Let Me Eat Cake

Let Me Eat Cake

A Lump in the Road column

I take my baking seriously.

I actually harvest my own yeast and use it to bake bread. It’s a smelly, glue-like concoction that lives in the back of our refrigerator and draws lots of complaints from my family. I’ve taken it on vacations, smuggled it through customs and even had neighbors baby-sit it. After four years in the same plastic container, my husband pleaded with me at least to put it in glass. I think he secretly believes that the nasty goo somehow caused my cancer.

During chemo, though, I just couldn’t do it. The idea of assembling ingredients exhausted me. And I wasn’t sure I could endure the smell of raw flour without barfing. Even cakes and cookies, my mainstays, were out of the question.

At the start of chemo, I looked at a calendar and tried to calculate what milestones would pass during treatment. What would I miss?  As I counted, I figured chemo would fall just before my 50th birthday. I’d be tired, for sure, but I was already planning my cake. How hard could it be?

However, as my birthday inched closer, and with a few sessions of chemo behind me, I realized a lot more could go wrong than just being “chemo tired.”

My first and second chemotherapy sessions landed me in the ER within hours of arriving home. After infusions, some patients – like me – get a condition called neutropenic fever. It happens when white blood cell counts drop so low that even the tiniest germ becomes a deadly threat. When it happens, it happens fast, and cancer is suddenly the least of your concerns.

My oncologist warned me to be vigilant about taking my temperature, but he was looking at my husband as he said a temp of over 100 [degrees Fahrenheit] was the first sign that the dreaded fever was on its way and to get me to the ER … fast. The first time it happened, my husband rushed me to the hospital at 1:00 in the morning, leaving our 10-year-old daughter at home alone. I was too weak to protest — about leaving the house in PJ’s and leaving our child. But he probably saved my life.

He later told me my white blood count had dropped so low that there was a hushed urgent pause in the room. They discussed helicoptering me to another hospital but decided it was too risky. I stayed four days, and anyone who came into my room had to dress in a hazmat suit.

Things didn’t look good for my up coming 50th. “I just don’t want to be in the hospital again,” I told my friend Shannon when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday.

The idea of spending it hooked to an IV, sequestered, consumed me with dread. My wish was to sail through my birthday chemo and to get to stay home.

“I’ll say a prayer that you get your wish,” Shannon told me. She’s a pastor, so I figured she might carry extra weight with her prayer power.

Fever-free birthday

My birthday week came, and I was fever-free. I was not going to end up in the ER, but alas, I had not baked a cake.

My husband would have bought one, but in our twenty years together, we’ve never had a purchased cake. He sort of, kind of, offered to make one, an event to which I could probably have sold tickets.

“We’ll do your 50th next year,” he said. He was running our family business, taking care of our daughter, and overseeing my care along with the accompanying insurance nightmare. The guy had his hands full and thought his wife was going to die.

Then I remembered a cake we had in the freezer. My daughter’s birthday is in December, and the most recent came two weeks before my diagnosis. I had wrapped her leftover cake in several layers of plastic. Maybe it would suffice.

I resolved to find pleasure in the prospect, and in my mind tried to draw poetic connections in the sharing of the cake. In reality, though, I was dismayed. A used cake is a used cake.

Then, out of the blue, something wonderful happened.

In one of the unexpected miracles of cancer, my friend Katy came over with a massive chocolate cake: five incredible layers filled with ganache, an extravagance of celebration. It must have cost a fortune. She dropped it off and disappeared in an instant.

That night, we had dinner at home, simple and delicious. My family spoiled me with wonderful gifts. And then, Lauren set fifty candles aflame, a bonfire right on our kitchen counter. It took a cleaver to cut through all those layers, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

If and when I have the good fortune to turn 55, I plan to have a 50th birthday celebration, one where I’m so healthy I can run a marathon before the party.

But until that day, I have an incredible memory to treasure: a magnificent cake and an even better friend who had the grace and generosity to provide it. That cake and that friend are among the treasures of my life.


Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.

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  1. ellen scolnic says:

    great essay! happy birthday – start planning your cake for next year! If you’re a great baker, you can dream, clip recipes, invent and augment. You’ll have many years and many cakes to come!

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