A Chef's Stomach Cancer Journey

Health Writer
Hans Rueffert, credit Ella RueffertJPG
Ella Rueffert.

Hans Rueffert, a chef without a stomach.

Before his cancer diagnosis, Hans Rueffert was known as the talented chef from the debut season of "The Next Food Network Star." Then, two weeks after the finale, in 2005, doctors discovered he had stage 3 gastric (stomach) cancer. A number of surgeries followed, eventually leading to the removal of Rueffert’s stomach and almost all of his esophagus.

No one was more aware of the irony of the situation than Hans himself: he was a chef, dedicating his life to the creation of food, without a stomach to hold it in.

Yet defying all expectation, food remains central to his new life as a cooking teacher, cookbook author ("Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow"), and host of the video series “The Gesundheit Kitchen” for the Gastric Cancer Foundation.

Here Reuffert talks to HealthCentral about the shock of his diagnosis, what came next, and the link between what he eats now and how he feels post-gastric cancer treatment.

HealthCentral (HC): How’d you get into food in such a serious way?

Rueffert: I had a bit of an odd youth in that I grew up literally upstairs from my family’s restaurant, the Woodbridge Inn, which is arguably the culinary epicenter of north Georgia. When it was dinnertime, my sister and I went downstairs and ordered whatever we wanted. I think I ate French onion soup probably every night of my life from age 10 to 17. My dad was a celebrated chef, and I never had to even cook an egg.

Then, when I was 17 or 18, he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. It was looking pretty doom-and-gloom for a while — although he ended up living another 20 years beyond what they predicted — but at the time I thought, man, here I am about to lose this amazing resource never having learned a thing about food. So I took that as a catalyst to learn how to cook.

Even before my diagnosis, I had a bit of a health bent because of my father, who was German. Germans were at the forefront of what Europeans call the bio movement, which is what we call organic in the U.S. It’s about being mindful about what you’re eating and how you’re growing it and the connection between what you eat and how you feel.

I always tell people that the food I do now isn’t only for people with a gastrectomy or partial gastrectomy; it makes sense for anybody. It’s just pure science that the fuel you put into a machine will affect how it runs. If you eat greasy, heavy, fatty food you’re gonna feel lethargic; if you eat fresh, vibrant, alive food, you have energy to spare.

For a guy with no stomach, that’s exponentially true. A lot of folks don’t feel the net results of a meal until hours later, but I feel the effects almost instantaneously. So I get to decide every day, do I want to eat that candy bar and feel like death afterwards, or am I going to eat something that’s high in plant-based protein, is easy to digest, and is full of amino acids and enzymes and other things that make me feel like I just got a shot of nutrition?

HC: Let’s backtrack a little. When did you receive your cancer diagnosis?

Rueffert: This would have been 2005. I was on "The Next Food Network Star" and finished third. I was diagnosed two weeks after that.

I’d been having some reflux, but that really wasn’t the main symptom for me even though it often is for people with stomach cancer. I ended up in the ER because I called and said, "I think I’m having a heart attack." The left side of my body was going numb, I was having tunnel vision, I was having a hard time catching my breath and a hard time staying awake. What we discovered was that I was basically shutting down because I had a tumor that was bleeding internally. It had been bleeding so long and so much that I was essentially passing out.

HC: Then came surgery. What did that entail?

Rueffert: I’m rare in that I had a partial gastrectomy, then five years later a total gastrectomy. Contrary to logic, having no stomach is much easier than having half a stomach. With the partial gastrectomy, you have stomach acid that’s just constantly coming up into your sinuses at the weirdest times, even if you’re just bending over to tie your shoes. I was literally trying to inhale [antacids] to get this horrible burning sensation out of my sinus cavity, behind my eyes and nose.

Once I had the total gastrectomy, I had no stomach acid, which meant no acid reflux.

But figuring out how to eat was a bit of a learning process because I didn’t have an esophagus anymore, really. The surgeon took a part of my small intestine called the jejunum and moved it up to where my esophagus had been. When I swallow, the food goes straight into my intestines, essentially.

HC: Have you changed the way you eat?

Rueffert: I’m very sensitive to sugar, and so it can happen where all of a sudden I swing from feeling great to not feeling so great. Other foods can buffer that — high-in-dietary-fiber foods. One of my mainstays is quinoa, which is sort of the gateway to what people are calling ancient grains — sorghum, spelt, amaranth, millet, those kinds of things. I do not have a problem with gluten so I’ll also eat bulgur wheat or freekeh. They’re great at absorbing excess anything — sour, salty, sweet, whatever it is. They’re also full of protein and easy to digest, unlike meat, which for a guy with no stomach acid is almost indigestible.

My biggest challenge — and a lot of cancer patients’ biggest challenges — is keeping my weight up. For me, it really has been all about constantly trying to work in a little nut butter into whatever I’m eating. I’ll stir a spoonful of peanut butter into a split-pea soup, and suddenly it takes on a southeast Asian flair. I love making hummus and replacing the tahini with almond butter, cashew butter, or a combination of nut butters to get in as many calories as I can. The same is true with salad dressings. By putting in a spoonful of cashew or almond butter not only are you getting the calories, you’re getting a velvety butteriness that is just awesome.

HC: Most people are pretty uninformed about stomach cancer. What should they know that they don’t?

Rueffert: Because I’m a chef, people always say, oh, you got stomach cancer because of something you ate ... As I said, I’ve always been a mindful eater, yet I’m the guy who gets stomach cancer? It was such a shock.

My thoracic surgeon said if he could give one piece of advice to every human being, it’s to never, ever, ever lie flat. He said you’ve got so much stomach acid and it is so corrosive; even by raising your bed 10 degrees or lying on two pillows you reduce your risk of gastric or esophageal cancer. I preach that without trying to scare anyone because I think, man, if the leading thoracic surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center tells me to tell everyone to never lie flat, I’m passing that information along.

[Interview has been condensed and edited.]

See more helpful articles:

What Is a Gastrectomy?

Hummus Recipe for After a Gastrectomy

Tempeh and Green Okra With Grains Recipe for Post-Gastrectomy