Through the gleaming windows at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, sunshine tumbles over a seemingly endless field of cotton candy clouds.
Holly Clegg smiles out at the view. Surgery is finished. And while there is pain, there is also joy, laughter and purpose. If Holly forgets this, all she has to do is look up.
Holly’s daughter Haley has pressed an array of photos—grandchildren, friends, even a granddog and travel snapshots—to her hospital wall. There are so many, the doctor chuckled at check-in that she wasn’t moving in for that long.
The pictures are important, though. They tell Holly just how much she is loved and how much living she has yet to do.
Holly was enrolled at MD Anderson as patient number 19 in a study that combines stomach surgery with a type of heated chemotherapy known as HIPEC, or Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemoperfusion, that is pumped directly into the abdomen. Additionally, Holly had eight chemotherapy treatments in the fall. On January 23, doctors administered the HIPEC and removed 90% of her stomach.
Her mindset: Optimistic, always. She is relieved to still have 10% of her stomach. And, she says, since her surgeon told her she has a larger stomach than average, that 10% will enjoy a lot of delicious food.
The Cleggs are a cheery bunch. In the hospital room on this day in late January, chuckles echo off the walls and ring down the halls. Holly, who sports a wide, unforgettable smile, makes friends easily. She usually has a box of her cookbooks handy so she can share her recipes with those she meets.
“I’ve had people say, ‘You all look like you are having so much fun,’” Holly says. “‘You are always smiling.’ And you know what? We are having a good time. We’re not sitting around crying all the time.”
The night Holly was diagnosed, she and her husband, Mike, rushed to the Houston home of Holly’s sister, Ilene Putterman, and her husband, Bart. The Cleggs had an appointment at MD Anderson the next day.
“From the moment we got the diagnosis, they said, ‘We’re opening up Hotel Putterman for the Cleggs,’” says Mike.
The experts referred to the kind of stomach surgery Holly had as a monster. It has more than lived up to that name, leaving behind an 18-inch incision and pain that wakes her in the night.
“It’s been brutal,” Holly says. “But I try to keep a smile on my face and keep going, pushing forward.”
Stomach cancer is rare. So it was a shock when Holly was diagnosed after feeling overly full for about 10 days. “Less than 1% of women have stomach cancer in a lifetime. I had no family history and no risk factors.”
There is cruel irony to a foodie and passionate chef getting a stomach disease. Did Holly ever ask why me? Is she angry?
“I have chosen not to do why me? I have not done that at all,” she says. “But maybe it is me because I am someone who can make a difference for stomach cancer.”
Mike had the opposite take, at first. When the diagnosis came in, he was so mad, he wanted to pound the walls down.
But then he remembered his wife’s strength. Her unique ability to bring hope to others, he realized, is the very quality that will give her the stamina to beat this disease and transform it into something good.
“She’s mainly worried about ‘how can I help somebody other than Holly Clegg?’” he says. “She always just wants to help. A lot of times, she is helping people she doesn’t know and will never meet.”
Holly loves to get letters from people telling her how much her cookbooks—she has sold 1.5 million copies—have supported their health. Her books help busy people cook and eat well. She also has titles that are specifically for individuals who are in treatment for cancer, diabetes or arthritis.
“Cancer just happens to be part of her life going forward,” Mike says. “And I think she will use this to help thousands and thousands of more people.
Holly has already gotten involved. There are two stomach cancer foundations in America: Debbie’s Dream Foundation and the No Stomach for Cancer Foundation (NSCF). In November, though she was deep in the process of chemo, Holly garnered the energy to get dressed up and speak at the NSCF’s symposium in Houston, sharing what she’s learned about nutrition and how to eat without a stomach.
“What I said there, and truly I’ve learned this, is cancer does not discriminate,” she says. “But I do believe, because of my healthy lifestyle and healthy eating, it’s helped me to be able to fight cancer better.”
Even when she’s not able to eat much, Holly’s passion for food has never ebbed. She still wants to know what her family members ordered when they go out to eat. And though she’s had to settle, at times, for just smelling delicious fare, she never makes her friends or family feel guilty for enjoying it in her presence.
Last fall, during chemo, she bustled about the kitchen, hooked up to a feeding tube she nicknamed “Cookie,” which she kept in a sporty backpack, stirring up gingerbread muffins and chicken and dumplings. That’s how she’s always coped with stress, says Ilene, who doesn’t much care for the kitchen.
“Growing up, she was always cooking,” Ilene says. “When she had exams or finals and got nervous, she would whip up a cake.”
Holly used her own cookbook, Eating Well Through Cancer, throughout her chemo, and, to her delight, she rediscovered several recipes that she’d forgotten about.
Her favorite? Chicken with Lemon Caper Sauce.
“I hadn’t made it in 15 years,” she chuckles. “But since I got diagnosed, we have made it 15 times.”
She also loves her Easy Potato Soup.
On December 3, when she rang the bell at MD Anderson to celebrate the end of chemo, Holly’s Baton Rouge girlfriends made the trek to surprise her. They came ready to party, loudly, and bearing a huge sign that read, “We are a whisk away from beating cancer!”
They were spurred on by the countless times that Holly has been there for them.
“Holly is such a positive, upbeat person,” says her good friend, Karen Stephens, whom Holly refers to as her Chief Fun Officer. “We would do anything to keep that fabulous personality of hers in a positive mode.”
As she recovers from surgery, Holly is again on the feeding tube and limited to teaspoons of broth and slivers of crackers, noodles and chicken. She’s looking forward to adding variety as her digestive tract heals. And she will no doubt be sharing dishes with family, friends and fans. Holly will know more about how she has responded to the chemo and surgery when she gets another scan in three to four months and will stay in the Houston area for the time being. No matter what, she will keep writing, testing recipes, and seeking joy.
When Holly begins to describe the number of people who have circled around her the past few months, she wells up with tears. There’s her mom and her husband, as well as three grown, successful children who fly in and out of Houston every chance they can to help, plus six energetic grandchildren who cheer her up and tons of hilarious and loving friends.
“That probably makes me lose my composure,” she says. “I joke that I don’t have time to be depressed because they don’t leave me alone, but in all honesty, they have made a huge difference.”