles and fingers to swallow quickly without choking. I eat often with others because I have to, but I also try to give myself time to eat some meals alone.

I’m not saying things are easy. My face is permanently swollen from the surgery and radiation. My teeth are crooked. My speech is slurred. I think about every bite of food and every word I speak. I wear a compression mask in bed at night. I can’t imagine sharing those intimate struggles with a life partner. There are certain foods that seem impossible to eat ever again. But I keep proving myself wrong. With each season, I’ve gotten better. Faster. Eaten more. Hopefully looking less gross. And better able to hold conversations. The fattoush salad from Amman (lettuce/spinach, deep fried pita, olives, tomatoes, peppers and onions drenched in balsamic pomegranate dressing) in my stomach can testify to that. We adapt to survive, yes — but we also adapt to be free.

This article was featured in the September issue of the Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read other stories from the latest magazine and to check out our other issues.

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