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Eating during cancer treatment? Keep it safe

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

How many times have I written recipes with warnings that some things, from raw eggs to undercooked chicken, are more dangerous for people with suppressed immune systems?

Moira Quinn has lived it.

“Suppressed immune system” covers a lot of situations. But mostly, it means cancer treatment.

And after four months of chemotherapy and radiation, Quinn has a whole new relationship to eating “clean” food.

Quinn, 57, is a familiar face in Charlotte. She was on TV on WBTV for almost 20 years before she become a driving force at Charlotte Center City Partners.

Two weeks before the Democratic National Convention in September, Quinn was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She started chemotherapy on Halloween and finished the day before Valentine’s.

“My doctor has a sense of humor,” she jokes.

Friends jumped in to feed her and her family. FOX News’ Morgan Fogarty used the website to put together a schedule with a note from Moira on what she could eat.

And Quinn found out that what she could eat was tricky – and not always what you would expect.

“The first thing I did, I figured I’m going to eat healthy – salads, fruits, all organic. My first round of chemo, I tried to eat all that stuff. I lost 8 pounds because I couldn’t digest anything.”

Here’s the thing: There’s a lot of well-meaning information out there about eating when you have cancer. But not all advice is one-size-fits-all.

Quinn learned she had to be really careful. No fresh food – she couldn’t risk exposure to bacteria. Nothing spicy at all. Nothing acidic. No lemon juice. No tomato sauce. No salad dressing.

“Nothing fresh, only white, brown and yellow foods: Rice, pasta, cheese, toast, chicken, flaky fish. I ate a lot of chicken.”

Her friends quickly figured it out. One sent a noodle kugel – perfect. Another made matzo ball soup. Perfect again.

With all of it, she had to be so careful.

“Anytime anyone sent me something fresh, I thanked them profusely and my husband ate well. They were being wonderful and fabulous. I never said anything.”

Eating healthfully is great. Now that her treatment is over – and her scans show she’s free of cancer – she’s happily eating fresh fruits and vegetables again. Lots of salads. Organic produce, after she washes it really well.

What we eat – what we want to eat, what we can eat, what we should eat – it’s so personal.

“A chemo patient needs to listen to your doctor and your oncology nurses, listen to your team,” Quinn says now.

“And if you’re going to cook and provide a meal – I appreciated it more than I can tell you. It was such an effort to keep body and soul together. But it’s always good to ask, ‘What can you eat?’ Don’t assume.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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