When Audrey Caspar-Clark graduated high school her path forward wasn’t exactly clear. She was interested in becoming a midwife, but she found education opportunities to be scarce, and instead of going straight to college, she found herself passing her days working in a restaurant. As she saved money for a European backpacking trip, she started to become more and more interested in the rituals of food: the quiet charms of making and enjoying a meal. “I was becoming inspired to cook and share what I made with friends,” she recalls, “and that interest deepened when I finally got to Europe and discovered the wonders and cultural importance of regional cuisine.”
After excelling at culinary school (“I loved the nutrition classes most”) Audrey spent ten years in the world of hospitality. She also got married and started a family. “Having kids was a lightbulb moment (with nutrition),” she shares. “As I went through pregnancies and breastfeeding I found a new appreciation for how incredible the human body is – and a new appreciation for how little we truly understand about human nutrition.”
Newly inspired by the practical nutritional experiences of motherhood, Caspar-Clark returned to college as a continuing education student to learn more about how food influences the human body. After years of part-time schooling she obtained undergraduate and Master’s degrees, and today, she works as a registered dietician at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center where she spends her days helping cancer patients navigate the relationship between nutrition, treatment, and post-treatment quality of life.
Q: What sparked a passion for nutrition, cancer patients, and survivors?
A: When my children were very young I was simultaneously watching over them and also helping care for my father who had been diagnosed with head and neck cancer. As he lost his ability to enjoy the taste of food, my toddlers were having their first experiences with a wide array of new foods, tastes, and textures – all of which fostered a growing interest in human nutrition. During that time I became a lay lactation counselor and enrolled as an undergrad nutrition major at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.
I was dealing with two aspects of life, raising my children, and watching my dad struggle with treatment. This was the genesis for my interest in working with cancer patients and cancer survivors and recognizing the need for registered dietitians to work with the oncology population.
Q: How has your education influenced your career path and where do you practice now?
A: Culinary school in Rhode Island sparked my interested in the role of diet and health. Fortuitously, Immaculata University was very close to where I was living and had an excellent undergraduate nutrition program as well as a master’s program (with a dietetic internship). I split my time between raising three young children and earning and part-time schooling to complete my nutrition undergrad Bachelor of Science and Master’s of Nutrition Education. I am forever grateful to the wonderful instructors and advisors who nurtured and guided me along the way.
I was extremely fortunate to have my clinical internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; the acuity of the patient population was complex and the RDs who precepted me during my internship were brilliant and compassionate (and patient). This was an amazing and exhilarating time for me, and I secured a position in the Clinical Nutrition Support Services Department.
Eighteen years later, my heart and nutrition training have stayed with oncology. I’ve specialized in outpatient care for the past 13 years.
Q: How does your outpatient work at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center and Radiation Oncology, serve the cancer community?
A: Currently, I work with patients including those with head and neck cancers, gynecologic oncology, cancers of the central nervous system, patients with sarcomas and those undergoing palliative radiation. I have covered all types of cancer patients, working both as an inpatient clinical RD and in my current role as an outpatient RD. Our oncology nutrition services are available free to all cancer patients of Penn providers. We also provide nutrition programs at community outreach events (e.g., colorectal cancer awareness) and at the various Penn Medicine Focus on Cancer events.
Q: How extensively do you utilize AICR’s resources?
A: AICR is my primary resource! I have used its website and materials for at least ten years. As an oncology dietitian, I love trying out many of the recipes for myself, too. We share the website link for AICR with our patients via our electronic medical records patient message portal and when we provide nutrition classes and webinars. AICR’s Healthy10 Challenge is one of our go-to resources for folks looking to make positive changes in their diet and lifestyle. I always share the information on AICR’s website and from WCRF/AICR’s Continuous Update Project (CUP) report data when I am teaching at the Penn School of Nursing as well as when I provide nutrition programs for our staff. We also purchase many of the AICR materials to give to our patients. These materials are colorful and engaging and patients and caregivers love them!
Q: How do the cancer patients and survivors that you work with benefit from AICR’s resources?
A: AICR’s resources are essential to meeting my professional goal of providing evidence-based nutrition information that is reliable and easily understood by all kinds of folks. The combination of science and an appreciation for the culinary aspects of a plant-forward diet enables me to help patients and their caregivers with wonderful options for improving their diet and wellbeing.
Q: Is there any one story in particular that you can share about AICR’s work helping a member of your community?
A: Recently I met a patient who had just started radiation and chemotherapy for head and neck cancer. This course of treatment is one of the most arduous, fatiguing and nutritionally challenging in cancer care. This patient was well nourished at the start of his treatment and extremely motivated to improve his diet during and after treatment. I provided him with AICR’s brochures and directed him to the website so that he could utilize all the valuable information there. He was particularly interested in learning about portion sizes and nutrient information and is planning on implementing some strategies to increase his intake of plant foods.
Q: How have you seen AICR’s resources impact the community outside Penn Medicine?
A: We share the brilliant research from the AICR conferences with patients and community members who want to improve their overall health. It’s easy to put the science of good nutrition into personal action and raise public awareness. Patients and their loved ones are frequently bombarded with information coming from a wide array of sources. Some of these sources are unreliable and occasionally predatory with intent to sell dietary supplements or other therapies that may be risky. It is so important to have credible, evidence-based information that is visually attractive and easy to navigate like the resources from AICR.
Q: How does the staff at Penn Medicine benefit from AICR’s resources?
A: The AICR resources provide our staff with a wonderful variety of information and interactive programs for their own purposes as well as for their patients. Often, our social workers, nurses and other support personnel are interested in improving their own health and are delighted when they see all the colorful and useful information on the AICR website. AICR’s Healthy10 Challenge provides a terrific opportunity for all of us to get involved in our own health.
One of our professional missions is to provide our patients with evidence-based information and interventions that help improve the quality of life of our cancer patients. AICR helps us do this!
Share your Story
If you share our passion for cancer prevention and quality survivorship, we would love to hear from you. Whatever your experience has been — whether you are a patient, caregiver, or loved one — AICR would be happy to add your story to this tapestry.