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Jeanne Rankin joins Cancer Focus NI to share recipe for health and happiness in new book

The former TV chef is back with a fresh zest for life and, together with charity Cancer Focus NI, has written a brilliant new book on the right nutrition and exercise to help people fighting the disease. She talks to Una Brankin.

Jeanne Rankin knows what it's like to live with physical and emotional pain. The former chef and pastry cook has also been affected by serious illness in her family; three of her aunts and her grandmother died from breast cancer, making regular mammograms essential for her.

So, working with Cancer Focus NI was a choice Jeanne willingly made, when she recovered from an addiction to pain-killers, following her horse-riding accident in 2002.

For the last six years, the charming Canadian has given yoga classes for cancer patients, and has recently co-authored The Well Being Cookbook with Cancer Focus NI staff members, Deirdre Conlon and Niamh McDaid. Packed with need-to-know tips to help cancer patients during treatment and recovery, it's also very informative for anyone who just wants to stay healthy.

"We take account of the side-effects patients have from treatment, like dry mouth, digestion issues and a metallic taste in the mouth," says Jeanne. "Food can taste horrible to them, so we add herbs and spices to enhance flavour, but the recipes are simple and quick. It's all about nutrition: fresh, alive food gives your body energy."

There's no hint of clinical depression in Jeanne's upbeat voice, which retains a strong Canadian accent. She blames her past addiction to pain-killers on the debilitating condition with which she was diagnosed, and which runs in her family. Aptly, the recipes and yoga techniques she has featured in The Well Being Cookbook are food for the soul, as much as the body.

"Food affects your mood - I know it does," she asserts. "The mind, body and spirit are all connected; I believe that. No-one feels good in themselves if they eat badly or live on takeaways.

"And the 20 minutes it takes you to wait for a takeaway, is all the time it will take to prepare a meal that will make you feel so much better, physically and mentally. That's really important for carers, too, who are depleted in energy."

Now officially divorced from celebrity chef Paul Rankin, Jeanne (53) lives in Belfast with her daughter Emily (26) and son Jamie (18), the latter of whom is off to Sheffield shortly to study sports science. Meanwhile, her older daughter Clare (29) works front-of-house in a leading restaurant. "They're all into yoga and the middle one's a very strict vegan. I'm 99% vegetarian - no I wouldn't have a bacon sandwich," she laughs. "I'll have a nice piece of fish if I'm out. I cook vegetarian at home, so I'm very fussy about what's on offer in restaurants. Fish with steamed potatoes, or whatever, is a better choice for me."

Refreshingly, she doesn't insist on organic.

"It's a personal choice, but is organic food from half way round the world that's been in storage better than fresh local food?

"With something like avocado, with a thick skin, it doesn't matter. Carrots - yes; they're directly in the soil. Potatoes? Well, we live in Northern Ireland and they're locally grown and not chemically tampered with.

"We have some of the best varieties in the world and we're very lucky to have our own fish from unpolluted waters. Organic food is more expensive; hopefully it will come down in price.

"Anyway," she adds, "when people are suffering with cancer, things like that are too much for their heads - oh, do I have to buy organic and so on. That's the point of the book: to help them and their carers create simple, quick, nutritious meals. They don't have the energy to be standing at the kitchen counter for an hour."

The Cancer Focus cookbook contains useful tips on nutrition, food labelling, food safety and store cupboard basics.

Recipes include old favourites such as hearty vegetable soup and salmon and leek tart, along with quinoa salad, vegetable frittata, blueberry pancakes and chai tea.

Jeanne also wrote a special section on breathing and relaxation techniques to help calm the mind, create an inner peacefulness and de-stress the body.

She turned to yoga after receiving treatment for her prescription-drug addiction at the Priory rehab clinic, and practices it daily to help her cope with the lasting effects from the broken back she suffered in a fall from her horse.

"I live with pain every day," she says. "I do have to take medication for the nerve damage - non mind-altering pain relief, but I'm very limited in what I can take. Daily yoga eases some of the pain and helps with muscle spasms. Meditation and breathing techniques help, too.

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland's Well Being Cook Book recently came top in the Northern Ireland heat of the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook awards. It's full of need-to-know tips on how your diet can help when you have cancer and how to stay well in the future.

The book contains a host of recipes and lots of advice on nutrition, along with breathing and relaxation techniques.

"For anyone undergoing any type of cancer treatment, eating a nutritious, balanced diet is hard to do, especially if you have problems with side effects or just don't feel well. The most important thing is to keep up your strength, which may mean changing your diet," said co-author Deirdre Conlon.

"We hope the information and recipes in our book will help you in a practical way to eat well and keep up your energy levels."

Co-authored by chef and yoga expert Jeanne Rankin, with Cancer Focus staff members Niamh McDaid and Deirdre Conlon, the book is on sale now at Cancer Focus NI shops, Amazon and Further info: or tel: 028 9066 3281.

"I have osteoarthritis, too. Avoiding gluten is important for arthritic pain because when wheat is treated, it's very hard to digest, and that takes away our energy and vitality. People think they could never give up bread but there's plenty of gluten-free types available. Sainsbury's do a good range."

The yoga moves in the Well Being book are gentle with many tailored towards those in wheel-chairs.

"I can't do many of the more strenuous moves myself because of my operations - my back is infused with metal," says Jeanne lightly. "What people sometimes forget is that yoga is a holistic healing system. There's so much that can help cancer patients, such as the simple breathing and relaxation techniques I have in the book. They have profound effects on various systems in the body - circulation, digestion, the nervous system.

"I've included simple moves for sick people - I have to know exactly what stage of healing they're at, for my classes. There's a hundred different movements that can be done in a chair. They're very good for MS, too."

She's a firm believer that stress is a huge factor in serious illness. It's something that has affected her badly in the past but she sounds as if she's at peace nowadays. Her ex-husband recently described her as the "most influential" person in his life, and admitted he missed her "enormously" as a sounding board, and for her academic and organisational abilities.

"Yeah," she says in that distinctive Canadian drawl, agreeing that they are still friends. "The divorce is through now, but we'll be co-parents forever."

Would she get married again?

"Not at the moment. I'm learning to live on my own. Paul and I were together for 26 years - this is just a different stage of life for me. It's a big change."

She hasn't been on a horse since her accident but loves animals.

"I've two big dogs and I take them for a walk along the Lagan meadow for an hour every day. Walking in nature is very good for depression - American doctors recommend it. Anything that reduces stress helps, especially yoga.

"Ironically, though, I remember my yoga instructor in London developed a very aggressive form of cancer and she kept saying 'Why me? Why me?' But you have to accept it's a reality and move on and live with it. 'Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth', as the saying goes."

There's no doubt Jeanne is on a spiritual journey. She has the radiance of someone with inner peace and she's a soothing, relaxed conversationalist, with an obvious caring streak.

"I aim to be spiritual person; I aspire to be good," she says. "I do believe in the afterlife, and that there's more to life than what we see around us, but you don't have to be religious to be spiritual.

"You can be both, but they are two different worlds." Jeanne's latest passion is aromatherapy, and she recently completed a year-long course.

"On my God, it really captured my imagination," she admits. "I mix oils for people now to take home and do massage. I do believe that it's better to stay open to possibilities and look and see what's out there, as opposed to having a closed mind and being pessimistic.

"That's what's important to me. That and helping people with their healing."

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