Physical and Mental Wellbeing in Fighting Cancer

Lucy and I, Staying Mentally Well Together

In general, I’ve stayed away from cancer literature. There seem to be so many different approaches and opinions that you can find evidence for any approach that you want to take. Want to eat bacon for every other meal? Find a website that promotes The Atkinson Diet and mentions a random study on decreasing cancer cell growth – success! A reader of the blog reached out to me on Twitter and recommended a book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber. After Googling it and reading about the author, I was certainly interested. He managed to survive for almost 20 years after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, something which is absolutely amazing and shocking. Dealing with such a diagnosis for that amount of time is astounding, it must have been extremely draining both physically and mentally. He was treated for a brain tumour twice during this time, before unfortunately succumbing to brain cancer in 2011.

Some of the accolades awarded to him in his lifetime are quite astonishing. He was one of the founding members of the US arm of Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical humanitarian organisation best known for its work in conflict zones. The organisation received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. Looking through his work, he seemed to dedicate himself as a physician, assisting sick people in conflict zones for years. Places he spent time include Iraq, India and Kosovo, among other places. The accumulation of his work resulted in him being awarded the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society Presidential Award for Outstanding Career in Psychiatry in 2002. What all of this information said to me is that this is a person who really does want to help people; he dedicated his life to doing so, and likely put himself in a lot of danger in the process. Couple that passion for helping others with a scientifically trained mind and a personal vendetta against cancer, and you have an incredibly powerful set of circumstances. It made me want to read the book. I ordered it off Amazon (I’m afraid to say), and it arrived the next day.

I’ve had it for a few days but only started reading it properly around two days ago. Some of it has been difficult to read, which is slowing me down. I’ll come back to that, though. The version I got is a second edition. Before the chapters started, there is a preface where the author discusses the changes between editions. Part of those changes was to add more evidence to chapter 9 – “The Anticancer Mind”. I haven’t read it yet, but he states that the chapter focuses on how keeping yourself mentally well can help your body fight cancer. The author states that people speak much more highly of the chapters on diet and foods that promote the healthy processes in the body which fight back against cancerous cells. These chapters seem to be Chapter 8 – ‘Anticancer Foods’, and Chapter 8(a) – ‘Anticancer Foods in Daily Practice’. Again, I haven’t read any of these chapters yet, but it seems fairly obvious what they are about; what foods can help promote the body’s natural defences against tumours and how to apply them in your day to day life. I may be proven wrong of course but if I am, that is because the author hasn’t described the chapters well enough. I, Dan Godley, can do no wrong! Although there is that phrase that to assume makes an ass of you and me. I’m only making an ass out of myself here if I am wrong. The author hoped by adding more case studies into Chapter 9 that people will take the anticancer mind more seriously and recognise its value.

I started thinking more about why people are less complimentary about a chapter on mental wellbeing as opposed to dietary changes. It is clear that diet is something physical. We generally know what foods are considered healthy. It would be more than a faux pas if we sat telling our work colleagues that we were on a diet over lunch, to help explain why we were digging into an entire cake and washing it down with squirty cream. There are some whacky diets around, but this would constitute a total failure of the educational system.

Things like pulses, fruit, brown bread etc, are considered to be healthy (or healthier) foods. Foods that are processed or contain a lot of saturated fat are generally thought to be less healthy. Of course, there are healthy fats, like those you get in nuts, but I believe that it is still better for you to consume these things in moderation. Similarly, you will benefit from an amount of things like butter in your diet, but they probably aren’t good in large quantities. If you regularly eat out at restaurants and wonder how they make the food taste so nice, the answer is probably butter and/or oil; lots of it. If you are trying to do some sort of diet, it is much better to make your own food. At least you know for certain what has been put into it and can control the ingredients. For example, Ottolenghi, a favourite chef of mine who makes incredible cookbooks, frequently uses large quantities of olive oil in his recipes. I will frequently tone this element of the dish down unless it is being used to create a flavoured oil, which I can save to use on other things I make.

When we have been eating healthier foods, we typically will have tangible evidence that it is benefitting us. Our weight may go down, we may feel more energised or, if we are also exercising, we may notice a change in the way we feel whilst we’re pushing our bodies. If I eat a takeaway and run the next day, I sometimes feel as if my body is having to work harder to produce the same levels of performance; it may be in my head, but I doubt it. Takeaway food will typically be much higher in things like fat and salt, which will likely impact your performance. I also generally eat a lot more when I get a takeaway, partially because the food is there and I want to eat it, but also probably because of things like MSG being added to the food.

We may feel more hungry if we are changing our eating habits, but we accept that there are sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. If our own standard of eating was to order a pizza every night, changing to a salad will feel difficult for a while. We know that but consider it worth the payoff, if we are in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. If we don’t consider it worth the payoff, we don’t stick to the diet. I’ve seen adverts on Youtube for people claiming to eat whatever they want and never doing any cardiovascular exercise, yet having Hurcules-esque bodies. It is usually promoting a brand new trend of the ‘make no changes, look amazing’ school of diet and exercise. I don’t buy it personally, but perhaps they truly do know more than me and I’m an idiot for eating well and exercising. I think they’re preying on this instinct that we have, though – to look good but eat what we want; to be both ‘healthy’ but not have to change any behaviours to get that way. Life doesn’t tend to work like that. We make certain sacrifices to gain benefits elsewhere. The more we dedicate ourselves to those sacrifices, the more they become behaviours that we stand by. I used to never enjoy eating salads when I was younger as they just seemed boring. These days, I love finding a nice salad recipe for a Saturday afternoon. I made a lentil salad a few days ago that was delicious, and since discovering za’atar, I’ve really enjoyed making salad dressings which use the herb mix.

Improving your mental state is far more difficult to measure, though, which may make it more difficult to justify. We may feel happier if we begin to practice yoga but it does not guarantee that we will feel vastly better all of the time; how much of the time is considered a success? And how do we know that we wouldn’t haven’t felt that happy anyway – is it easy to attribute feeling happier to the yoga specifically? What if it is that new cake diet you’ve embarked on?

The two things, physical and mental health, may also be at odds with each other. Your mental health may suffer if you are obsessing over the right foods to eat, and how anything outside of them will promote cancer in your body. The book states that a quarter of us will die of cancer – that leaves three quarters who won’t. Do those people avoid it because they never smoked a cigarette, ate a beef burger or had ten drinks with their friends? I highly doubt it. Were they all masters of zen, facing any adversity with a level head and a wise proverb to teach? I still doubt it. My grandad smoked most of his life, was a little overweight and, to my knowledge, never burnt a single calorie with the primary intention to exercise. Did he die of cancer? He did not. Did he make it to his late 70s? You bet he did. If I had asked him what ‘mindfulness’ meant, he’d have told me to get a dictionary and check. It wasn’t a concept he knew anything about. I remember he was a big fan of Star Trek. Perhaps that’s the secret.

My grandad seemed to be an extremely happy, positive and carefree individual, though. He didn’t need to work extensively on mindfulness to be content, or he was extremely successful in hiding it if he did. My brother in law Keiran is very similar in that respect. Keiran’s intentions in the world seem fairly simple – to make people laugh. I lived with him and my sister for three years when I first moved to London and he managed to be in that headspace 99% of the time. He’s very successful at it too and is one of the funniest people I know. If he fails to make someone laugh the first time, he’ll try again and again and again. Eventually, he gets somewhere. The other 1% of his headspace seemed to be dedicated to shouting at Fifa, a computer game that has the capacity to turn the nicest human into a bitter, angry individual. It can make you feel like the world is plotting against you, and there is nothing you can do about it but sit there and watch. No one is perfect.

My point is this: some people never have issues with their mental health, some people may have but never identify or understand it and some people are in a constant war with it. Individuals arent restricted to these categories and probably float between them depending on what is going on in their lives, and it can probably vary depending on the particular issue at hand. It is more of a scale than a restrictive list of categories. I feel like I am good at reflecting on why I behaved a certain way, but not so good at identifying it at the time. As a result, I can respond to something quite irrationally, only identifying that I had done so after the fact when it is sitting on my mind, bothering me. Over the years I have been much better at not doing this as I’ve matured and learnt more about myself, and the world around me, but it still happens from time to time.

Diet affects everyone in some way, whereas improving ones mental health may be less applicable depending on the individual. I know that the same case can be made for diet too, with some people having better metabolisms etc, but I still believe the intangible nature of mental health makes it far more difficult to define and measure improvements in, making it more difficult to convince every individual that it is helpful. Someone can be skinny whilst eating pizza every night, but it doesn’t mean that they are actually healthy. They probably have high blood pressure and a heart which is crying out for a more complex range of nutrients.

It is especially true in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Everyone accepts that in the face of such news, especially where the diagnosis is more damning, an individual will experience a range of volatile emotions. The emotions will come and go, and we expect them to last for months, even years in some cases. People may never get over them until the day they die. That makes it permissible for an individual’s mental health to deteriorate during this period. Of course, some breakdown of mental stability is sometimes necessary. I’ve cried uncontrollably at times, I’ve woke up scared and not remembered why, and I’ve felt incredibly angry at perceived injustices I’ve experienced; my employer not making it easy for me to return to work, or the original diagnosis at the hospital not being specific enough and carrying a lot of negative energy. It can be necessary to feel these things to help you process them. That is how I reflect on them, and it provides them with a lesson that you can apply in the future. You hope that next time, that lesson will stop you going to those same places mentally. When I speak to people about these things, they tell me that I’m right to feel that way. Sometimes, though, they remind me that there are much bigger things at play here and that keeping myself in a positive mindset is essential. I’ve felt the power of it and it has certainly changed me as a person.

Feeling scared, sad and angry over a period of time really takes its toll on you. In my experience, it makes me far more irrational, seeking narratives which support those negative feelings and using them to intensify the emotions even further. You get locked in that mindset and it keeps you prisoner. It has never benefitted me more to respond to events in this volatile manner. I can’t converse with my family in a positive way, I don’t allow myself to enjoy the things in my life that are special and I find myself moping about, not actually trying to sort out the issues which have made me feel that way in the first place.

I’m not sure what the science is behind it yet and I hope the relevant chapters in the book will shed some light on it, but I can see how allowing yourself to remain in this state could promote the growth of cancer cells in the body. The feelings are debilitating – they can actually stop you from getting out of bed in the morning. If that is how they manifest physically in your behaviours, why wouldn’t they do something similar to the processes going on within your body? If our bodies are constantly creating ‘bad’ cells, as I read in the introduction of the book, but also has processes for dealing with them and stopping them from getting out of control, why wouldn’t those processes also be affected by these intensely negative emotions? All of it makes logical sense to me. I’ve experienced the difference in mindset between a good day and bad day of dealing with cancer; I’ll take the good days every time if I have a choice, and I do have a choice.

Nurturing behaviours that promote both physical and mental wellbeing are essential to me. My key techniques for keeping myself physically well are very similar to the mental ones really. Physical exercise, such as running and yoga, help improve both my physical and mental health. When I am in the zone with exercise, I feel a state of both intense contemplation, yet complete calm. It’s strange. I feel like my brain is ordering and dealing with things that are bothering me, but I can rarely recall any of it specifically afterwards. It is especially true of running. During yoga, I try to bat away thoughts and focus on the position and how it feels, which offers a different wealth of benefits.

Eating well is another technique for improving both my mental and physical health. The physical benefits are quite obvious and I spoke about them earlier, but the mental ones are more abstract. Eating well can make you feel better for the plain fact that you know you’re doing something that is good for you. The process of cooking is also great for me mentally. Sometimes during chemotherapy, cooking an evening meal was the only thing that got me out of bed or off the sofa. I found the energy to do it despite not finding the energy to do anything else all day. It is such a satisfying process, creating something from scratch that you then get to consume. Even when it is not the healthiest dish, you still feel a level of satisfaction that you do not get if you did not make it yourself. It is yours, and you can give it to the people around you that you love.

Finally, I want to talk a bit about the first two chapters, and why it was difficult for me to get through. The author discusses how he discovered he had a brain tumour. He was running a laboratory on functional brain imaging with his good friend and colleague, Jonathan Cohen. They had access to a new type of MRI scanner which was far more accurate than the ones widely available in hospitals at the time, which allowed them to create studies to investigate the prefrontal cortex of the brain. He states that this is a particularly difficult part of the brain to observe, so little research had been done up to this point. With access to this new type of MRI scanner and a devised technique for getting this part of the brain to show up on the scans, they had the perfect formula to start their research. Subjects would come into the lab and be put into the MRI scanner to be observed. Firstly, a scan would be taken of their brain before undergoing the task, then the subject would complete the task whilst another scan was taken. The task required them to use the prefrontal cortex as it required them to remember something and answer a question based on it, a feature which requires the use of this part of the brain.

One day, a subject didn’t show up. David was the least technical out of the people running the scans – he had come up with the method for testing subjects, but did not specialise in operating the equipment. They suggested that they scan him so the time slot is not wasted. After doing the initial brain scan, they told him that something was wrong with the equipment. They did another test, before entering the room and breaking the news to him… The equipment wasn’t broken, there was something the size of a walnut on his brain. They sent the scans over to the relevant department for investigation but David states that he knew what it meant. He had seen plenty of brain scans and could recognise when there was something abnormal going on. This was certainly abnormal. He speaks about going home that night and laying next to his girlfriend whilst she slept, smoking a cigarette and staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he was going to die at 31. I had to stop reading and take a minute to compose myself.

I’d been in that exact place. Reading it was so strange. When you read things, you experience them in a very different way to other mediums, such as film. That person’s thoughts are temporarily placed in your brain, with you still present but temporarily allowing yourself to experience the world through their thoughts. You get a feel for what they are like, what drives them and how they respond to things. A narrative is created in your head and that character sits there throughout the book. I had hardly read any of this book, and here was a man describing a situation and mindset that I had experienced. Not only had I experienced it, but it was the lowest point of my life. Laying in the hospital bed the night of my diagnosis, I stared at the ceiling whilst Anna slept beside me. All I could think was ‘how has this happened? I’m 28; I keep myself healthy. What have I done to deserve this?’ I was incredibly scared. David’s girlfriend is also called Anna which made it feel even closer to home. It was eerie.

After taking a few minutes, I continued to read. The next part really shocked me. I’ve taken a cut of it below, not wanting to paraphrase or misinterpret his words.

“Just as I was repeating, ‘It can’t be happening to me; it’s impossible,’ the other voice said, ‘You know what, David? It’s perfectly possible, and it’s all OK.’ Something happened then that was both astonishing and incomprehensible. From that second onwards I was no longer paralyzed. It was obvious; yes, it was possible. It was part of the human experience. Many others had experienced it before me and I wasn’t special. There was nothing wrong with being simply, completely human.” – Dr David Servan-Schreiber, Anticancer, Page 21

Sometimes you read something so apt that you are certain that you’ve thought it before. It is a sort of deja vu but for thoughts. It perfectly summarises the power your mind has over your emotions, and how they can define your response to a situation. David turned over those thoughts of fear and anguish in a few minutes using nothing but his own brain – a particularly powerful brain, of course. It demonstrates the power of mental wellbeing and how it can define how you deal (or do not deal) with a situation.

He says himself that the techniques in the book will not create miracles and that people should adopt the parts of it which work for them. I’m interested to see which parts really resonate with me, and to challenge myself to take more accountability in my fight against cancer. Up to now, I have mostly accepted that the oncology team provides the techniques and acumen to beat this cancer. Ultimately, they will always hold the keys to getting cured, especially where surgery is a requirement, such as with my cancer and diagnosis.

The author is not claiming that making these changes will miraculously get rid of your cancer, or replace the role that chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and other medical techniques hold in the process. The changes may provide that little edge that you need, though. Whether that edge helps get you another week, month, year, or all the way to being cured, it’s worth using them and seeing (in my opinion). Feeling in control of your life is difficult when dealing with cancer; even if these techniques only give you a new means of feeling in control of the situation, I think that is a strong argument that they have value. It is like every behaviour in life – so long as they do not dominate, delude and control your thinking, they can be used at your discretion where you find them useful.

Vegetarianism

The ‘C’ Word

Wise As An Owl (Or Trying to Be)

The year was around 2011. I was driving my girlfriend at the time home from my parent’s house. It was late and the roads were dark. Her parent’s house was about a 15-minute drive from mine, predominantly on country roads. At one point in the journey, there is a steady climb as you go over the motorway. There are wooden fences on both sides of the road as you ascend before the road flattens out at the apex, where the fences change to metal and you can look down at the motorway below. Behind the wooden fences are thick bushes, obscuring the view on either side. The road isn’t lit, so when it is dark you can only really see what is in front of your headlights. I was driving up this hill when all of a sudden a fox ran out from the bush on the right side of the road and sprinted across the car’s path. There was a split second when I saw it appear in front of my headlights but it wasn’t enough time for me to do anything about it. I slammed on the breaks in the split second I had, before feeling the car jolt.

We pulled over and I sat there for a few minutes with my head in my hands. “What’s wrong? It’s just a fox!” She was trying to comfort me but I felt awful. I couldn’t stop thinking about that split second where I saw the little animal’s face turn towards the headlights – the second I noticed that there was something in front of the car, but couldn’t react to it fast enough to stop. Only seconds after it happened, I wasn’t sure if I was dramatising it in my head or if it had happened how I remembered it. I felt like I’d seen the panic in the fox’s face as the headlights lit it up like a target. “What if it isn’t dead? I can’t just leave it here,” I said. It was really bothering me. After a few minutes, I pulled off and drove her the rest of the way home. On the way back, I pulled over and got out to look at it properly. My nerves were rocketing and I felt scared of what I’d find. I couldn’t kill something with my hands, using brute force to finish it off with a rock. I couldn’t even drive over it again knowing what I was doing. As I approached the body, I saw that it was quite a young-looking fox. It was dead. That didn’t make me feel better, but I felt relieved that it wasn’t suffering. The event really bothered me, and I still think about it sometimes when I see animals dead on the side of the road. I wonder if the person who hit them felt bad about it, or if they laughed with their friends and sped off. I hope people don’t do that, but I’m sure they do.

This wasn’t the event that made me go vegetarian, but it was the event that made me consider an important point – if I can’t kill an animal with my own hands, cut out its organs and prepare the meat to be cooked, why should I eat them at all? Morally, I didn’t feel like I had a right. I didn’t turn vegetarian until the summer of 2016, though. Approximately 5 years after the event with the fox. The point sat on my mind, but it felt more difficult and invasive to do anything about it than to just have those thoughts occasionally. What would I do when I go round to a friend’s house and they have cooked meat for me? Just not eat it? What about when I go to a restaurant and there aren’t any vegetarian options? Do I make it all about me and protest, requesting to go somewhere else, or just go hungry? I was good at creating situations in my head where it would be a problem and bad at just doing it.

I knew that eating meat didn’t sit right with me even before the event with the fox. At the time, I was still using Facebook. Whenever a video was shared about factory farm conditions, I’d avert my eyes and try to scroll past it quickly. When I went to a butcher where they hung carcasses in the window, I’d look on in disgust and wonder why they would want to display such a thing. Others would emphasise their excitement at the prospect of a hog roast; I’d eat my portion to not be rude, side-eyeing the roasting carcass and wondering why I’m putting the meat in my mouth. I’d feel sick the entire time. It took me a long time to recognise how hypocritical this all was. I ate meat after all and these things are all the realities of eating meat. Others aren’t bothered by these things – they may actually feel more ravenous at the sight of a roasting hog carcass over a fire. I was never one of those people.

Meat was something I’d always eaten – I didn’t really consider these behaviours strange at the time. It was typical of me until the age of about 24 – lacking critical thinking, not wanting to be seen to be rocking the boat and arrogantly dismissive of reality; that if something makes me feel uncomfortable, there are probably things about it worth unpacking. It was only when I started to read about the meat industry that I started to understand more about it. My feeling that I was uncomfortable with meat was being validated, but not in ways that I thought it would. To be honest, I didn’t have the foresight to even think that the practices going on may have been immoral, counterproductive or dangerous. The knowledge that animals were dying was what made me uncomfortable originally. Learning that the modern practices used to mass-produce meat were bad just offered me a nice excuse to stop eating it. Knowing that I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) kill an animal myself was the most convincing argument to myself.

Now, I don’t want this blog post to become an argument for turning vegetarian – that isn’t the point of it. I’m not going to start discussing at length about factory farming, environmental factors, slaughterhouses etc. If you are interested, I am going to include a read list at the end of the post with a few good books that I have read which would introduce you to these concepts. What I will say is that each of us finds things that we feel passionately about in life and we pursue them in our own way. They are the topics that we are comfortable discussing, find interesting and, generally, believe we understand how we can make an impact personally. That is what we then find attractive about that thing. This is my experience anyway – I would struggle to feel passionate about something that I felt I couldn’t change for the better. Passion comes in the knowledge that you understand it and can be a vehicle for change – even if that vehicle for change only refers to your ability to keep learning about it as a means of improving your knowledge. Being vegetarian felt practical to me. One person turning vegetarian may not seem like a lot, but considering yourself part of a community of vegetarians made it feel more effective. Over my lifetime, I would have purchased a lot of meat if I didn’t turn vegetarian. I used to eat meat for nearly every meal, then one day I just didn’t. That is a lot of meat in a single year, never mind five, ten, fifty years.

Being vegetarian is certainly one of my passions now, but I do not enjoy going around calling out people for eating meat, or engaging in discussions in an attempt to influence people’s decisions. It isn’t to say I’m not willing to have those conversations, but it isn’t really my business whether someone else wants to eat meat or not. It does make me laugh, though, as some meat-eaters love to engage me in flippant and provocative ways. They’ll order a steak and make comments like “Does that make you want to cry?” or “This is what a real meal looks like”. I’ll usually just politely laugh, and sometimes the jokes are done in a way that they are genuinely funny. I make the jokes myself sometimes. I’ll engage in a discussion if someone starts one with me, but people usually think they want to argue with you more than they actually do. That’s because the arguments you face are usually vapid and based on feeling, not fact. People say things like “it’s natural to eat meat”, but don’t like it when it’s anything but natural how we are producing it to give people that meat. They resent you pointing out that they have no idea where that steak has come from, that restaurants use phrases like ‘corn fed’ before chicken to make it sound better quality, but this does not say anything about the quality of the meat in reality. It just tells you that they ate corn; it doesn’t even prove they ate corn all the time. I understand that this is fine – not everyone takes such an interest in where their food comes from, and the wider impact of it – but that is why I don’t understand why people want to engage me over it in the first place. It is a topic that people feel entitled to discuss despite never taking the time to research it. When you present reasonable arguments back, they can quickly become defensive or accuse you of trying to influence them, forgetting that they started the discussion.

It can be enjoyable when someone does want to discuss it and have an open mind, though. Recently, I spoke to someone about hunting. Hunting is an activity that they had done since they were young with their dad. Generally, they eat what they hunt and prepare it all themselves. They were surprised to hear that I thought that was an amazing thing to do. I couldn’t respect someone who goes out and hunts what they eat more – that was the crux of my original argument to myself that made me consider going vegetarian. I knew that it was an activity that wasn’t of interest to me and that I would struggle to cut up the animal afterwards and prepare it to be cooked. Knowing that about myself made me believe that I shouldn’t consume it at all. At least when you hunt an animal in the wild, it has lived autonomously up until that point, and I doubt the other ways it is likely to die in the wild are much better for the animal than being shot. Animals in factory farms would long for a bullet given the conditions they are said to exist in (I say “said to exist in” as I’ve never been in a factory farm myself, but I’ve read about them a lot and they sound atrocious).

The reason that I hold myself to a different standard with meat as opposed to vegetables or fruit is that there is a conscious life form involved. I don’t feel bad for not wanting to grow cucumbers to eat cucumbers as I do not think an equal amount is at stake. When it is a chicken being served, a living breathing thing is dying for that meat to end up on the plate. The knowledge that it had probably suffered immensely on a factory farm throughout its life, as most chickens do, made me incredibly uncomfortable. You can’t torture a cucumber.

Similarly, I understand that I am a hypocrite for still consuming dairy products. Many of the arguments against the meat industry are applicable to the dairy industry too. That is why I always say to people that you have to find your tolerance for these things. Although I have significantly lowered my dairy intake since being more mindful of what I eat and where it comes from, I find dairy extremely hard to cut out completely. More than that, I enjoy eating bread with real butter, cheese is delicious (although not to the extent that some do and if it has any mould on it, I’d rather it be in the bin than my mouth) and whipping cream to put on top of a cake is a new favourite of mine. In the same vein, I know plenty of people who do not see cutting meat out entirely as viable but will only cook vegetarian at home, for example. What I do try to do is source my dairy products more responsibly, whether it is through buying certified organic products, getting milk from a local source (my parents get it delivered to their house from a local farm) or buying eggs directly from a local provider. Sourcing meat more responsibly is a great way of being more conscientious whilst not giving up too much in the process. There is a great farm shop in our village where the meat is sourced either from the farm itself or from farms in Cheshire. I know from when I ate meat that the quality was very different when purchased from here as opposed to the supermarkets. It was much fresher, tastier and would not lose so much volume when cooked.

I am aware that this topic may not be of any interest to some people, though. Food is a huge part of all of our lives simply because we have to eat it to survive. Some people likely see eating as a pain and don’t find a lot of pleasure in it, whereas others spend hours looking at recipes, researching restaurants and finding exotic new ingredients to cook with. I feel like I have transitioned over the years from a moderate version of the former to now identifying myself more with the latter persuasion.

The catalyst for this change was turning vegetarian. Cooking used to be a mundane thing which I did each evening – grab some chicken breast, a jar of ready-made curry then get some microwave rice. It was good enough for me and I didn’t really think past it. Turning vegetarian forced me to think more about what I was going to do every day to keep myself satisfied. That eventually turned into a bit of a hobby, to now being more like a passion. A passion within a passion – I’m such a passionate individual, apparently.

I always find it amazing when I watch cooking programmes and everyone fawns over the cooking of meat. “Oh they’re doing venison – that is hard to get right,” contestant A says on cooking show X. I’m always sat there feeling a little perplexed at how obsessed we seem to be as a society with meat and how we believe that it constitutes the highest form of cooking. It takes a lot more imagination and skill to make a dish that doesn’t centre around a piece of meat, in my opinion. People see the removal of the meat element of a dish as the removal of any value of the dish itself. Isn’t that quite a sad reflection of whatever else you are putting around the meat on that plate? Maybe you should focus on those elements and figure out how you can make them as exciting as that piece of grilled chicken – wouldn’t that make the whole dish better?

There are a few chefs who have really changed the way I cook for the better. The most prominent one is Ottolenghi. His recipes regularly blow my mind. I’ll be making something from his book and thinking that I understand what it is going to taste like, then when I put all of the elements together at the end, I don’t understand how it can taste the way it does. So many of his recipes have left me amazed. He has many recipes available online, but he also has a large range of cookbooks; some are exclusively vegetarian/vegan, others contain meat recipes too. The recipes can take a while, and frequently have some obscure ingredients in them, but they are well worth it. I also find that the more of his recipes that you follow, the more of those ‘obscure’ ingredients. They aren’t so obscure for his recipes, just outside of them. I’d never even heard of a black lime until I started following his recipes, and now they are as familiar as plain old green limes (although, I still prefer the plain old green limes).

Another chef is Anna Jones. She has a cookbook called One that has loads of delicious recipes in it. These generally don’t contain too many obscure ingredients and she gives great substitutes for the vegetables depending on what is in season when you want to follow the recipe at hand.

Other than these two, I generally find recipes using the internet. BBC Good Food is a great place for browsing, Delicious and Olive are both great. I’m going to add a reading list below of some good books that I have read which discuss the meat industry. I’m also going to include some specific vegetarian recipes below that I regularly use and that I think perfectly show how a dish does not need meat to be incredibly delicious.

As a footnote to me not making this article to influence or preach, I want to give a summary of my opinion based on everything I have read. I’m putting it here so you can simply ignore it if you are not interested. The meat industry has always felt quite closeted and obtuse to me, and the more I read about it, the more it felt true. We get so little information about factors such as: where the meat was raised, what they were fed, whether their feed included any anti-biotics or growth enhancing drugs, what (if any) level of bacteria was detected in the meat samples from the manufacturer etc. Until that sort of information is readily available to us as consumers, I think we are right to stay suspicious of the industry, as we are not being given enough information to make informed decisions over whether we want to buy the products. My main point is this: food is important to us so we should care about where our food comes from and what journey it has been through. You are what you eat, after all.


Reading List

Vegetarian Recipes

  • Mushroom and Walnut Spag Bol – A vegetarian take on a classic. By blitzing the walnut and mushroom before adding it, you mimic the traditional spag bol consistency well, without needing the fatty mincemeat.
  • Aubergine and Tomato Salad with Feta Cream and Oregano – I don’t like feta, so I made the cream using Wensleydale. Fresh oregano has become one of my favourite herbs – it is so delicious. The oregano oil you make in this is so delicious and can be used in other Italian-style recipes.
  • Miso Butter Mushroom Risotto – You have to dig around this page to figure out the recipe but it is worth it. I double the amount of miso used, and also add some tahini for some extra flavour. They recommend using vegan butter, but I use normal butter unless cooking for a vegan. The butter alternatives are some of the best around, but they are quite processed which is why I avoid them most of the time.
  • Lemon, Tomato & Cardamom Dhal – I absolutely love making dhals but if you have not made one before, you may get frustrated with getting the amount of water right. You can essentially leave them to bubble for as long as it takes to get the consistency of dhal you want, but that can take a long time. I put less water in for this recipe personally. It takes a bit of time to get them right, but they are so delicious when you do.
  • The Ultimate Tray-bake Ragu – Although there are a lot of ingredients in this one, the method is really easy. It is the recipe that I have had the most meat-eaters say “I can’t believe there isn’t meat in this”. It’s truly delicious, and a good example of how Ottolenghi just gets so much flavour in his dishes. I lower the amount of oil that he suggests adding, though.

Run 40 for Pan Can? Completed It, Mate

Finishing the 40 with my younger brother Alfie

I hit the 40-mile mark in the Run 40 in February challenge yesterday. After running 3.5 miles with my brother Alfie, my total distance now sits at 41 miles. The total will also be much higher by the time February is over. True, I did upload a single walk of 2 miles, so my running total is 39 miles, but I also said that I could upload walks in week 1 of the cycle if I felt too unwell to run. I feel good that I only needed to do this once. It feels like a good time to reflect on the challenge and things more generally.

It has felt excellent challenging myself again. I’m so used to being in a cycle of entering fitness events, training for fitness events, recovering from fitness events that I did really feel the loss of it when I fell ill. Then came the weeks in hospital, the drip-feeding of worsening information about the diagnosis, and the eventual life-shattering diagnosis itself. When I think about it all now, it is striking how quickly things changed and how different my life is now. But humans are seriously adaptable creatures, and we mostly seem able to cope with change, no matter how drastic. In this situation, I didn’t have any other option.

I’ve always spent a lot of time and mental effort dealing with existentialism in some form. In this blog, I’ve spoken about this in various posts. When I was younger, it was mostly me obsessively worrying about my family and whether they were worried about things like death. Once I started dropping this obsessive worry-ception over death, it materialised more in me worrying that they may experience a lot of pain in their life because of something like a, I dunno, cancer diagnosis, to pluck a situation from thin air. These macro-worries were always peppered in with more micro-worries about just about anything in my daily life; whether I was liked by my peers, whether I’d ever find a good career, whether I’d find a stable relationship that I actually held together, etc etc. When I was 20, I got the below lyrics tattooed on my back; they demonstrate my slight obsession with death around this time. The lyrics are from a song called ‘Dirt’ by a punk band called The Swellers.

“No casket please

I’ll rot out with the leaves

No clothes for me to wear

The dirt won’t care”

‘Dirt’ by The Swellers; I got these lyrics tattooed on my back when I was 20

I’m glad to say that by my early to mid-’20s, I’d managed to drop a lot of this attitude. I learnt that it was unproductive. There is only so much you can worry about in life, and the worry itself does nothing to improve the situation. If there is something you can do to combat your concerns, then do it. If there is nothing you can logically do to combat the worry, then inject some reason to counter that voice in your head when it starts reeling off its negative script. It takes time, but it helps. I don’t regret the tattoo on my back. Overall, the song contains a good message – the lead singer is accepting death and telling his family to process it positively, as the final few lines demonstrate. It is written in the form of a note to them, and I have always found it a fascinating song lyrically. It won’t be to everyone taste musically, though, I concede.

“And I know,

There’s no headstone where I’m lying.

So where do you go when you’re crying?

Just hold on to a memory of me

Inside of your heart always.”

‘Dirt’ by The Swellers – the last lines of the song

The cancer diagnosis has provided me with an opportunity to test my stoicism. My soon-to-be mother-in-law Kathy has provided me with a book on the great Stoics called The Daily Stoic, which I mention in my blog post 100 to 1. I’d really recommend it if you are looking for some calming wisdom in life. It has a page per day of the year and provides a quote of wisdom from an ancient philosopher and then a breakdown by the author. The idea is that you read the prescribed wisdom every day, bestowing it upon yourself and helping to apply it in your everyday life. It never takes more than 5 minutes to read, and some days I am genuinely taken aback by the words on the page. They really make you think, and some of them are really practical advice that can help you deal with day to day situations. Today’s page (February 17th) is titled ‘The Enemy of Happiness’ and contains a quote from Epictetus. To summarise its central point – happiness cannot co-exist with a yearning for more. It discusses conditional happiness – an example being someone who says to themselves, ‘I’ll be happy when I get paid x amount a year’. They state that these goals ruin your chances of being happy now. It’s a strong point, and I am most definitely guilty of thinking that some future event will be the thing that makes me fully happy. There’s always more we can work on to improve ourselves, though, so I’m not going to beat myself up too badly for it.

Although I think I was doing a good job of staying positive before I started running again, it has improved things to a large extent. Despite the limitations placed on me by the chemotherapy, I managed to feel almost normal in week 2 of the cycle. The oncologist told me that steady exercise would help ease the symptoms, and it really has in my case. It hasn’t lessened the ulcers, but that is a small price to pay given the accounts of others that I have heard who are also on the Folfirinox chemotherapy. It is a powerful drug, and I have listened to others talk of extreme fatigue, complete loss of appetite and regular vomiting. I’ve experienced some of these symptoms to an extent, especially chronic fatigue, but they never last very long. Since starting to run again, I can confidently say I am experiencing them less. My energy levels feel good, even towards the end of week 1.

Even ignoring the benefits I feel in terms of my response to the chemotherapy drugs, it is just nice to be achieving things again. I am no longer working, so I do not experience the highs and lows of challenging myself at work. Pushing myself physically feels like one of the last pillars of independence I actually have. Everything else important in my life is being managed by other people more adept in those areas – specifically, the oncology team dealing with my case. I’m not sure that what I have been doing always classifies as ‘steady exercise’, but when I spoke to other survivors at a Pancreatic Cancer UK support group session, they told me to do whatever felt normal for me. Pushing myself physically feels normal for me, so I am trying to balance accepting that my body’s ability is currently limited and doing something I know is both physically and mentally good for me.

In terms of the fundraising itself, I only have everyone who has donated, shared and taken an interest to thank. It is astonishing how much has been raised. I know I say that all the time, but I started out with a goal of £250. I thought I would achieve this, but I did not believe it would get anywhere near as high as £6,000. It’s a mind-boggling amount of money to see on the page. The donations have slowed down now, but that was to be expected. The page can be accessed here if you still want to donate or share. My biggest push came after the page was shared by my friend in a local Facebook group. It shows that sharing on social media really can make a huge difference, so if you can think of anywhere to share it where people may be interested, please do. I’ll continue to eat away at the miles and see how far we can push this thing!