Three Connecticut women who battled cancer, and won, with some help from New Canaan's Jeanette Chen.
Beating the dreaded triple-negative breast cancer
“I had pain under my arm that was getting worse and worse,” recalls Kathy Cheslok, 53, a social worker at Norwalk Hospital. That was almost four years ago. “Once I signed up to get a mammogram the pain went away. I was convinced I was not going to get breast cancer. Well, the power of positive thinking didn’t work.”
Not only did Cheslok get bad news, but it was triple-negative breast cancer. “It’s a more rare form of breast cancer that doesn’t have any specific treatment. They throw chemo at you and you pray.”
Cheslok, who is single, knew Jeanette Chen from Grace Community Church in New Canaan, contacted her and was rewarded.
“When I was diagnosed I knew I was going to have a very extensive surgery before chemo,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to move around much for a couple of weeks. No one would have known that I had cancer. I didn’t share it with people. I was so shocked that I just couldn’t talk about it. The hospital’s breast cancer nurse convinced me that I could not go through it on my own, that I needed to start getting some help. I knew Jeanette wouldn’t ask questions; she’d just sign up for it. I felt comfortable because I knew she was a kind and giving soul. I let her know I was going to need some help.”
What truly touched Cheslok was that Jeanette researched her particular cancer to find a cooking strategy.
“Jeanette gave me a lot of food ahead of time,” she says. “I found that she loves to research health and food: what you need or don’t need for whatever ails you. And she has a way of cooking that is very healthful but also very flavorful. She custom-made food for me.”
Chen went above and beyond in other ways, as well.
“I have a handicapped sister who often comes and stays with me,” explains Cheslok. “One day Jeanette called and asked if I needed help with her. She came and picked her up and took her for the day. Who does that?”
Luckily the treatment worked for Cheslok and she recovered. “There were other women with this cancer in my support group who didn’t make it,” she says somberly. “It’s very aggressive and spreads and you don’t even know it. I caught it early.”
Cheslok has remained friends with Chen, of course, and will never forget how she came through for her.
“When I needed rides she drove me,” says Cheslok. “She would come over, feed me, sit with me for a little, do my dishes and then leave me alone. She has an amazing sense of what you need and then steps out. Jeanette just connects with people.
“She never made me feel like it was a burden. She was honest. I would clean her whole house if she asked me to.”
From all-day chemo to scaling Mount Kilimanjaro
New Canaan’s Lisa Corrado, 49, had a successful corporate marketing career before changing course to start a nutrition counseling/personal chef business in 2003. Its tagline was Making Busy People Healthier.
In 2010 it was she who would need help.
“I was diagnosed that year with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and went through six months of chemotherapy,” she says. “I’d never met Jeanette Chen, but knew her from Facebook, when a friend said we were both foodies and should connect. I shared my cancer experience on Facebook. She contacted me and said she would be happy to bring me soup. I told her that would be so sweet of her.
“I’m hard to help,” she admits. “I’m very much someone who wants to do things for myself. I had to learn how to say ‘OK.’”
Corrado says friends and family pitched in, and she was touched when Chen arrived at her front door.
“She came to my house one day in New Canaan,” Corrado recalls. “I was in the backyard with my dog and didn’t hear her knock. She left four quarts of soup on the front porch. We didn’t meet until much later.”
Corrado’s chemo treatments were exhausting, with each session lasting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“My stepson asked what chemo was like, thinking it was like being hungover,” she says. “It does not even feel that good. I would love to have felt hungover. It’s a really strange sensation, like all the cells in your body are spinning at the same time, and you can feel every one in action.”
The massive doses worked, and a year later Corrado was cancer-free. She closed her nutrition business to found The Felix Culpa Project (thefelixculpaproject.com), a motivational community that shares stories of positive change after a challenge. The title is Latin for “fortunate fault.” It’s the concept of something good coming from something bad.
Corrado and her husband, Fred, recently scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, as Lisa is once again healthy and energized.
While she and Chen are casual acquaintances, Corrado will never forget a virtual stranger’s kindness.
“I thought, how nice that this person didn’t know me but brought me four quarts of soup,” she says. “When somebody makes you something with pure love, it’s really delicious. It was pure kindness because she didn’t get anything from it. It speaks to who I’ve learned Jeanette is.”
Singing strong after overcoming thyroid cancer
Bridgeport’s Jenn Eckart knew Jeanette Chen from Grace Community Church in New Canaan. Eckart was the strategic operations director there.
“I was sick for two years after a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2011, and now I’m perfectly fine,” she says. “Jeanette was just getting started at the time with her website, and she researched my illness, creating the soups, healthy drinks and smoothies that helped combat the disease.”
The lead singer and bass player for Green Eyed Lady, a Fairfield County-based rock band, Eckart worried that her voice could be lost because she had a tumor wrapped around her vocal cords.
“I was told before surgery that I might be talking through a voice box if it didn’t go well,” she says. “There were no guarantees I could sing again. My voice is fine now, though lower than it used to be. But I can sing.”
Eckart decided to take advantage of her recovered voice, and is now a full-time singer/musician. She is still amazed by Chen’s dedication to her.
“Jeanette was a fantastic friend when I needed her most,” says Eckart. “Not only for making me food but for visiting me in the hospital and at home, and bringing meals not only for me but for my whole family. She was one of the key people to help me relearn how to eat, not just to combat illness but for a healthy lifestyle going forward. She had a big impact on my understanding of food and what it means to be healthy. I adopted a lot of her recipes that are part of my diet today.”
Eckart explains that Chen making multiple trips to see her in Bridgeport soothed her mentally, and verbal communication between the two was not important.
“A lot of our time together was just being quiet,” she says. “After surgery on my vocal cords I wasn’t allowed to make a sound for two weeks, and spent a year recovering my voice. So I did a lot of note writing to people. There were times Jeanette would visit and I would write notes and hand them to her. Other times we would just sit together quietly.
“She had four kids and was a busy lady. She gave me so much time and energy. It was around the time when I think she was deciding that it was her second calling.”