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SAGE Manager Talks Being a Chef While Fighting Breast Cancer

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SAGE Food Service Director Jordan Liker has been a leader at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (SSSAS) in Alexandria, Virginia, since 2017. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. After undergoing surgery and returning to work, she said the transition back into service was challenging, but that she also found support in her SAGE team and the SSSAS community. 

“Adapting is such a part of our jobs here and always in the service of food. I think we handled it well,” Jordan said. “One of the executive assistants for the head of the upper school dropped food off for me each week while I was doing chemotherapy.” 

Jordan said her battle with cancer has affected her personal eating habits, as well as how she approaches food as a chef, especially as a SAGE Manager responsible for providing balanced, nutritious options for students. 

“When I write [my menus], I’m aware, but careful, with how we influence their eating. I try to give a variety and make it fun. I’ll do a tasting of fruits for Lunar New Year, or sneak a black bean brownie or tofu-based vegan Caesar dressing on the menu. I try to offer lots of whole foods and vegetables and less sugary items. I just put a grilled oyster mushroom and chana masala on our middle school menu, and I’m amazed that they went for it!” she said. 

“Being an influence on the fundamentals of balanced eating amongst young kids ... it’s nice to at least feel like I’m making a difference, however small.” 

Read on as Jordan shares her experience, in her own words, being both a chef and fighting breast cancer. 

Cooking has always been my world. I would set up restaurants in my house as a young kid, insisting my parents sit by the front door for a few minutes before seating them. (Come to think of it, they never did pay their tab.) 

For me, food is about memories of my mom’s upbringing in Southeast Asia and all over the United Kingdom. She loved to show us what she grew up eating: nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), colorful prawn crackers or papadums, and red tortoise cakes. Though I’m pretty impressed now about the weird and always nutritious lunches she packed for me, I was more than embarrassed at the time to open steamed quinoa and leftover satay in a room full of sticky PB&Js and Lunchables. It’s because of her, I’m quite certain, I had my first sugar high in a culinary school baking class. 

I took culinary classes all through high school while working in local Connecticut restaurants. One of my first kitchen jobs as a teenager involved weighing out egg whites to order for soufflés, which came in handy years later when I moved to Philadelphia for culinary school. When my name was printed on a restaurant’s pastry menu at the ripe age of 21, I felt like I had finally “made it” as a chef. 

After that, I worked on various lines throughout Philly, cooking and baking. I created the food program for a ballet conservatory and was eventually appointed their head chef. I taught cooking and baking classes in the U.K. to international students and worked personal chef gigs. I taught both small private and large group cooking classes in Philly and D.C. and held executive chef positions for business and industry accounts all over, including GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia, Boeing in Virginia, and Marriott International headquarters in Maryland. 

Now, you can find me living out my full-circle culinary dreams in Old Town Alexandria, just south of D.C. As the Food Service Director for three campuses at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, I cook Jamie Oliver-style school food (sans tears, mostly), taking names (literally) and a catalog of food allergies. 

As a chef, though, no matter how much you prep, you’re trained to expect the unexpected. You work on your worst days and place the well-being of those you feed above your own. 

I learned I was sick during the COVID-19 pandemic. (In fact, I found out I might have breast cancer the same day I found out my job would be put on pause in 2020.) This lump had been overlooked for a few years, and I finally requested imaging. I didn't have any family history of breast cancer, and I didn’t carry the BRCA gene mutations. But a biopsy proved its malignancy a week later, right before a party I was hosting. l made the food and had a good time. Looking back on it now, I think I needed that last distraction before reality set in. 

I scheduled surgery to have a double mastectomy the following month, which was recommended to me to minimize the chances of recurrence. The surgery was traumatic — a nine out of 10-type pain and four weeks of recovery — and I could barely open child-proof medicine bottles. 

Just before I was diagnosed, I had taken on a culinary consulting job for a small meal prep company. I felt pressured to get better so I could get back to work, which is what I’ve advised other women to do in my position. In this situation, for your mental health, it’s important to ignore the phases that your chest and body are going through during recovery. I refused to feel terrible and broken forever, so I focused on the finish line. To me, moving forward was the only option. 

I remember feeling so lucky and unlucky at the same time. Stage 1 and catching it early? Lucky. Not missing out on anything fun or exciting (e.g., weddings, travel, milestones) and work is closed due to a global pandemic? Somewhat lucky. Waiting to publicly announce that I was sick only to find out post-surgery that I actually had a few different kinds of breast cancer? Super unlucky. This now meant chemotherapy, hair loss, and cancer treatments and maintenance for a year. 

There is nothing “pink” or “easy” about breast cancer. It’s not all ribbons, pink shirts, and charity walks. You’re strong and brave because that’s the only choice. You never get used to strangers and doctors telling you that you’re “too young” and providing commentary about an aunt of theirs who died from it. 

Today, all things considered, I’m doing just fine. I’m a full-time chef again and probably the healthiest I’ve ever been. (Cancer recurrence is cut in half with a balanced diet and exercise, something I say to myself while I run on a treadmill.) Navigating this disease is stressful, expensive, and very dependent on where you live and work. I was lucky enough to find an amazing community that really helped me physically, emotionally, and mentally. (Check out The Breasties, an amazing nonprofit specifically catering to the younger women’s cancer community.) 

Cancer made me a stronger person and gave me an incredible perspective on how to live my life. I preach eating real and whole foods and advocating for your health, no matter how “young” you are. Support breast cancer awareness by donating to reputable organizations and getting regular mammograms. 

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