Earlier this year, a dear family friend, who is like a second mother to me, received news she had early signs of cancer. Her doctor told her it was too early to tell, and that she would need to wait it out and see if it would develop at her next exam. He encouraged her to be mindful of her stress levels and her nutrition.
“Nutrition? How am I even supposed to know where to start?” she asked me.
I knew then that I had to find someone who would not only make it easier to understand foods that impact cancer development, but could also give her reassuring guidance during such a scary and uncertain time.
With her specialty in working with cancer patients, I knew right away that I would reach out to Stephanie McKercher of The Grateful Grazer. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to see her work firsthand as she guided someone I love towards hope. By letting my friend know that there is always a positive direction to move forward in…just as long as you try. Thank you, Steph, for all that you do! :)
What was the very first memory where you knew you wanted to help others with their nutrition?
I first thought about becoming a nutritionist during my first semester of undergrad classes at Wisconsin. I took an introductory nutrition class and loved everything about it!
But, at the time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer (so wrong!) and thought of nutrition as more of a hobby.
A couple of years after graduation, while working full time in the insurance industry, I was constantly reading about food and nutrition. (Even at work!) I finally realized I could no longer deny my passion for food. I needed to take the leap.
That must have been so exhilarating when you felt that need to take the leap! Where did you head next?
I quit my job, moved to Chicago and decided to pursue my graduate degree in nutrition. I haven’t looked back since – it’s the best decision I ever made!
How did you get you start in your specialty of helping cancer patients?
I ended up getting an internship at an integrative cancer treatment center in Chicago during my last semester of grad school. I knew I wanted to work in integrative nutrition and learn more about the holistic approach, so it was a great fit.
I loved everything about the internship rotation – I got to work one-on-one with highly motivated patients who had a good basic understanding of nutrition, cook healthy plant-based food, and lead cooking demonstrations to help others get excited about healthy eating.
The cancer treatment center offered me a full time job once my internship was complete and I jumped at the opportunity. Over time, I began to see amazing changes in the patients I worked with and realized that beyond integrative nutrition, I also had a huge passion for helping cancer patients.
Was there anything that you noticed having to change in your counseling/coaching style to accommodate cancer patients? Was there anything in particular that you felt that experience helped you become a better dietitian?
Interestingly, most of the people I worked with before my time at the cancer clinic were less motivated, ate lots of processed foods, and weren’t very compliant with my recommendations.
Once I began working with more cancer patients, I realized that many of them were not only incredibly motivated, but actually incredibly fearful of food and the potential of food to “cause” cancer.
I came across a lot of orthorexia and realized that I needed to shift my style of counseling to be more supportive of overall wellness, emotional health, and stress management. I often found myself providing motivational support and working to liberalize diets, instead of “taking food away.”
I definitely feel this experience has made me a better dietitian. I pride myself in working from a balanced, realistic, and approachable perspective. I want to inspire changes that are lifelong (and actually enjoyable) for my clients.
Helping people with cancer has really helped me learn to value and inspire whole-hearted living.
How did that experience lead you to starting a private practice?
I knew from the beginning that private practice was my ultimate goal but I never expected it to happen so soon. After less than two years at the cancer center, I realized that I had already acquired a good amount of clinical experience, including some complicated cases, and I felt pretty confident in my abilities to help others independently.
I was also ready to move out of the Midwest and set up base in Colorado. (A longtime dream for my husband and me.) I also realized that I preferred to choose my own projects and ways of doing things. Being an entrepreneur became a very real dream primarily because I felt like I could do my best work on my own.
After our wedding last July, my husband and I decided to go for it. My husband was able to move his current position to Boulder and it just felt like the next logical step for us.
Your blog “The Grateful Grazer” really captures your voice and gave me a sense of how nurturing you are with clients. It was a big reason why I reached out to you for my friend! :)
What was behind the inspiration of your blog, and how has it helped you in connecting with new clients for your private practice?
Inspiration for my blog came from all around me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work with every single person one-on-one, so I wanted to find a way to share my knowledge and the work I was doing with a bigger audience. I wanted to share my love of cooking and show that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated.
A few of my clients have contacted me just because they were familiar with my blog but most come to me from other referrers. Most potential clients do take a look at my website before calling and many have told me that they chose to contact me because my blog and website were done well.
I also see my blog as a form of communication with current clients - I can pass along links to provide more detailed answers to their questions and recipes that can help them make good choices. They also get to hear from me more in between sessions.
What are a few important lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to share with other Experts who are starting out their private practice?
I’m still in my first year, so I have so much to learn myself, but I have already picked up on a few important lessons:
It’s important to stay connected with others. I work from home, which can get a little lonely, so I love connecting with other RDs virtually and by attending local events whenever I can.
Time management, organization, and work/life balance are so important. As an entrepreneur, there are always more projects to be done. I try to help myself out by staying organized, developing systems, and trying not to work for more than 8 hours a day. (Still working on that last one, though...it’s a struggle.)
Follow your passions. I have built my practice around the aspects of nutrition that I love most. (Vegetarian/vegan diets, oncology nutrition, cooking, writing, photography, etc.) It’s immensely rewarding and it never really feels like “work.” I recommend focusing on what you love most about nutrition and then determining how you can build a business around these passions.