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Cancer Patient's 'Girlfriend' Book

Hartford Courant
August 1, 2002

By LINDA GIUCA
Courant Food Editor

Eleanor Roosevelt once likened a woman to a tea bag. "You never know how strong she is until you drop her in hot water," she said.

Judith Melchreit of Wethersfield found herself in hot water when she was diagnosed with breast cancer right before her 42nd birthday. During her surgery and six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she drew upon an inner strength. But it was a group of about 80 women, her girlfriends, who helped keep Melchreit's attitude positive and her sense of humor in high gear.

These women jumped into the teapot with Melchreit. They not only stayed strong for their friend, but also supportive, organized and helpful. With a kind of military precision, three of Melchreit's good friends scheduled the women into the "Casserole Cavalry" to provide evening meals for Melchreit, her husband, Charles, and their three children.

Now, with her treatment behind her after her December 2000 diagnosis, Melchreit and four friends have channeled the recipes, good deeds, advice and Melchreit's own reflections on her illness into a cookbook. "The Charge of the Casserole Cavalry, the Official Towanda Cookbook" has more than 270 recipes, but it's far more than a kitchen manual.

Many of the recipes for casseroles that were delivered to the Melchreits appear in the book, with friends' favorite recipes for all other menu categories. Throughout the recipe pages are ribbon-tied boxes that offer an inspirational message, a tip for a woman in treatment or 10 things a friend shouldn't say to a woman who has breast cancer.

Melchreit sees it as a "Thank-you" to the women who helped her and a guide for others facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"This book is not about me having cancer," she says. "This book is a love letter to my girlfriends."

When first diagnosed, Melchreit was scared and angry. Her husband asked what he could do. She surprised him with a request for a party.

And Melchreit got a party. An artist friend created "Towanda," a sword-wielding warrior modeled after Wonder Woman, wearing a headdress and wearing a pink ribbon, the symbol of breast-cancer patients. Towanda appeared on the party invitation and as a life-size cutout at the party.

Melchreit said on the invitation that she "wanted to tap into the power of women and get charged for the year ahead of me." The party coincided with her 42nd birthday and the start, two days later, of her treatment. Friends arrived bearing wigs, hats and fake furry eyebrows. The party lasted until about 3 a.m. "It rocked from the start," says Melchreit, who calls the gathering a "power surge." "It was a blast."

The parties have continued, marking events like the day she retired Harriet the wig, which she wore after losing her hair. There was also a party to celebrate publication of the cookbook.

The women didn't set out to write a cookbook. Although by the time Melchreit's treatment ended, she had saved recipes and copies of e-mails that she had sent to family and friends. These updates, most of them laced with Melchreit's quick wit, chronicled her treatment and family life. Throughout her illness, Melchreit sustained her spiritual energy, friends say.

This energy propelled Melchreit and her friends to complete the cookbook in six weeks. Melchreit only gave herself a week to collect the recipes. "I called 150 girlfriends, and within a week, we had the recipes," she says. "They were left under the mat. The children came home with them in their pockets and backpacks. Someone left a recipe on my answer machine. When I went to give the sign of peace in church, someone handed me a recipe."

"The book has been good therapy for me," she says. At the publication party, the boxes containing the first 500 books emptied quickly. "These books were flying out the door," says Betsy Sommers, another editor of the book. "People were buying four and five at a time."

"This is a girlfriend book," Melchreit says. "We never intended it to be distributed to people we didn't know."

The book also has gone beyond their large circle of friends. Sommers sent a copy to her mother-in-law in Ohio, who showed it to a newspaper editor. After a small item appeared in the Akron Beacon-Journal, about 60 orders for the book arrived. "We've had orders from 20 to 30 states, and the book has gone to Germany and the U.K.," Sommers says. "It's just girlfriend to girlfriend."

Melchreit believes that the book has mass appeal because almost everyone is touched, in some way, by breast cancer. She cites National Cancer Institute statistics that estimate that one in eight women who live to the age of 80 will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Melchreit's course of treatment has ended, and she shows no signs of cancer.

The Team Towanda Foundation continues, donating money raised from book sales to help women who are underinsured or have no health insurance get mammograms and breast-health services.

Long-term, the group hopes to fund an ultrasound machine and a mobile mammogram unit. "I never once had to ask how much a test cost," Melchreit says. "When I look at what some women go through, I had a walk in the park."

They hope to do a Towanda calendar for 2003. Meanwhile, they continue to live and spread the idea stated in their vision statement: that women can "draw upon the power of friendship, laughter and kindness in the fight against breast cancer."

The following recipes are reprinted from the book.

CREAM CHEESE FETA DIP

  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened

  • 1 small package feta cheese

  • 1 large jar or can of pesto sauce

  • Red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes in oil
Mix together cream cheese and feta cheese until smooth. Line a pie plate or round bowl with plastic wrap, and spread mixture onto plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a few hours or one day ahead of serving.

To serve, flip mixture from plate or bowl onto a serving plate. Remove plastic wrap and discard. Spread pesto sauce evenly over cheese mixture. Add red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Serve with crackers.

CHICKEN ALFREDO WITH MUSHROOMS AND ASPARAGUS

  • 1 cup converted rice

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 8-ounce package sliced fresh white mushrooms

  • 1 cup fresh chopped onion (about 1 medium)

  • 1 small clove garlic, minced

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 10 ounces fully cooked chicken breast

  • 1 10-ounce jar Alfredo sauce

  • 1/4 cup dry sherry, Marsala or white wine

  • 9-ounce package frozen asparagus
Prepare rice according to package directions.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderate heat for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, onion, garlic and spices; cook, stirring often, until mushrooms release their juices and the juice evaporates, about 5 minutes.

Add chicken, Alfredo sauce and wine; adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently; then cook, stirring frequently, until steaming, about 3 minutes. Add asparagus, distributing it evenly over the surface of the mixture. Cover and cook just until asparagus is crisp tender, 2 to 3 minutes.

Spread hot rice on a heated, deep platter, spoon mixture over the top and serve.

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