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.