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Chef creates recipes to cope with cancer

Hermantown resident LaVonne Levar shares her recipes online in a beautifully illustrated blog, pureedpzazz.blogspot.com. Recipes are accompanied with photos of bowls, placemats and garnishes that show off the colors of soups and drinks. Her stats show visitors from distant locations as far as Ukraine and New Zealand. Recipes include watermelon gazpacho, classic butternut squash soup, mud slide, garden in a glass and powerful purple pzazz smoothie.

"I've always loved cooking and I've always been an inventive cook," LaVonne said.

Though she is sharing recipes with the world, they aren't for just anyone. They are special dishes she devised in her fight with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (PNET), the same type of cancer that killed Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Though LaVonne's form of pancreatic cancer is extremely rare, she is working for awareness of all forms of pancreatic cancer by helping to organize the Purple Night of Hope and Remembrance this Sunday. (See sidebar on this page.)

The other coordinators of this event are Jenny Falk of Two Harbors, Theresa Grosser of Duluth and Bob Fox, who lives in Carlton and teaches in Duluth. All have lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer.

Because of the tumor on her pancreas, LaVonne has a blockage on her intestines and she is unable to digest many foods, hence the blog name, Pureed Pzazz, and the tagline "Soups, smoothies and savory delights to nourish body and soul."

Many of the ingredients come from her husband Tom's organic garden, which can be seen from the kitchen of the home they have shared for 30 years.

When LaVonne was first diagnosed, she said the doctor told her she had a 50 percent chance of being alive in five years. She responded with, "Why heck, that's just like like every other day," since no one knows whether they will be here tomorrow. The doctor told her she would do well with that kind of attitude.

At the time, her youngest child was age 5 and her oldest 11. She had surgery at Mayo Clinic to remove a tumor the size of a small cantaloupe. "Knowing whether I was going to make it or not was hard," she said.

Now, 16 years later, her children, Caleb, Dan and Sam, are all in their 20s.

She had been director of the speech-language-hearing clinic at the University of Minnesota Duluth for more than 10 years before she was unable to work any longer.

The survival rates for most forms of pancreatic cancer have not changed in over 40 years, with the five-year relative survival rate at a dismal 6 percent, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Tom said of their sons, "They really focused on something bigger than themselves ... It made them sensitive and caring."

When Tom first built the raised beds for their garden, LoVonne said she told him that the wooden boxes looked like oversized caskets. "My husband is an amazing organic gardener. My life depends on it."

LaVonne started the blog in May 2011. "Your blog has surely saved my life," a Wednesday email from a woman in California said. The writer said she has been in the emergency room to have her her stomach pumped from eating regular food and didn't know what to do to get proper nutrition. "Your recipes inspire us all," she wrote.

LaVonne said feedback like that inspires her. "That's what keeps me going," she said.

LaVonne lost 70 percent of her pancreas in her first surgery. As a result, she developed diabetes and takes insulin. She also has to watch her fat intake because she doesn't produce enough pancreatic enzymes to digest fats properly.

Each of her blog posts contains nutritional information on carbs and fats as well as calories, cholesterol, sodium, fiber and protein. "It is imperative for me to know how many carbohydrates are in the foods I eat since I am insulin-dependent," she said. "It is also imperative for me to know how much and what type of fat is in the food I eat so I know how many digestive enzymes I need to take with each meal."

Lavonne says the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and people don't realize something is wrong until they are in an advanced stage.

"Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a 'silent' disease because symptoms are rarely present in its early stages," according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. A study by the network predicts that by 2020, pancreatic cancer will surpass breast and colorectal cancer to become the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. after lung cancer.

1102.F.DBN.Pancreatic Pureed Pzazz blog screen shot.jpg

LaVonne Lavar's son Dan designed the banner for the blog. He is a 2011 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. As an employee at The Wedge Whole Foods Co-Op in Minneapolis, he also shares his parents' passion for food. (Screenshot from Blogger)

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Wearing a purple sweater as purple is the color for pancreatic cancer awareness, LaVonne Lavar displays pages of her recipe and cooking blog at her dining room table in in Hermantown. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)

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The pancreas

The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long, located in the abdomen.

The two main pancreatic hormones are insulin and glucagon.

Together, these two main hormones work to maintain the proper level of sugar in the blood.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Jaundice

Weight loss

Pain

Digestive difficulties

Changes in stools

Blood clots

Diabetes

Ascites (abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen)

Neuroendocrine tumors

Risk factors

Smoking: People who smoke cigarettes are two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people who do not smoke.

Age: Chance of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age

Family History

Chronic pancreatitis

Race (Ethnicity): African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to individuals of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent.

Gender: Slightly more men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women. This may be linked to higher smoking rates in men.

Diabetes

Diet: A diet high in red and processed meats is thought to increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. A diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk.

Obesity: 20 percent increased risk of developing the disease compared to people who are of normal weight.

Source: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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