Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Black Cabbage Pasta (no cheese)

This is adapted from a recipe that my cousin Gaby taught me, many years ago in Tuscany. I think of her whenever I cook it, which is often because it is so delicious.

Use as many organic ingredients as possible.

A bunch of Cavolo Nero or Kale
At least three cloves of garlic
Half a red chilli or a pinch of dried chilli flakes
A big handful of flat-leaf parsley
Splash of fish sauce
Half a tin of salted anchovies
Plenty of extra virgin olive oil
A fistful of pine nuts
Pasta of your choice (I think this sauce works well with penne)

With a big knife, shred the Cavolo Nero or kale into strips about the width of a matchstick. If the stalks are tough and stringy, cut them away from the leaves before shredding (you can keep the tough stalks and put them in the juice extractor as part of your next green juice). If the stalks are tender, simply shred them along with the leaves.

Put a pan of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Pour a good splosh of olive oil (at least three or four tablespoons) into a heavy based saucepan and add the shredded leaves. Put the lid on and place the pan on a very low heat. The aim is to sweat the kale, rather than to fry it. After about five minutes, turn the leaves and put the lid back on. Five minutes late, turn them again.

Put the pasta into the other pan, which should now be full of boiling water.

Finely chop the garlic and de-seeded chilli. Add them to the leaves along with a couple of shakes of fish sauce and the anchovies. Put the lid back on.

Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan, shaking them all the time until they are golden brown.

Coarsely chop the parsley.

Take the lid off the kale. By now your leaves should have cooked down into a rich green mass. The garlic will be soft and translucent and the anchovies will have melted away. Add more olive oil, stirring all the time. Keep slowly adding oil and stirring until the sauce doesn’t seem to absorbing the oil anymore. You will probably have added about a quarter of a cup of olive oil to the sauce by now. Throw in the parsley, stir it through and put the lid back on the pan.

Drain the pasta. Mix the sauce through the pasta. Serve it up and top each bowl with a generous sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Whatever Gets You Through the Night

Moon Over Sommers Bay - by Mum
Dear Anonymous,

I have been thinking for several hours about how to reply to your comment without sounding glib.

It seems to me that feelings of despair are an inalienable part of the cancer journey. With a diagnosis of cancer, each of us must consider the very real possibility of an early death. But although I find it scary to contemplate, death does not terrify me. What I have found devastating is the loss of hope.

At the time that I was diagnosed I was happier that I had ever been. I was in a wonderful new relationship with Nick but, more than that, I had reached a point in my life where I felt relaxed and confident. For the first time, I truly knew myself. Through the surgery and all the hideous treatments I always imagined myself returning to love and laughter with Nick, to recovering and getting back to my optimistic, beautiful life that was so rudely interrupted by cancer.

It wasn’t until Nick left me that I lost hope. I started to believe that God was out to punish me; that the cancer would slowly strip me of everything. It had taken my breast, my hair and my femininity. As a result, my lover had left me. My emotional resilience was destroyed. With that I felt that I would be unable to recover my physical health, I would relapse, my life would become an endless cycle of suffering, friends would find it too difficult to stay and so would slowly turn their backs on me, just as Nick had. Ultimately I would die alone.

It is so easy to catastrophise because, whichever way you look at it, cancer is something of a catastrophe. And it brings a particularly insidious fear: “I might return,” it whispers, “and you can never know why or when.”

In the face of all this, to long for oblivion sometimes seems the sane and sensible choice.

But my life up until now has been filled with what writers of self-help books euphemistically call ‘opportunities for growth.’ And so I have tried to put into action many of the survival skills that I have learned along the way. These are some of the things that help me. Maybe they will help you too.

When I was younger I was paralysed. At that time I learned the power of creative visualisation. I would picture myself lying in a meadow of wild flowers on a high cliff overlooking the sea. I would feel the breeze on my body. I would hear the tinkling water flowing in a nearby stream. I would watch the clouds drift white above me. I would create a sensuous, colour-drenched world in my head and then put myself in it. I experienced the very real power of prayer and meditation. I lay for months, completely immobile on a life-support machine, and marvelled as every day miracles happened all around me.

Now I do creative visualisation and positive affirmations as part of a practise called Yoga Nidra. There are many cds available that guide you through the process. I highly recommend buying one. I wrote more about Yoga Nidra in a post dated 17th November 2009.

Through being in a twelve-step programme I have learned the value of talking to other people and sharing honestly what is occurring in my life and how I am feeling from day-to-day. I am very privileged to have this ongoing support available to me. I would encourage anyone to join a twelve-step programme if you can – and let’s face it there are twelve-step programmes for just about everything these days*. If that is not appropriate then there are many cancer support groups run by charities. And if those are too far away or too depressing or just too irritating then what’s to stop us from setting up our own support group? I think I will write a separate post about how to do that.

Spending time in rehabs and on psychotherapists’ couches has taught me how to identify and feel my feelings rather than suppress them. This can be tricky. It sometimes involves crying in public places. But that never killed me or anyone else. And it’s not just the feelings of sadness, anger and loneliness that I need to feel but also joy and love. I allow myself to really love my friends and my family, my neighbours and people on the bus. That sounds simple but it takes bottle. After all, if I love people they might reject me or let me down. Yeah! Laugh, cry, just get it off your chest. I see a psychotherapist every week and unburden myself of all my craziest, darkest, most shaming thoughts.

Writing each morning – whether it’s a diary, a blog post, a poem or simply a loony stream of consciousness – gets some of my obsessive thoughts out of my head and into my laptop. Let the hard drive carry it all around. My brain needs the space. I also write a gratitude list in the morning, just five things but they have to be five different things each day. This morning, as I was sobbing into a tissue, it occurred to me that there are some people in this world for whom a packet of tissues is an unattainable luxury. So I wrote it down, “I am grateful for this tissue.” Before bed I quickly jot down all the significant things that I did today under the headings of either ‘Love’ or ‘Fear’.

I swim. I go for walks. I do yoga. I put on make-up. I get dressed up. I lie on the floor and listen to self-hypnosis cds. I talk to my plants. I cook delicious food. Most of all I try to speak to at least one friend every day of my life.

Do I do all these things perfectly every day? Not even remotely. And it can all feel a bit false at times but this is the only way that I know how to keep going. I have to convince myself every day that my darkest fears are not inevitable. Yes, the treatments have been ghastly. Yes, Nick has been unspeakably cruel. Yes, I am lonely and afraid sometimes. But what have I gained from having cancer? I have been shown a great deal of love. The truth is that none of knows how long we have to live on our beautiful planet. Sometimes I love this world so much that I never want to leave it. The only certainty is that, one day, I will. But I now have the courage to live as I want to live.

The World Cup is on. This evening Sheldon and I have been sitting on the couch and laughing, rooting for our team-du-jour (Ghana), whooping and dancing around the living room when we scored. That got me through the last three hours.

When I think about it, it isn’t the fear of death that makes me feel so utterly bleak. It is the fear of not living.

Anonymous, I don’t know who you are but I hope that you will find a way to stay with us. I for one, need your comments on Chemo Chic.


* Here is a small selection of the many twelve-step programmes that are available. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section below.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Finding Beauty

                                          photograph by David Jay
In this blog I have written a lot about wigs and dresses, lipstick and nail varnish, bras and bikinis. I believe that these seemingly mundane things are important tools that have helped me to maintain a sense of my own identity.

But becoming Chemo Chic is not a matter of desperately trying to stay the same as we were before. Following a diagnosis of breast cancer many women must face searching questions: “How can I possibly look beautiful without my hair? How can I feel feminine without my breasts? How do I find a way to step into my new reality?”

We need to redefine what beauty is.

The SCAR project shines a light on women who have suffered the ravages of breast cancer. It is the light of courage in the face of a dreadful unknown. In a series of compassionate yet unflinchingly raw images photographer David Jay examines women’s vulnerability, their pride, their sadness and their dignity. And by showing these women’s true selves he reveals their essential beauty.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Couch Potatoes are Thriving This Year

And now Wimbledon has started as well.

So, if you are having chemotherapy at the moment, enjoy your couch time.

We Apologise For This Temporary Interruption to Our Transmission

The World Cup is on. So I have been spending all my blog-writing hours watching television.

I am supporting Australia and England. Australia are employing an enjoyable but gauche tactic of playing their little socks off and then having their best players dismissed with a red card. England are pursuing a more subtle strategy - trying to fox their opponents by not bothering to play at all.

I wonder who I am going to be supporting next?

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Tell Your Friends That You Love Them Before It Is Too Late

A friend of mine died last night. We were good friends for many years. Then we fell out. The reasons were trivial. During the time that we weren’t speaking I missed him. I am glad to say that I saw him just before Christmas. We made up our differences and had a good chat. But then I went to Sydney and you know what happened there. Since I’ve been back in London I’ve been avoiding all but my closest friends. Not because I don’t like people but because they inevitably ask “How are you?” It’s a question that I find so hard to answer without crying. So I hadn’t called my friend. Now he is dead and I will always miss him.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


I always meant to tell you
what I’d seen
where I’d been
what I’d done
how I’d become
who I am

I wanted to be heard
but I could never find the words

As I denied my words
and then they dried
and then they died

And each dead word piled up
inside, as dust
‘til finally words

Exploded out of me
like blizzards of confetti
words whirled through all my senses
confusing all my old defences
sometimes humming sometimes rhyming
words followed me
in perfect timing with my footsteps
walking in the park
lying in the dark in my bed
words danced in my head
sang to me
read poetry
spelled themselves out
in my spaghetti
whispered fantasies in dreams
leapt on me from books and magazines

I switched the tv on to drown them out
only the words got louder
they began to shout at me
from right there on the screen
Eat this pizza! Buy this washing machine!

seeking some respite I turned them down
I sat in silence,
then began to write
the stories my words told
about my life
and as I wrote them I let go
of all those things
I meant to tell you
years ago

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A Very Thorough Response

Oh no! My favourite tofu cutlets (by Taifun, available from Portobello Wholefoods) are vacuum packed in soft plastic.




I have been trying to eat a diet to help me to defeat cancer. I have been enjoying your tofu cutlets but I now fear that they may be packaged in plastics that can leach Bisphenol A into the food.

Please advise me which of your products are packaged in safe, non-toxic packaging.

With kind regards,
Canna Lily


Dear Canna Lily,

Thank you very much for your request and your interest into our products.

All our products are packaged in safe and nontoxic foils or containers. Our plastic foils are made by Polyethylen (PE) and Polyamid (PA) in combination. The PE and PA are used in thin layers to produce the complete plastic foil. The used PE foil is solely in contact with our tofu products. The plastic container consists of PE - HD (HD = high density). Both plastics do not need any softening agent or any other additives. Therefore they do not contain any phthalates that are used as diluent in polyvinylchloride (PVC) and that are classified as harmful to health as well as bisphenole A.

We hope this information will bring back your trust into our products and please do not hesitate contacting us again especially if you have any further questions.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Best regards
i. A. Ute Lehmann
Teambereichsleiterin Qualität & Entwicklung
Team Division Leader Quality & Development


Dear  Canna Lily,

thanks for your request and your interest in our tofu dishes.
Our packaging films consist of two thin single layers which are polyethylene (PE) and polyamide (PA). Both plastics do not need any softening agent or any other additives. Therefore the films do not contain any phthalates that are used as diluent in polyvinylchloride (PVC) and that are classified as harmful to health as well as bisphenole A. PA is aroma-proof and its abrasion resistance is high. However the permeability of steam increases in the moist state. As a result food might desiccate faster. Consequently this film is combined with PE which has a low permeability of steam and oxygen. By combining the two synthetics our products are optimally protected. Moreover both PA and PE are considered to be non-critical in terms of health aspects.
With an average tare weight of 5 g per 200 g weight of product both the manufacturing and the transport can be classified as ecologically more worthwhile as compared with other packaging materials, for example one-way glasses. With an appropriate disposal plastics combust without any residue and the released energy can be used again. With this film, we decided to apply the most ecologically and most economically option. If someday a more environmentally friendly alternative fulfilling our quality requirements was available we would like to adopt it.
For further questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Best regards
i.A. Evangelia Bolanz
Teammitarbeiterin Auftragsabwicklung


So I think the tofu is ok to eat then? Phew.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


Dory Previn sings Twenty Mile Zone - thanks Glenidol.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Another Perspective

Ben is enthusing about Tibetan Buddhist tradition of creating sand mandalas. A gang of monks will take several days or even weeks to create an intricate pattern using grains of coloured sand. No sooner is this beautiful wheel complete than the monks immediately destroy it. 
Life is transitory.

Bus travel gives me a chance to see London from different angle. Looking down from the top deck of the No. 23 I notice that someone has taken the trouble to fold a flock of small origami swans and blue-tack them to the roof of a bus stop on Ladbroke Grove.

Justin has been very kind and helpful lately, driving me to Sainsbury’s, pushing the trolley around and carrying my shopping up the stairs for me. I tell him about the delightful bus stop birds. “But what will happen to them when it rains?” asks Justin. “Well,” I muse, “I guess it’s about the impermanence of beauty.”

“Of course,” says Ben, “if you look at it another way, everything is beautiful. But nothing lasts. So the real secret is to appreciate the beauty of impermanence.”

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Accidental Shopper

To date, I have never entered Primark on Oxford Street. As I stroll past its gargantuan shop-front I am inexplicably sucked through the doors. Swept along in a torrent of tramping bodies I find myself funelled onto the escalator and spat out in the shoe department. The first thing that strikes me is the smell. We shoppers are immersed in an acrid chemical swirl of vapours emitted by thousands of pairs of synthetic and plastic shoes. The second thing that strikes me is the thousands of pairs of synthetic and plastic shoes, piled up indiscriminately on rack after rack glittering and winking at me. In a trance, I advance. My head drops and I commence the methodical treasure hunt.

Some incalculable time later I am at the end of a ginormous queue that snakes towards the distant bank of tills. Inching forward my mind begins to clear. Do I actually need a pair of acid yellow fake Birkenstocks? I detest Birkenstocks, even the real ones. And the sage grey studded pumps? They’re pure polypropylene. Surely they will make my feet sweat and stink throughout the summer months ahead? What about this lime green belt for only £1? Do I really believe that it might have been produced by a jolly well-fed labourer earning a fair wage?

I’ve got to get out of here.

I dump my cache on top of the three-pairs-for-£5 socks display and throw myself into the cascade of bodies heading onto the down escalator. “They always put something great just inside the front door,” I counsel myself, “don’t look.” Just at that moment my head swivels to the right. There I behold a slim jacket fashioned from a cloud of elegant, silver-grey lace. £13! Only a fool would pass it by.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

If you are female, listen up.

If a man says to you “My wife / girlfriend doesn’t understand me,” what he means is: “My wife / girlfriend understands me all too well.”

If he says “You understand me,” what he means is: “I hope to have sex with you until such time as you begin to understand me.”

If he says “I don’t know how to leave my marriage / relationship,” what he means is: “I don’t want to let go of my marriage / relationship nor make any commitment to you but I do want to commit adultery and at the same time exonerate myself from feelings of guilt.”

If he says “I love her but I’m not in love with her,” what he means is: “She accepts me and doesn’t play games or treat me badly. I don’t have to work really hard to gain her approval so I take her for granted.”

What astounds me is how many seemingly bright women simply choose not to see through this rather obvious code. Let's get it right. If he's betraying his wife / girlfriend he will betray you too.

Examining Narcissism

The Killer Inside Me, based on the novel by Jim Thompson, is an examination of the behaviour of a misogynistic sociopath. The violence portrayed is grotesque. But what I found truly horrifying is the cold, narcissistic indifference displayed by Casey Afflek in the role of Lou Ford and the desperate addiction of the two women who love him, Joyce and Amy (played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson). Maybe my view is jaundiced. Maybe Lou is just a charming but misunderstood fellow with a few deeply rooted mummy issues. The film is stylishly directed by Michael Winterbottom. The acting is brilliant. It leaves me feeling deeply depressed.

Friday, 4 June 2010

I Take it All Back

“Guess what I’ve got?” roars the jolly young man in my local butcher’s on Portobello Road. “Waxed paper! I asked my dad and we had some left over from Christmas. Would you like me to wrap up your sausages in it?”

Other people’s thoughtful kindness is a source of constant delight.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Happy Anniversary

Tess and I are having coffee in the sunshine. “How long has it been?” she asks. “How long has what been?” Then it hits me. One year ago today Nick drove me to the Harley Street Clinic. That afternoon Mr Hadjiminas removed two malignant tumours from my left breast.

Suddenly I am reliving it all in full colour: Paper pants and elastic stockings. The walk to the operating theatre. The wait for the lab results. Mr H's serious face as he told me that the cancer was in my lymph nodes. More surgery. Waking up in ITU. Miranda and Eloise arriving late at night. Friends. Flowers. Morphine. Hospital food. Vegetable juice. The compression bra. Walking to the corner of the street. The desperate search for alternative therapies. The ice hat. Armchairs in the chemo unit. My hair coming out in my hands. Sickness. Lying on the couch with the red tartan rug. Hundreds of pills. Getting a wig. Fatigue. Mouth ulcers. Manuka honey. Money anxiety. Crying in the Macmillan centre. The sleeping cap. Writing my blog day and night. Tattoos. Big Bruce.

And Nick.

I have heard said that the full impact hits you later. Today I’m experiencing deep sadness and shock that I simply didn’t feel at the time. Just eight days after finishing the long, hard months of chemo and radiotherapy I was catapulted into traumatic months of betrayal and abandonment. So I never really got the chance to process the emotional impact of having cancer.

I hope I find a good therapist soon.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

So Watchya Gonna do About It?

“It’s all very well,” I hear you cry, “giving us all a big lecture about the perils of plastics but what exactly am I meant to do about it? I mean, everything comes wrapped in plastic.”

So true. And as I have discovered, it is impossible to live plastic-free. However, I have come to be of the opinion that many cancers do not have a single cause but rather may be triggered by a coalescence of different genetic, hormonal, dietary and environmental factors. On that basis I just do my best to reduce as many of the risks in my daily life as I can.

Here are a few simple strategies that I have enacted to at least cut down my exposure to nasty chemicals:

  • I don’t microwave food in plastic containers or covered with cling film. I believe it is ok to microwave food in a glass or china dish, covered with a plain, unbleached kitchen towel.
  • I don’t wrap my food in cling film (but I think it’s ok to stretch it over a bowl, so long as it doesn’t touch the food.) I have acquired a lot of stainless-steel containers with lids and also glass bowls with lids.
  • I try not to buy food that is vacuum packed in plastic.
  • If I buy fruit and veg that are wrapped in plastic, I take them out of the bags as soon as I get home.
  • I try not to drink water from plastic bottles. This is nigh on impossible but I do my best: I order tap water in restaurants. I drink water from a (hard plastic) filter jug at home. I carry stainless steel water bottles for brief periods of time before I lose them. I drink lots of water at home so that I don’t have to top up from those giant-plastic-bottle water coolers when I’m out and about.
  • I try even harder not to eat tinned food. The old-fashioned, unlined tins are fine but they’re rare and of course, one can’t tell if the tin is plastic-lined or not until after one has opened it.

Useful things to buy to help deplasticise your life:
  • A stainless steel water bottle (not lined with plastic)
  • Wooden chopping boards
  • Wooden spoons and spatulas for cooking
  • A hard anodised non-stick frying pan or a Le Creuset cast iron, enamelled frying pan      (expensive but will last a lifetime)
  • Stainless steel and glass storage containers with lids (this second item is often known as a ‘jar’)
  • Paper bags for wrapping sandwiches etc
  • Fabric shopping bags. If you are feeling particularly militant, you can unwrap all your groceries at the checkout, decant them into your fabric bags and return the packaging to the store.
  • A pair of spectacles for reading the tiny recycling numbers hidden on plastic packaging
  • A roll of greaseproof paper to take to your local butcher to wrap your meat in – just for fun

And if you’re still wondering whether it is worth all the effort, have a look at this.

Plastic Not Fantastic

You may remember back in January that I wrote about the advice I had been given to try to avoid soft plastics coming into contact with my food and drinks.

It’s a tall order. Just scan the shelves of your local supermarket... I got to wondering what we did before plastic packaging took over the world?

In Sydney, Sam the Butcher’s in Bondi Road willingly agreed to wrap my meat in greaseproof paper, rather than the ubiquitous soft plastic sheets. I was pleasantly surprised by their progressive attitude. I generally view butchers as a Luddite lot. The other day I went into my local butchers (name withheld) on Portobello Road and made the same request. The flesh-hacker on duty practically laughed me out of his shop. “We won’t do that,” he roared, “it’s too expensive. Anyway if we listened to all that rubbish where would we be?” “Healthy and possibly cancer-free?” I muttered. “Oh, I know all about that,” he replied, “my mum died of cancer. My aunty too.” Well that makes sense then.

But trying to avoid all soft plastics in contact with my food is only serving to make me feel fearful and utterly defeated. It’s an unachievable goal. And why do we want to do it anyway? I started reading up a bit more.

Here is what I have learned: There are lots of different types of plastics. Contrary to what I previously believed, if I ever thought about the subject at all, plastics are not necessarily inert. Many plastics leach various chemicals in varying amounts. The chemicals can then be absorbed into our food. Many of these chemicals are toxic and cumulative in the body. Apparently the two main baddies (but not the only ones) are Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Phthalates*. Both act as endocrine disruptors, i.e. they mimic hormones in the body.

The uptake is greater if the food has a high fat content, for example: cheese, meat, bacon, pastry, oily fish and the like. In general, plastic will release far more chemicals when heated. The white lining of tins is made of plastic and known to leach Bisphenol-A. I read that tins are heated to high temperatures when they are sealed. I picture the food inside the tin being bathed in a hot soup of BPA molecules.

Lucky for us, manufacturers are now required to categorise all plastics, for recycling purposes. If you get your magnifying glass out and search you will somewhere find a small triangle made up of three swirling arrows, with a number in the middle. This number indicates what type of plastic it is. I have copied this from the Smart Plastics Guide:

1          POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE (PET)          No known health issues
2          HIGH DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (HDPE)            No known health issues
3          POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (PVC OR V)                   Many harmful chemicals are produced in the manufacturing, disposal, or destruction of PVC including: • Lead • DEHA (di(2ethylhexyl)adipate) • Dioxins • Ethylene dichloride • Vinyl chloride. Effects of exposure to these chemicals may include: decreased birth weight, learning and behavioral problems in children, suppressed immune function and disruption of hormones in the body, cancer and birth defects, genetic changes.
4          LOW DENSITY POLYETHELENE (LDPE)             No known health issues
5          POLYPROPYLENE (PP)                                      No known health issues
6          POLYSTYRENE (PS)                                           Styrene can leach from polystyrene. Over the long term, this can act as a neurotoxin. Studies on animals report harmful effects of styrene on red-blood cells, the liver, kidney, and stomach organs.

This is where it gets tricky...

7          MIXED (OTHER)                                                  Health effects vary depending on the resin and plasticizers in this plastic that often includes polycarbonates. Polycarbonate plastic leaches bisphenol A (BPA) a known endocrine disruptor. By mimicking the action of the hormone, estrogen, bisphenol A has been found to: effect the development of young animals; play a role in certain types of cancer; create genetic damage and behavioral changes in a variety of species. Bisphenol A is widespread--one study found BPA in 95% of American adults sampled.

So, not all plastics marked number 7 contain BPA, some of them are quite safe. Here is what an organisation called the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has to say on the matter: 

Confused about #7 plastic? You’re not alone. Just a few years ago, most #7 plastic was polycarbonate, a plastic we should avoid. Now many new plastics also fit into the #7 category. If it’s labeled # 7-PC, it’s unsafe polycarbonate. (NOTE: not all polycarbonate plastics have the PC label.) If it’s labeled “PLA” or “compostable,” it’s a safer, bio-based plastic. Otherwise, you will need to call the manufacturer and ask them what type of plastic it is.

There is also a whole new generation of plastic-like packaging materials coming into use, made from things like corn starch. I truly hope that these prove to be safer alternatives.

Annoyingly, phthalates are also present in a wide range of skin care products and cosmetics.