Having just completed her 12th chemotherapy session last month, Candice Chiew is hopeful that she’s seen the last of the cancer that has turned her life upside down. The 37-year-old is a mother of two little girls and wants nothing more than to watch them grow up. But she’s not leaving it to fate. Rather, she’s taken charge of her health by healing her body with nutritious food. And now she wants to share it with the world!
“My cancer was discovered in February this year. I started coughing up blood, but didn’t think much of it at first. Until I went to the polyclinic and they referred me to the hospital immediately. At first, I didn’t believe it and actually bargained with the doctor to delay it till the following day, as I needed to pick my older daughter up from school. But in the end, I ended up being admitted to the hospital for 10 whole days.
I was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Essentially, my immune system was attacking itself. My first thought — as strange as it sounds — was “Thank God it was stage four lymphoma”. The doctor explained that it was actually good news, as unlike stage four lung cancer, for instance, this was actually something manageable.
The decision to go for chemotherapy was very difficult as I didn’t want to inject my body with what is essentially poison. I endured 12 sessions over a period of six months. It’s really tough to sit through chemo — being on the drip for five hours every two weeks — when the veins start popping up because the medicine coursing through actually hurts the veins. After treatment, I also had to inject myself with a booster to boost the white blood cells because chemo kills off good blood cells too.
(See also: True Story: Baby after Cancer, Business after Miscarriages)
Initially, not knowing how sick I would be, I feared being a burden, a liability to my family. But my lowest point came halfway through the chemo. I just didn’t want to do it anymore, didn’t want to continue putting my body at risk. I was looking for alternative ways to heal myself. It was my husband, Mervyn, who encouraged me to continue because of the proven science of chemo.
What Kept Me Going
We have two girls, seven-year-old Megan, and Chloe, who’s two and a half. Accounting for my absence those 10 days I was in the hospital was difficult. It was the first time I’d disappeared out of the blue. I had no answer for them and had to drag it out day by day. Children aren’t allowed in the isolation ward, so it was only on the second-last day that Megan could visit. She’s a big worrier, so I didn’t want to put unnecessary burden on her. Especially when she’s very aware and an astute listener.
The saddest thing I’ve had to endure was not being able to explain to my baby why I had to stop breastfeeding her. I was nursing her all the way, and then suddenly, cold turkey. I miss that so much!
Eventually we told them that I’m sick and need to take medicine. It was a simple explanation for when they saw me preparing for the chemo and going through the cycles. Mervyn and I first met in university when I was volunteering at a youth camp and he was the camp organiser. He is my rock — he has been so supportive and is the one who sends me for my chemo sessions.
Thankfully my mum stays in the block next to us, so when I was in hospital and in the initial days after I was discharged, the kids stayed over there. It was actually worse when I was recuperating at home; they seemed so near yet so far! My mum and my aunt also help care for the kids and sit with me during chemo. And we have a close community of church friends who have been so caring. I don’t think I could have gotten through these past months without all of them.
Evolving Mothering Styles
Before I got sick, I was a social worker and counsellor working with families with young children. My work experiences influenced how I wanted to bring up my kids. I teach them to express their feelings in words, rather than shush them and shut them down. It was very different from my own upbringing where my mum would say things like “No crying!” I was very hands-on with my first girl. But my mothering style also changed slightly when I got sick.
Because I had this brush with death, I knew that I can’t be hovering over them so much that they can’t live without me. I felt I had to prepare them for the eventuality that I might die, so I had to give up a lot of control. It was a struggle, walking the line between being involved and being not-too-involved. Finding the balance of letting them be independent and yet knowing that I love them.
I made a real effort to teach them life skills. My little one can now take off her own shoes when she comes home from school. She can use the toilet independently. We teach them communication, to speak of love for each other. It’s evident in their sisterly relationship and I think this is the best thing I can give to them. Even if I’m not around, they are there to support each other.
I hope to teach my children to not be afraid to fail, to go and try new things and explore. I want anything I leave them to be a legacy. When they think about their mum, I want them to think about a person who fought hard and lived life well.
(See also: How to Talk to your Child about Death)
Having to stop work turned out to be a profound change. Previously, after work I just wanted to come home, eat and sleep. Any spare time I had was spent with my kids, then my husband, and last came myself, if at all. Then God gave me a reason to rest. From this rest comes new life. Suddenly I had free time to explore other pursuits. For instance, one neighbour is going to teach me to play the guitar, and another is giving me potted veggies so we can cut down on supermarket produce.
I’m also trying to influence my family to lead a more ‘genesis’ life, going back to nature. We’ve been dirt farming in Kranji, a conscious effort to let my kids experience touching the soil. I plan to start a compost bin to upcycle kitchen waste. As I told Mervyn, “You now have an out-of-the-box wife. If we confine ourselves to the ‘box’, we’ll be dead.”
Having gone through it, I recognise that chemo is an effective way to fight cancer. But I couldn’t help but think that there must be more natural ways to help our bodies heal. I met a guardian angel who came into my life at the right time to share about anti-inflammatory and gut-healing foods, herbs and grasses. Since then I’ve cut nearly all gluten, dairy and processed sugars out of my diet.
A lot of people undergoing chemo don’t realise how their diet can impact the whole experience. My diet has helped reduce many side effects, such as numbness in fingers and nausea. As a result, I didn’t have many really bad days and I attribute it to eating clean and eating well. What we choose to put into our bodies affect how our bodies act and feel.
My Life Giving Food
On my present diet, I don’t eat bread or noodles. I replace white rice with basmati, purple or brown rice, sometimes millet and quinoa. It’s all about alternatives; I try to find what works best for me, and if I can’t find it, I make it myself. I avoid outside food as much as possible, as I don’t know if what’s in there is necessarily safe. In supporting me in my diet change, Melvyn ended up losing 2 kg himself!
Following my experience with cancer, I now see food as my pharmacy. Instead of excessive amounts of medicine I’d rather eat good food, and I want to give others the gift of health through food too. That’s why when Mervyn sent me the online link to apply for the Deliveroo Foodiepreneur competition, I decided to give it a try. I’d just been given a new lease of life after all. It turned out that I’m the only amateur cook in the competition, but I believe that this is God’s way of telling me to go spread the word!
In a nutshell my food business concept is clean food alternatives for everyday meals — gluten-free, no refined sugar, non-processed. My dishes are targeted at people who are or want to be more health-conscious, but also looking for the familiar taste of comfort food. Since what I hope to bring to the table with my food is life, I’ve decided to call it ‘My Life Giving Food’.”
If food I eat is detrimental to me then I’m essentially killing myself. I have to keep fighting every day to keep myself alive.
Best of Luck, Candice!
Deliveroo Foodiepreneur offers aspiring chefs the opportunity to start or further their food business. Seven chosen candidates underwent training and mentorship workshops before taking part in a pop-up kitchen challenge on 2 October. They served their signature dish to the public, with the top five finalists moving on. The winner of this inaugural competition walks away with three months rent-free kitchen space at Deliveroo Food Market, outfitted with basic kitchen equipment worth $15,000, and $10,000 in cash. We wish Candice all the best for the final on 16 October 2019.