Nourish

Fighting cancer dish by dish

A Breast Cancer Warrior's Soul Food

Verity's cottage pie

Meet Verity, breast cancer thriver extraordinaire.

Through a combination of conventional and complementary treatments, exercise, spiritual practice, dietary change and gritty determination, she is in remission from stage IV—also known as metastatic—breast cancer.

Today’s recipe is hers, but first, I’d like to share her story with you.

Two years ago—she had just celebrated her 37th birthday and her daughter was about to turn one—Verity found a lump in her breast. In just a few weeks, that lump turned out not only to be breast cancer, but breast cancer that had spread to her bones and was destroying her vertebrae. Having just spent the past year settling into her new career as a mother, Verity’s life was turned upside down again by the cancer diagnosis.

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is a disease where cancer has traveled through the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, or brain. According to Breastcancer.org, “many women can live for years with metastatic cancer that’s under control. For these women, living with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is like living with a chronic disease. It can go into remission, be active sometimes and not others, or move quickly. It frequently involves trying one treatment after another, ideally with breaks in between treatments when you feel good. The goal of treatment is to help you feel as well as possible and live a longer life.”

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Even so, a stage IV diagnosis is grim: the median survival rate of women with metastatic breast cancer is two to three years. Frustratingly for MBC patients, there is relatively little funding for research into stage IV breast cancer. According to MetaVivor, a non-profit organization pushing for more MBC research funding, only 2 to 5 percent of U.S. breast cancer research funds are being used to research treatments for MBC, even though nearly one-third of breast cancer patients have MBC.

“The Pink Ribbon Movement continues to focus on prevention, early detection and the stories of non-recurred survivors,” Metavivor says on its website. However, “it scarcely mentions the existence or extent of the metastatic breast cancer community. The ignored reality? Of those diagnosed with breast cancer, 30 percent will metastasize and almost all of those will die. The reality is just about as far from rosy pink as it gets. Read the stats the pink movement never mentions.”

In the absence of effective long-term treatments, many MBC patients do what they can to boost their cancer defenses. Verity is one of them.

Soon after being diagnosed, she read Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s book, “Anticancer, A New Way Of Life” and began looking into integrative cancer treatments. In addition to conventional treatments—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—she used a wide range of complementary interventions to support her treatment.

“I regained a sense of control of my life through food, juicing, exercise, various holistic therapies and a combination of orthodox and complementary medicine,” Verity explains. “The list goes on and I am forever refining it.” The most frequently-read post on her blog, Verity’s Lifestyle.com, is titled “My Anti-Cancer Toolbox” and lists all the resources she has used to help her back to health.

The integrative approach Verity has used may be paying off. “As of this Breast Cancer Awareness Month [2012] I am officially in remission from Stage IV cancer and intend to be the healthiest in mind, body and spirit going forward.”

What a journey it’s been. Two years ago, Verity recalls, “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go on lovely long dog walks in the country or on the beach anymore. In fact I had even talked with my husband about moving to a house more suitable should I need a wheelchair.”

“My back was so messed up from my collapsed vertebrae that I had to employ the aid of two walking poles and although I got very speedy on them I was also reliant on them. I visited my favorite beaches with a few of my best friends last winter and quietly lamented to myself that I may never be able to do a beautiful four-mile beach walk again.”

Fast forward to this spring and summer, after a lot of exercise and holistic treatments. “I walked those four miles and more. Then I went on a juice retreat…where I took up rebounding and yoga and walked six hilly miles on several occasions,” Verity recounts. “At that retreat I also decided that next year I will be walking the Moonwalk in London to raise money for a variety of breast cancer charities including one that supported me while I was ill, Penny Brohn Cancer Care.”

This summer, Verity even braved the Norfolk surf with her bodyboard (see picture, right). “Who’d have thought it two years ago—I wouldn’t!” she marvels, adding wistfully, “I know I’m very lucky to be in this position and I never take it for granted.”

On her blog Verity posts delicious, healthy recipes she has developed over the past two years. There is also an inspirational post by her husband David, “On Being Supportive,” written to encourage partners of cancer patients.

One of Verity’s greatest allies has been her iron determination in the face of MBC. “I decided very early on to use one of my strongest qualities to regain health. I’m bossy, so I’ve used that with my cancer,” she laughs. Still, even self-avowed bossy-boots have wobbly moments. “Don’t think that I have a brave face all the time!” What has helped in those moments has been her “great network of friends and family who support me.”

Verity has kindly contributed one of her recipes, a super-healthy vegetarian Cottage Pie (replacing beef with lentils and peas) using a wide variety of anti-cancer herbs and vegetables. Perfect cancer-warrior soul food.

 

Verity’s Cottage Pie

Filling

This recipe makes enough for 8-10 servings of pie filling; I make up half then freeze the rest, adding the topping when I want to cook it.

1 cup Puy lentils (small, dark green French lentils)

1 cup of brown lentils

1 large onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, smashed and left for 10 minutes before finely chopping

2 tbsp of olive oil/coconut oil

3 large Portobello mushrooms chopped into approx 1-inch/2cm cubes

6 medium carrots, chopped into quarter rounds

2 cups frozen peas

1 level tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp dried mixed herbs

2 tbsp tomato purée 2 ½ pints/1.4l vegetable stock

freshly ground black pepper

 

Topping (for 4-5 portions)

1 leek, finely chopped

2 medium sized sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

Pre-soak the lentils in water for approximately 4 hours (even better to sprout them for 2 days). Drain the water.

In a large saucepan gently cook the onions in the oil until translucent, then add the garlic and stir for a couple of minutes. Add cinnamon, mushrooms, carrots and lentils and cook over a gentle heat for a few minutes. Next stir in the tomato purée and vegetable stock, cover and simmer for approximately 30 minutes. You don’t want the mixture to get dry – it needs“gravy” so it’s worth checking to see whether you need to add a little extra water.

While this is simmering, cook the leeks gently in a saucepan with a little oil and steam the sweet potato. When both are cooked, mix together with a fork to create a chunky mash.

When the lentil vegetable mixture is cooked add in the mixed herbs, peas and plenty of freshly ground black pepper – stir well. Spoon half the lentil-vegetable mixture into an ovenproof dish (about 11 x 8 inches / 27cm x 20cm) and scoop the topping over to cover. You can add some grated organic goats’ cheese if you like.

Pop into an oven pre-heated to 340°F (170°C) and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the top is just going brown. Serve with some lightly steamed broccoli or cabbage.

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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