When Adelaide’s Jean Bryant was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) she, like others facing cancer, asked “Why me?”.
Jean’s diet had been filled with the ‘dos’ touted by nutritionists, with ‘sometimes’ treats still a yummy must. Regular exercise, for body and mind, and relaxation through yoga, meditation and gardening, had been long-practised priorities. Jean laughed a lot and didn’t take life too seriously. She had even embraced adrenalin pumping pursuits such as stunt flights in planes.
“I was not supposed to get cancer!” she thought.
In mid-2010, Jean had been suffering crippling pain in her stomach and back. Strong pain killers provided momentary relief, but the pain would return. Doctors were baffled, with numerous tests and biopsies of an enlarged lymph gland in the stomach all producing inconclusive results. Everything from a severe virus, to pancreatic cancer, was suspected. Lymphoma was initially ruled out given that pain is not usually one of its symptoms.
The wait for a diagnosis was almost as agonising as the pain itself.
An answer eventually came on 10 August that year after major surgery to remove the mass and further tests. The enlarged tumour had been pressing on a nerve, causing the excruciating pain.
Before her NHL diagnosis, stress had been eroding Jean’s mental wellbeing. Her husband Trevor had several hospital stays and an eventual radiofrequency ablation for heart arrhythmia. Trevor’s mother had died. Jean and Trevor’s son had sustained head injuries in a bicycle accident. Their daughter had two major operations, narrowly avoiding bowel cancer. Jean’s mother had worsening Alzheimer’s.
For Jean, escaping to the “peaceful place” in her mind – an idyllic spring garden setting, beside a babbling brook overlooked by a cosy country cottage – became increasingly difficult.
Despite an uncertain future, Jean was determined to not become a victim of the painful journey ahead.
She underwent 18 weeks of chemotherapy at Flinders Private Hospital. After the first round, received as an inpatient in hospital, she returned
as a day patient each three weeks to complete the six rounds of ‘CHOP’ chemotherapy.
On 18 January 2011, Jean received the long awaited news that she was in complete remission.
Around then, Jean realised a cathartic need to write a book about her journey. (Jean previously penned ‘The Opening Door’ based on her years as a teacher supporting children with autism.)
Since childhood, cooking has been one of Jean’s favourite outlets. Writing is another passion, with her journal entries proving especially helpful in combating chemobrain since treatment. Her journal entries became the building blocks for her book, Food for Thought.
Jean is not into dishing out unasked-for advice, but instead hopes that “everybody can get something out of the book to relate to”.
Food for Thought is an intimate insight into her experience with NHL, thoughtfully interwoven with personal recipes that are both nutritious and easy to prepare. Jean is not a dietician, but wants to use her lymphoma journey and interest in nutrition as an offer of help to others.
Jean usually felt reasonable on the day after chemotherapy due to steroids, so she would prepare meals to freeze for coming days when she knew she would be feeling “quite debilitated”. She used healthy foods to bolster her chances of getting well.
“The oncology team told me it was best to keep eating, even if it was only a small amount,” she wrote. “I certainly maintained a reasonably balanced diet even throughout treatment, but didn’t feel bad about comfort foods if I felt like them.”
Jean would load her dishes with flavour to make them more palatable to her chemotherapy-dulled taste buds.
She recalls a funny moment while making her favourite Quick Risotto one night.
“Each time I made it I added more and more curry,” she said. “In the end Trevor was saying: ‘Jean, that’s enough!’”
Food for Thought includes everything from easy risotto and casseroles, to healthy desserts. Jean includes hints to help others prepare and benefit from her dishes as much as possible.
Jean’s illness has altered her approach to life. Her pastimes, which include involvement in the local Scrabble Club and Book Club, are now taken on at a more leisurely pace. She embraces “the new me”.
“I say ‘no’ a lot more often to things I feel I am not ready to cope with, or simply don’t want to do,” she said. “I’m a reformed – or at least still trying-to-be-reformed – control freak.”
A self-dubbed dreamer, Jean concludes her book by giving readers a taste of her indestructible optimism for life.
“I don’t believe age is relevant in holding anyone back from achieving their dreams if they really want them, and they are prepared to be flexible,” she writes. “I visualise myself as a wrinkly ninety year-old free-falling out of the sky in the arms of a nice young man. That is after I have driven myself very fast around a race track in a red Ferrari!”
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