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Authority Magazine

Hans Rueffert: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

SLOW DOWN! At the time of my diagnosis, I was at the top of my profession: television gigs, speaking engagements, cooking classes, a packed restaurant, etc. But I enjoyed none of it, constantly pushing myself for more more more! I took no time for myself and little time for my family. Stomach cancer forced me to slow down, breathe deeply, and discover the truths in every cliche I had ever heard. I now take time to walk daily, play pickleball, write, NAP (I come from a proud line of nap-takers!), garden, and even cook for the sheer pleasure of creating delicious food.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hans Rueffert.

Hans Rueffert is known by many titles, world-renowned “chef without a stomach,” author, speaker, father, husband, advocate and survivor, but his favorite title is “teacher.” Since being diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer in 2005, his journey has driven him to take risks and thrive as a community leader not only in his hometown but all across the nation.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

I was raised in the small town of Jasper, Georgia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My family owned and operated a historic railroad hotel called the Woodbridge Inn, where we lived just 13 steps above its restaurant. I’ve shucked oysters and washed dishes in my pajamas more times than I could possibly count. My sister Sonja and I were always “on-call” and would often take a break from our homework to run downstairs and help wherever we were needed. I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by food, its preparation, its service, and its pageantry. Our family proudly hosted birthdays, wakes, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and many other life celebrations, and we helped our guests create each of those memories in our home. I consider myself a lifelong hospitalitarian! My childhood truly led me to where I am today. It’s the cornerstone of everything I do, from being the culinary ambassador at The Old Mulehouse restaurant in the very community that started it all for me to public speaking, all across the nation, sharing what I’ve learned in hopes of helping others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

No matter how treacherous it appears, every mountain is climbed in the same way — one step at a time.

Throughout the past 16 years of my cancer journey, I’ve faced seemingly impossible challenges, including chemo, radiation, multiple surgeries, leaks, repairs, IVs, feeding tubes, and the list goes on. Every single one of those obstacles seemed, at the moment, insurmountable, but as a man with no stomach, I think about those challenges the same way I would eat a whale: one bite at a time.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

It all started about two weeks after I finished taping the finale of season one of The Next Food Network Star. I thought I was having a heart attack. I’d been feeling poorly for several weeks, but all of my symptoms could easily be attributed to stress. I had just wrapped up three weeks in Manhattan, competing at the highest level against tremendously talented chefs, so it was easy to dismiss my fatigue, digestion issues, reflux, difficulty swallowing, etc.

I was working at a small television station at the time, hosting their daily news program called North Georgia Now. After I recorded the desk portion of the show, I would edit various news stories for its 6:00 p.m. airing. On this particular day, I suddenly became confused, the left side of my body started going numb, and I was experiencing severe tunnel vision. I decided to drive myself to the ER, some 20 miles south of the studio. On the way, I started losing consciousness and reluctantly pulled over and called 911. I told the operator I was having a heart attack, which I honestly thought was happening. Once at the hospital, bloodwork quickly revealed that I must be bleeding internally; my iron level was like an infant’s. After an endoscopy, a bleeding tumor was discovered at the GI junction, where the stomach meets the esophagus.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

I honestly felt like I was dying… that everything was shutting down, system by system. My thoughts were more about my children, my wife, and my parents. I was scared, but I was more worried about THEM than about myself.

How did you react in the short term?

My older sister Sonja had passed away from metastatic breast cancer just ten months before my diagnosis. As naive as it sounds, I stupidly thought that since she had cancer, somehow that meant I wouldn’t get cancer. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, right? So I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that I now had cancer, and specifically stomach cancer. I’m a huge fan of irony and “gallows humor,” but the notion of a chef with stomach cancer just seemed too much to DIGEST (pun fully intended).

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Once I partnered with an oncologist, I wanted to know as much as I could learn about my particular disease. I craved facts, anecdotes, what-if scenarios, and best-case scenarios. As I sat on the exam table, eyes half-focused on the wall in front of me, my oncologist told me that I had roughly a 10% chance of surviving my stage 3B, gastric adenocarcinoma. I considered the wall that stretched out in front of me: a 90% solid wall and 10% door. Right then and there, I performed a mental paradigm shift. Rather than focusing on the 90% chance that I would die (the wall), I would choose to focus on that 10% chance of slipping through that door. I chose optimism then and continue to choose it now, every single day.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I was lucky to have a “mentor” named Jim Z, who reached out to me early in my cancer journey. Jim was considerably older than me, but he was five years ahead of me on the path toward surviving a very similar diagnosis. Jim Z is still surviving and thriving and continues to be a friend, mentor, and inspiration. Because of Jim, I volunteer in two peer-to-peer patient support networks and serve on the board of the Gastric Cancer Foundation. Newly diagnosed patients need a lighthouse to help them navigate the treacherous waters ahead; they need to be buoyed up on a sea of success stories from those of us who’ve traversed those waves.

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

SLOW DOWN! At the time of my diagnosis, I was at the top of my profession: television gigs, speaking engagements, cooking classes, a packed restaurant, etc. But I enjoyed none of it, constantly pushing myself for more more more! I took no time for myself and little time for my family. Stomach cancer forced me to slow down, breathe deeply, and discover the truths in every cliche I had ever heard. I now take time to walk daily, play pickleball, write, NAP (I come from a proud line of nap-takers!), garden, and even cook for the sheer pleasure of creating delicious food.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

Growing up, my parents listened to audio cassettes from a motivational speaker named Zig Ziglar. As a young man in the backseat of our family wagon, Ziglar’s words often became white noise and I missed the point. After my diagnosis, after I’d been shown the sand in my life’s hourglass, after spending time with a mentor and subsequently being a mentor myself, one of old Zig’s valuable lessons finally took root. You get what YOU want out of life by helping others get what THEY want out of life.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

As patients, there’s very little we can genuinely control as we navigate our way through our “new normal” in life. One of the few things that we can actually control is how we fuel our machines meaning how we nourish our bodies. I now spend the majority of my time teaching and empowering patients and caregivers to take control of their nutrition; to fully embrace the connection between what we EAT and how we FEEL. I’ve been told that my enthusiasm for food is contagious, so I use that, along with a healthy dose of humor to try and encourage, inspire, educate and empower patients and their caregivers alike.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

Being more cerebral than physical (I was playing Dungeons and Dragons in the library while the rest of the class attended football pep rallies), I’ve never connected with the term “FIGHTING CANCER.” I think of it more like an endurance run or an obstacle course. You overcome this disease one grueling step at a time, with good nutrition and rest. I pushed myself too hard in the early days, thinking of rest as “weak time.” One of my doctors finally gave me permission to rest, stating that the body’s immune system goes to work when we give it a chance to rest. It’s a lesson I wish I’d learned sooner and one that I share with anyone who will listen.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  • Slow down! When I was first diagnosed, I felt like the Grim Reaper himself was chasing me, and I ran through each day hellbent on getting as much out of my time as I possibly could. The truth was, I was running myself to exhaustion. My family took a trip to Walt Disney World just three weeks after my final round of combined chemo/radiation therapy, and I was simply too weak to do our normal mad-dash through the parks. Once I actually slowed down, we found that we got more out of our time with our family, not less. We discovered hidden magic and details that we would typically rush past in our hurry to race to the next attraction. From that point forward, I try to SLOW DOWN and enjoy each experience as it comes along. QUALITY over QUANTITY.
  • Establish attainable goals. All too often, we tend to push the PAUSE button on our lives when we’re diagnosed with cancer. At the other extreme, some patients create exotic “Bucket List” agendas, setting expensive or unrealistic goals that even Elon Musk would have difficulty achieving. On the advice of a friend and with the help of my family, I created small, achievable, accountable goals that were meaningful; things like having a visit with extended family members, going to the movies, reading a good book, playing board games with friends. Setting achievable goals gives you some things to look forward to, plus a much needed feeling of accomplishment when you complete them.
  • Watch comedies, not dramas. A fellow patient told us early on, “When life gets serious, watch comedies!” The first couple of years were truly touch and go, and life was certainly serious on a level that Hollywood could never hope to portray. Rather than adding to the seriousness of life, comedy series and movies offered a rare escape from the gravity of my reality, a much needed distraction. It was a shared experience that gave my caregivers a respite as well. Everyone could use a good laugh from time to time, right?
  • Exercise a little more each day. I awoke from my first major surgery feeling like I’d just been torn apart by a great white shark, then thrown back together with hot glue and a staple gun. I felt beyond terrible. So when my doctor told me that I had to get up and walk around the hospital a bit, I honestly thought he was delusional. How could I even stand up, much less walk? But with some help and some verbal encouragement, I eventually got to my feet, mitigated my collection of drainage tubes, and made a tedious, seemingly impossible stroll to the end of the hall and back. The next morning, I did the same walk, but a little with a little more pep and a tad more stability. That afternoon, I went a little farther; that evening, a little more. Bit by bit, day by day, my body responded to the gradual increase in physical exercise, sending a crucial message to all systems that WE WILL GET STRONGER. You won’t hop off of the surgical table and run a marathon, but you WILL get stronger, step by step, day by day, week by week.
  • EAT WELL! Your body is your engine, and it’s up to you to keep it running at maximum efficiency. You may not be able to control your genetics or your diagnosis, but you CAN control what kind of “fuel” you put into your “engine.” Pay attention to how you feel after each meal or snack. Keep a food journal to help you recognize which foods made you feel better and which ones made you feel worse. If you’re like most people, you’ve been thinking about eating better for a while now. Use the “opportunity” of your diagnosis to be the catalyst that finally pushes you to start taking care of your body, and that begins with what you put in it. Eat well, be well!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I’ve literally witnessed grocery shoppers obsess about the ingredients and additives in their pets’ foods yet ignore the labels as they fill their carts with “food” for their families. Without being negative or instilling a sense of fear about what we shouldn’t eat, I’d love to help continue the movement that focuses on and celebrates the foods we perhaps should be eating. Let’s emphasize the absolute connection between what we eat and how we feel. Let’s teach people that their bodies are truly their engines, and we need to power them with the proper fuel if we hope to get the quality mileage out of life that we all deserve.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

Hmm, this one was a tricky question for me, almost everyone that comes to mind has already passed, and I admire their impact on the world during their time on this earth. BUT I’ve always admired Stephen Fry and would love to grab a meal with him. He is intelligent, compassionate, grounded, witty, and full of “joie de vivre.” Those are traits that I strive for on a daily basis.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My personal website: www.Hanscooks.com

Podcast: www.butidigestpodcast.com

The Gastric Cancer Foundation: www.gastriccancer.org

The Old Mulehouse: oldmulehouse.com

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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