Deconstructing the ‘Cancer Experience’

I am writing this blog post on the first Tuesday that would have been a ‘chemo day’. A day when my stomach would have spent each long, drawn-out hour tying itself in knots like a game of Cats Cradle, never able to come to a conclusion and finally detangle itself. It is the first Tuesday that I am able to peal my eyes away from my phone, to enjoy a leisurely walk back to the station in the late Spring sunshine, and to finally place a peaceful head on my pillow, happily conceding myself to an uninterrupted slumber rather than waiting in desperate anticipation for the worries to subside.

Though we have been celebrating the end of Marge’s chemotherapy since her final session, and the relief we all felt on that day cannot be underplayed, this feeling of elation and freedom is unique. It is amazing how much emotion gets poured into the mental preparation before a session, how both Marge as the ‘patient’ and the family as the ‘support network’ can so easily become disconnected with reality and ourselves as we mechanically go through the motions, clambering over each hurdle and doing our best to overcome every side-effect. Almost like a hamster in its wheel, we knew and were weary of the repetitious road in front of us but remained arduous in our efforts to reach the end. But it’s only once that whirlwind motion stops that your head can finally stop spinning, you can take a long, deep breath and get back to some kind of regularity.

It’s in these moments of stillness that you gain a certain clarity. You are finally able to to stop and reflect on your experience, for all of its highs and lows. I have learnt a tremendous amount over the past four months or so, about cancer, chemotherapy and its impact, nutrition, but also myself and how I deal with stress and loved ones going through difficulty. Although I am fully aware that cancer affects everyone differently, that treatments and reactions to those treatments vary enormously, I thought it could be useful, or at least reassuring, to write a quick list of my most important ‘lessons’.One of the main reasons I started to write this blog was to potentially be able to help: dealing with cancer is incredibly isolating, but there are others going through the same things, experiencing the same pain and difficulties; you are not alone.

Lesson 1: The importance of food for recovery 

Food is an incredibly powerful and potent force, both physically and mentally. Putting nutritious and wholesome food in your body, that assists the healing process and fills you with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, means that you will be in the best position possible to fight any ailment that you are confronted with. You don’t have to spend a fortune on the most fashionable superfoods either (although I am the first to admit I am a sucker for these foods trends), everyday ingredients and cupboard staples can be just a rich in their nutritional benefits. Healthy eating should concentrate on keeping things colourful and varied and on taking things back to basics. Humans evolved to eat whole foods that exist in nature, not ingredients made in labs. Quality, natural and minimal ingredients are the way forward, not just for cancer patients, but for everyone.

This wholesome approach will also impact mind-set as well. Knowing that you are filling your body with goodness makes you feel more positive and that you are better equipped to fight disease. Marge has told me many times how much it helps her stay determined, that she maintains these habits even when I am not there as she knows how much effort I am putting in and the beneficial effects this effort is having. Her body is as strong and prepared as it can be and this has a knock-on effect on her mental preparations as well.

Not only this but eating meals as a family has offered Marge an experience that she can share in when she feels like an ‘other’, like she is different from the rest of us. It brought the family closer together, it is a constant in a turbulent time that we can all rely on. Everything tastes better with company, so when your tastebuds are marred, social meals become increasingly important.

Lesson 2: There is no ‘right approach’ when it comes to chemo and cancer treatment 

No matter how much research and reading you do, how thoroughly you trawl through leaflets and books and websites, every cancer patient is different. Yes, you can prepare yourself for the various side-effects, make things as comfortable as possible, and equip yourself with the knowledge with how to best cope, but this will most likely all go out the window. Where needed and necessary, you should approach the whole experience as you should and approach your food: organically. Everyone will experience a different combination of effects, will respond differently to the physical and mental burden of chemotherapy and will require a different approach. React as best you can to each moment and don’t panic if you feel useless. This is inevitable. Just remember you are not useless, and you should never underestimate the impact even the smallest of actions will make.

Lesson 3: Understanding senses beyond taste and how vital they are to the eating experience

Taste is generally the first thing you think of when it comes to eating. If you cook a meal for someone, of course you want their response to be that it’s “delicious”, “flavoursome” or (if they’re feeling particularly excitable) “a delight on the palate”. For so many, this is their single focus, their be-all and end-all; it is a luxury that many of us take for granted. Yet when this luxury is taken away and taste is no longer the heavy-weight of the senses, you realise how much joy its close cousins, mouthfeel, smell and sight are. A meal that provides contrast with enjoyable and interesting textures, alluring aromas and beautiful, vibrant colours adds intrigue and pleasure where taste may be lacking. In fact, these elements also play a vital role in delivering that all important flavour; the senses work in unison, so if you concentrate in creating an impact with the textures, smells and appearances of your meals, you will undoubtedly bolster the flavour.

Lesson 4: Cooking is great therapy

I have always loved to cook and find the actual physicality of actions such as stirring, slicing, chopping, and kneading incredibly therapeutic. But its sanative properties go far beyond that. Cooking Marge delicious, healing meals is giving me a purpose, a motivation and an aim. I have been able to maintain an element of control when I am completely out of my depth, drowning under the weight of new, uncharted concerns. I can feel like I am making a difference, no matter how small, when so much is out of my hands.

Yet it is not just therapy for me. Safe in the comfort that she is being supported in an all-round, holistic way, Marge has no doubt remained calmer than she would have without this subtle support. Of course, this does not have to come in the form of cooking, but alleviating everyday responsibilities and mundane concerns, no matter how tiny, has a huge impact and will make the whole experience so much less overwhelming. To use a common metaphor – the pebble of responsibility may be small, but the ripples will be both wide and long-lasting.

Lesson 5: How supportive and lovely other people are

The support Marge has received so far has been absolutely phenomenal. It has completely blown me away. Aside from the many bunches of flowers and gifts and baked goods she has received, it is also the diamonds of wisdom, gems of humour and coins of condolence that have made such a difference to Marge’s experience. Friends are precious and so many of Marge’s friends have shown themselves to be absolute treasures. I know she has probably thanked all of them personally, but I also want to say the biggest thank you to all of Mum’s wonderful friends (in case they are reading) for their continued support. x

Given I have just deconstructed the past four months, I thought it fitting to ‘toast’ this with a recipe for a deconstructed sushi bowl. Simple, vibrant and light ingredients – a perfect reflection of my new mood and a fresh approach to the next stage. Bring it on.

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Recipe: Deconstructed Sushi Bowl (served on a plate…)

Serves 4.

  • 2 tbsp Japanese rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 200g mixed radishes, finely sliced
  • 200g white crab meat
  • 2 tsp wasabi paste
  • 2 tbsp crème fraîche
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 200g mango, finely diced
  • 4 tbsp finely diced red onion
  • Large handful finely chopped coriander leaves
  • 200g quinoa
  • 2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • Large handful pea shoots
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

Method.

  1. Toast the quinoa in a dry saucepan until it turns a darker golden brown and begins to pop. Slowly add double the volume of water and let it come to the boil. Cover and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 mins until all the water is absorbed.
  2. Whisk the vinegar, honey and a pinch of salt in a bowl; toss in the radishes and set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the crab, wasabi, crème fraîche and lime zest and juice, then stir through the mango, onion and coriander; season to taste.
  4. Toss with the cooked quinoa with the tamari or soy sauce and marinating liquid from the radishes; divide between bowls.
  5. Arrange the crab mixture, avocado, radishes and cress on top. Sprinkle over the seeds and serve alongside some steamed/stir-fried veg, if liked.

Giving Cancer a Kick

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With the passing of time comes certain assurances, certain ‘definites’ that we know the seasons will bring. Now fully into May, the trees are turning lush and verdant, blossom petals open out gracefully to bask in warmth of the Spring sun, and birds’ gentle melodies gradually crescendo as the days roll on, welcoming the lighter mornings with glee and gratification. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about time ticking forward is its element of predictability; we know what gifts each season has to offer and we can look forward at the months to come in the safety of expectation.

In a similar and strange kind of way, the predictability of Marge’s reaction to chemotherapy brings with it a certain reassurance; we know her reactions and, in turn, how we need to respond. At first she is abound with energy as the steroids pulse through her body (cue Marge completing niggling DIY jobs and overdue spring cleaning), then after a few days her buoyancy begins to sink, her vitality is aggressively rung out and the colour drains from her cheeks dragging with it her zeal and vigour. By the weekend, a horizontal position is her default position and we all brace ourselves for the most difficult few days.

Far from a pleasant routine, but at least we are familiar with the pattern. The whole experience would be so much worse if these side effects were random and sporadic, giving us no time to prepare both mentally and physically. The monotony of the journey has become almost a comfort and no more so in this last round. Marge may be feeling at her worst, but her worst is a fleeting condition, a 4/5 day period that will hopefully soon be banished to memory. It is a weird concept to comprehend, feeling grateful for the regularity of ‘sickness’, yet it seems fitting given the whole idea of chemotherapy is incredibly paradoxical: that something that is supposed to be healing can cause so much anguish.

There is no denying that the systematic repetition of chemotherapy offers a strange solace, taking away some of the fear and uncertainty. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that life should be lived in the safety of routine, sometimes the most uplifting events are those that come as a surprise. On those days when leaving the house isn’t an option and you are confined to sedated activities, each second ticks by with painful tedium, as you wait in keen anticipation for the next stage. Unexpected events that pull you out of the uniform, almost slumber-like state are a saviour, a welcome distraction from chemo’s rigid timetable.

Last week, just as the side-effects were beginning to kick in, we decided to put that notion into practice and my younger brother made a trip home from University (in the middle of his finals no less) to surprise Marge. Despite her lack of energy, her feelings of joy instantly recharged her batteries, releasing the colour back into her cheeks and it was amazing to see her leap up off the sofa to give Lewis a big bear hug and a giant smacker on his cheek – the ‘welcome home’ every young man dreams of!

Given that the anticipation is particularly poignant in this last round, we were lucky that Lewis’s return home was not the only interruption over the last few days. Though not a sudden surprise – this one had been brewing for the last 9 months and just recently came to a head – the talking point of the family has been Leicester City winning the league. Though the only real football fans are the boys of the family, the excitement caused by this unforeseen event has ricocheted through the family and into our surrounding circles. Text after email and phone call came in congratulating my Dad on Leicester’s success (for all that effort he put in!) and, as Marge teased, her chemo was very much an after-thought with most messages reading something along the lines of: “Well done to Leicester, and I hope chemo goes OK!”

Again, we find ourselves in a strange position. Should Marge not feel slightly snubbed by the fact that she isn’t the main subject of these messages? Well, no. The fact that she isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds is a relief. Life is slowly returning to how it was, with more trivial news and casual chat making up the majority of conversation. Cancer is now on the bench and football talk has, amazingly, given her a sense of pre-chemo normality in a period a exhausting abnormality and weirdness.

To celebrate both Leicester’s footballing success and ‘normality’ in all its bizarre manifestations, I wanted  to cook a meal with a real kick. A couple of weeks ago, my lovely boyfriend bought me Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana, the most beautifully written book full of simple yet vibrant and flavoursome recipes. With page after page of golden, warm colours, full-bodied ingredients, zingy garnishes and deep, earthy spices, it was a struggle to decide on the best recipe for the occasion. In the end, I opted for one that seemed to capture all those things: her Spiced Vegetable Soup. With a subtly sweet base of squash, onions and leeks, the soup is brought life by the acidic punch of vine tomatoes, the gentle heat of chilli and then a generous drizzle of the most beautifully intense herb oil, which not only lifts the soup’s flavour but is a splash vibrant colour on an otherwise earthy dish. Simple to make (you can add any combination of veg you fancy, I added kale as an extra) but a intriguing amalgamation of tastes and textures. As a dish, it quite simply hits the back of the net!

Healthy Ingredients

Winter Squashes – Winter squashes such as butternut and acorn squashes and pumpkins are good sources of complex carbohydrates making them anti-inflammatory and antioxidant as well as giving them insulin-regulating properties. Their wide range of nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene, vitamin C, magnesium and manganese improve cardiovascular health, as does their folate content. They are also a great digestive aid given their high fibre content.

Recipe: Spiced Vegetable Soup

Serves 4.

  • olive oil
  • butternut squash  peeled, deseeded and cut into 4cm chunks
  • onions 2 large or 3 small, diced; plus 1 cut in half and thinly sliced into half moons
  • 3 fat garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 3 potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 4cm rough chunks
  • 5 ripe vine tomatoes, roughly chopped into chunks
  • 4 heaped tsp ground cumin
  • 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
  • 3 tsp chilli paste (or 1 tsp chilli flakes plus 1 tbsp tomato puree)
  • sea salt
  • black pepper freshly ground
  • 2 x 400g cans chickpeas (reserve the liquid, plus a couple of handfuls of chickpeas to garnish)
  • 2 large courgettes, finely diced
  • 200g kale, stalks removed
  • feta cheese 100g (optional)

For the herb oil

  • 6 tbsp olive oil 6 tbsp
  • Good handful flat-leaf parsley
  • Good handful dill
  • Good handful coriander, plus extra, chopped, to garnish
  • Handful pistachio nuts
  • Squeeze lemon juice

Method.

  1. Preheat a large saucepan over a medium heat and put in enough olive oil to generously coat the base of the pan. Add the butternut squash, diced onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes and sauté, without browning, until the vegetables soften slightly.
  2. Add the tomatoes, spices and chilli paste (or chilli flakes and tomato puree) and give it all a good stir to ensure the spices are evenly coating the vegetables.
  3. Cover the vegetables completely with freshly boiled water, add a generous amount of sea salt and a good amount of black pepper, stir once more and cook for 30 minutes on a gentle boil.
  4. Insert a knife into the squash and, when it is soft, purée the mixture in a food processor or blender until you get a lovely even, smooth soup.
  5. Once smooth, add the chickpeas and their liquid and stir well. At this stage you can add some more water to achieve your desired soup consistency, and check the seasoning to see if more salt or pepper is needed.
  6. Cook for a further 20 minutes, then add the courgette and kale and cook for a final 15-20 minutes before serving.
  7. While the soup is simmering away, drizzle some olive oil into a large frying pan set on a high heat and fry the sliced onion until brown and crispy. Add the reserved chickpeas and brown them with the onions. Season, then using a slotted spoon, remove the onions and chickpeas from the pan and set aside.
  8. To make the herb oil, put the olive oil, parsley, dill and coriander in a small blender (or bowl) with the pistachios, lemon juice, sea salt and pepper. Blitz (with a hand blender) until finely chopped and with the consistency of pesto. If you need to slacken the mixture, add a bit more oil.
  9. Pour the soup into large bowls, then generously crumble in the feta (if using). Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the herb oil into each bowl over the feta. Finally, add the reserved crispy fried onions and chickpeas. Finish with a little freshly chopped coriander (if using). Serve with some nice crusty bread.

Bowled Over

Today is the day that seemed like a lifetime away. The day that was stubbornly dragging its feet like a sulky child and inflicting every ounce of displeasure it could on those that were willing it come around. The day of Marge’s last chemotherapy session.

Though the journey is by no means over and the next couple of weeks will undoubtedly be difficult as Marge struggles through the same cruel and monotonous side effect pattern, it is an optimistic benchmark, the beginning of the end. Just as the weather forecast is finally showing signs of the new season, of long bright days and sunshine and warmth, a new season is upon us too. We have spring cleaned our outlook and adopted a new and positive determinism. As Marge perfectly summed up, our reaction to the next stage now is “bring it on!”

With this fresh optimism comes fresh tastes, bright colours and zingy flavours. Meals are so often an extension of our personalities and moods. When we are sad or lonely we seek comfort in rich ingredients and dense textures, offering us the condolence – company almost – we crave, through their full-bodied and luxurious flavours. Yet when we have adopted a new lease of life, an increased vitality and happier state of mind, we seek out those lighter, vibrant meals which fill us with energy and reflect our renewed zeal.

A cheerful meal is, of course, not just reflected in its tastes and textures – in fact the first impression you get of a meal’s ‘mood’ is its appearance; the colours and tones of the ingredients and its appearance on the plate. The way food is presented has become so much more important to me since I have started cooking for Marge’s recovery. I have already written at length about her lack of taste and my attempt to combat this with bold flavour and unique texture combinations, but one other way to to fight the food fatigue is through aesthetics. Beautiful food is, without a doubt, a holistically satisfying experience. Though the often beige and dull-looking junk foods give us fleeting moments of pleasure, do they ever really tempt us with their aesthetic allure? Simply, no. They are a response to our cravings. Yet a vivd rainbow of fresh, healthy ingredients stimulates an appetite they may have not already exists; it awakens all the senses, way beyond the tastebuds.

When a plate of food is attractive to look at, it also shows a care and love that goes beyond that of simply the ingredient combinations themselves. It shows that thought is being given to the entire eating experience, that the cook has thought outside of the box (or the pan) and is taking into account all of the eaters’ needs and pleasures. This is even more important for Marge when one of her senses has been cruelly taken away and she is unable to share in the fundamental pillar of meal time. It allows her to jointly enjoy the beauty and aesthetic delight of dinnertime.
With the sun coming out and the comforting dark tones and deep flavours of the past season shrinking back with the winter shadows, we are now into the season of vibrancy.
The Lunson family’s new beginnings are ready to be reflected on the plate. Whenever I think of bright colours and bold flavours, I do tend to mentally migrate towards South America and, more specifically, Mexico. Ingredients such as limes, peppers, chillis, corn, and sweet potatoes simply light up a plate and completely encapsulate a sunny disposition. Perusing through food blogs and recipe websites, I came across a meal that would be a feast for the mouth and the eyes on the brilliant food blog, Cookie and Kate. Her Spicy Sweet Potato and Green Rice Bowl screams colour and vitality and would be the perfect way to celebrate entering a new phase in Marge’s treatment. Full of wholesome ingredients and contrasting textures, it would give Marge a thoroughly enjoyable eating experience even if her tastebuds have been clouded by her treatment.

I did alter the above recipe a bit, adding a few more spices and flavours to the black beans, and the toppings are completely down to preference. The beauty with bowl recipes is that they can be dictated by your day-to-day fancies, dietary requirements, or even simply what your fridge and cupboards allow. The list of ingredients may be long but please don’t panic! The method itself is gloriously easy and the end product is a delight to both eat and admire. The balanced meal which will also add a bit of colour to your life.

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Healing Ingredients

Chilli – Chilli’s volatile oils, particularly capsaicin, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and give chilli its cholesterol-lowering (‘unhealthy’ LDL cholesterol levels), blood-sugar balancing and appetite suppressing properties. Chillis are known to stimulate digestion and boost metabolism as well as encouraging the body’s natural detox process by promoting increased sweating. 

Avocado – Full of healthy monounsaturated oils and antioxidants, avocados can lower blood pressure and protect from heart disease and stroke as well as lubricate joints, as they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The fats in this fruit are unique and are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits, they are also thought to boost fertility.

Recipe: Spicy Sweet Potato, Black Bean and Green Rice Bowl

Serves 4.

Green rice:

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 300g brown rice
  • 750 ml vegetable stock
  • 3 large handfuls baby spinach
  • 1 small bunch coriander, leaves removed
  • 1-2 green chilli peppers, seeded, membranes removed and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Sweet potatoes:

  • 3 medium sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Seasoned black beans:

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cans black beans (or kidney beans, or both)
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp chilli powder
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar or lime juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Optional garnishes:

  • Pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 2 avocados, pitted and sliced
  • Chopped coriander
  • Crumbled feta
  • Chopped cherry/plum tomatoes or tomato salsa
  • Sweetcorn
  • Cooked chicken/beef

Method.

  1. Preheat oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7.
  2. Place the spinach, coriander, chilli pepper, onion, garlic, seasoning and 150ml of the vegetable stock into a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the rice and stir to coat, frying until lightly browned.
  4. Add the green purée into the rice. Stir until the rice is evenly coated and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Add the rest of the vegetable broth to the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Cook the rice on a very low simmer until tender (35 to 40 minutes).
  5. Whilst the rice is cooking, toss the sweet potatoes in the olive oil, smoked paprika and salt until the sweet potatoes are evenly coated in oil. Arrange in a single layer on a prepared baking sheet. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, tossing halfway, until the sweet potatoes are tender and caramelising at the edges.
  6. In a separate pan, fry the onion for about 5 minutes until golden and softened. Add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes longer before adding the beans and their cooking liquid (don’t drain the beans) to the pan. Stir in the cumin, oregano, chilli powder, cayenne pepper tomato puree and warm over medium heat. Once the beans are simmering,reduce heat to a gentle simmer uncovered to reduce until you’re ready to serve.
  7. Once the rice is cooked, remove the pan from heat and place a clean tea towel over the pan (this will help absorb excess liquid as the rice continues to cook in its own steam) and let it sit for approx. 10 minutes.
  8. Fluff the rice with a fork and season with salt if necessary. Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and the beans from heat, stir in the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Now it’s time to assemble your bowls: First add green rice, then use a slotted spoon to transfer beans to the bowls and top with sweet potatoes and any other garnishes you are using. Let your imagination and artistic flair run wild!