Elena Schumacher’s life was greatly impacted the day she took a chance and entered the field of oncology. She knew assisting cancer patients—many filled with uncertainty and fear following their diagnosis—would be challenging. But Schumacher’s role as an oncology dietitian meant she could promote how food can be a powerful tool in bringing some comfort to their experience.
Having spent more than a decade caring for this patient population, Schumacher embodies dedication and compassion. In one of her latest ventures, she’s creating content for clients impacted by cancer. She’s also taken her passion and expertise for nutrition a step further by joining Nutrition On Demand’s team. Her new role has her entering the social media world and giving sound nutritional recommendations to Spanish-speaking audiences. In our Q&A with Schumacher, she gives tips for effective nutritional counseling, lays out the path that led her to—and has kept her in—oncology, and describes the 65-acre farm that’s keeping her busy.
Q: Tell us about your new role with Nutrition on Demand.
A: I’m currently working with the team at Cooking Matters, one of Nutrition On Demand’s clients. [Cooking Matters works with communities across the U.S. to help parents and caregivers develop skills for food shopping and cooking healthy on a budget.] Nutrition On Demand is supporting their expansion into Spanish-facing Facebook and Instagram content that highlights simple tips to improve the health of families and children. We’ve been building out a content calendar and developing social media posts that can inspire families.
My father immigrated from Cuba as a teen, so I’ve always been immersed in Cuban-American culture. After working many years in nutrition with clients from a variety of Latin American countries, I was excited to take on the role of developing social media content geared towards Spanish-speaking families with young children.
What was the catalyst that got you excited about nutrition?
There’s a specific memory. When I was in seventh grade science class, we watched a series of educational videos that talked about vitamins and minerals. Ever since then, nutrition has interested me. I went through high school knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I focused specifically on visiting colleges that had nutrition programs.
While in college, did you know if you wanted to eventually specialize in a specific area of nutrition?
No, I remained pretty open to anything. After college, I became a clinical dietitian [for Lehigh Valley Hospital’s AIDS Activities Office in Allentown, Pennsylvania]. My husband took a job in Delaware, and we decided to move there. A job as an oncology dietitian happened to be available.
My primary role was at an outpatient cancer center. I was fairly fortunate that they took a chance on me. I was only out of school for two years with no real oncology experience. They thought I had what it would take to succeed at this job, and I proved them right. It was a steep learning curve with oncology, more so than other roles in dietetics due to all the different medical regimens and tube feedings [needed for patients]. It’s an intellectually challenging field for dietitians.
What were the highlights of working at the cancer center?
I worked there for 10 years and loved it. I enjoyed working with teams: oncologists, speech therapists, radiation oncologists—an entire interdisciplinary team. A big focus of mine was head and neck cancer patients. Their needs are so intense during treatment, and they need a lot of nutritional support. I also conducted a great deal of education for cancer survivors, such as mindful eating classes for people who wanted to make some lifestyle changes. I didn’t have a reason to focus on oncology, but it’s become a big passion of mine since I entered it.
Looking back on your career there, was there a certain patient you interacted with that comes to mind?
I was there about three or four years at that point. There was an esophageal cancer patient, a younger man in his 50s at the time. He was just having a really rough time. We met and talked every couple of days. We figured out a plan for him to meet nutritional needs with the symptoms he was struggling with. He unfortunately ended up passing away. He was such a bright light, just really positive. There were a variety of people in similar situations. You work intensely with them for a long period of time. Sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. That’s hard, but at least you feel you were able to help them when they were at their worst.
Outside of the one-on-one relationships you’ve established, what else do you enjoy about being an RDN?
There’s always something new. I don’t have a great attention span, so I like being involved in a bunch of things, and there’s always new opportunities coming up, new things to learn. I also like teaching to large groups. I teach a plant-based eating class at my current job. [Schumacher currently works as a clinical health coach for a healthcare network.] I enjoy that. I like to make things easy for people and create simple, nutritional tips that are applicable. I always try to bring things back to the basics with clients, encouraging them to eat whole foods and review straightforward ways to include these foods in their dietary patterns. That’s my focus.
Are you still in the oncology world?
I started my own consulting business last year, and have been consulting with Cancer Support Community [a global nonprofit that delivers support and navigation services to patients and families while advocating for and conducting research on cancer patients]. They’re a great organization and have over 175 locations providing cancer support at the community level. They offer a wide variety of programs—support groups, yoga classes, and more. I’ve worked on some of their videos for their Cancer Transitions Program.
If you have any free time, how are you spending it these days?
I have two kids, 6 and 10 years old. I coach softball and am a Girl Scout leader. My family and I now live in an old stone farmhouse built in 1780. We started tapping maple trees last year. It’s a fun outdoor activity that we can share with neighbors and friends. This year, we’ll tap six trees and try to make some maple sugar from the maple syrup. This spring, we put in a garden. Long term, I’d love to incorporate my nutrition practice into the farm.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Fred Durso, Jr.