Fighting cancer with an Anti-Cancer Plan – Interview with Domini Kemp

Here at Happy Magazine one of our main aims is to encourage all people going through cancer to create an Anti-Cancer Plan – that is a plan of lifestyle changes, big or small, to best support their individual body through cancer and beyond. Most of our content follows this theme and suggests ideas that you might want to try on your own cancer journey.

Photo copyright / Barry McCall

Today we have an interview with chef, food writer and author Domini Kemp. We think Domini is a leading light in the world of cancer survivorship and we are so pleased to have her here today on Happy Magazine, sharing her cancer story and the details of her own Anti-Cancer Plan.

To start, please give us a brief outline of your experience with cancer and where you are in your cancer journey today

The start of 2013 began badly for me. I had been sick with adult whooping cough at the start of the year and then found a small lump in my left breast, which I got checked out by my GP. I was then referred to go to the breast check clinic for triple assessment.

I went to get the results and unfortunately (but actually, fortunately!) they found two more tumours in the same breast as the small lump I had found. I was given chemo first – 6 sessions in total, or 1 every three weeks. But I made it my mission that instead of getting “match fit” I was going to get “chemo fit”. This meant keeping up with work, exercise and going on a healthy eating binge like no other.

Back in 1998, I had a malignant melanoma, had surgery and was treated with a drug called Interferon. It was chalked up to the fact that I was born in the Bahamas, with Celtic skin in an era when no one wore sunblock (or seatbelts). I’d had numerous sunburns as a child. Pregnancy kick-started the growth of the melanoma. Skin cancer is extremely dangerous, as it can spread so quickly and people can be slow to notice they have a mole or growth that needs attention. I was lucky, but the fright made me look into the idea of staying healthier in life and looking at things that were “anti-cancer”. I read books by Dr Andrew Weil and Dr Servan Schreiber and followed advice where and when I could. I was no angel, but I was certainly aware, so when my breast cancer diagnosis came, I knew what I wanted to do.

What changes did you make to your life after your cancer diagnoses or what is your “anti-cancer plan”? For example, diet, supplements, therapies, exercise, water consumption, sleep, toxic load, stress factors, etc.

For the most part, that meant lots of green juicing, reducing carbohydrates, avoiding sugar or anything processed plus drinking wheatgrass shots every morning and using turmeric, garlic and ginger as much as possible. Bone broths and miso soup became staples. Fermented foods were introduced, and inadvertently I ended up fasting a bit during chemo.

And it was around this time that I not only really started to rely on my foodie friendships with Doris Choi and Susan Jane White for advice, but it was also when I met Patricia Daly who I eventually wrote a book with, called, The Ketogenic Kitchen. I entered a new phase of eating and was keen to see how it worked. For me that was low carb, for Patricia it is keto, which is why the book is broken out into two halves.

But don’t get me wrong: I do not eat a perfect diet and still love plenty of “bad” things. Naturally, I would break out and celebrate if out with friends, but I tried to eat better 80-90% of the time. I know this wouldn’t appeal to many people, but I certainly was able to keep exercising, working and living life as normally as possible. I would be wiped out for a few days post chemo and then would slowly bring myself back up. I do believe my diet and exercise was a major contributor to my well-being and that this helped my treatment. I wanted to support my immune system and not do anything to jeopardise treatment. I was keen to see if what I did was going to make everything more effective. I believe it did.

I don’t like jogging or running, but I tried to get out every day for 30 minutes at some stage for a shuffling run. It wasn’t to get tight buns, but rather to “kill cancer”. I just wanted to fight rather than wail “why me”. This was my way and I would do it again if I had to.

I had the mastectomy after chemo; the thought of it is so much worse than the reality. I also had an immediate reconstruction. I then went through six weeks of radiation and one final operation. All in all, it took close to a year before I was well and truly done.

When you look at websites, you see words like “long-term survival rates” and “outcomes”. These are very hard words to read, and harder for your loved ones to hear. But I guess the magic number is to try and get to 5 years without the disease coming back. It is one step at a time, but the statistics are there: one woman in eight.

I would have been aware of what to avoid in life and what to do to “prevent” cancer in very general terms: don’t smoke, avoid getting sunburn, eat healthily, exercise, eat a balanced diet, but it does feel like a really crap lottery.

The more I am learning, the more it seems so clear and obvious that although there are a few common mistakes with the dietary advice patients are being given, I think patients want to do more to help themselves and healthy people want to do as much as possible to prevent disease. Trying to stay fit and lean help. Exercise is vital. And stress levels need to be kept in control – one of the trickiest things, I find.

It’s also about making some small changes, seeing how you get on and then if it feels good, following that path further.

At what point during your cancer journey did you start to make these changes?

Immediately! Partially it was to have some sort of sense of control. But the minute I came back from the hospital after being handed a leaflet of the food pyramid, I started reading research papers – rather than personal anecdotes – and to find the cancer researchers and oncologists, who were conventional, but who also wanted their patients to look at nutrition.

How did you know what changes to make, for example, where/who did you go to for information?

There are some really interesting cancer researchers, scientists, dieticians and oncologists out there who absolutely support conventional, but who are also very interested in nutrition. Sadly, most of them happen to be in the US, Germany & UK: Dr. Colin Champ, Dr Adrienne Scheck, Professor Tom Seyfried, Professor Dominic d’Agostino, Angela Poff, Sue Wood, Professor Dawn Lemanne, Professor Valter Longo, Reiner Klement, Professor Ben Bikman, Prof Monika Reuss-Borst… there is some really interesting work going on.

How did you find these changes impacted on your life? Positive and negative points.

I did really well. But remember, I was going through treatment at 41 years of age, not 71 years of age. Some people deal with cancer very differently and if that works for them, that’s great too. But people need better dietary information than what’s available. We can do better.

How did your family find the changes you made to your lifestyle?

They were incredibly supportive. Especially when it came taking time to go exercise. It can easily get relegated. But having your family push you out the door when you are feeling guilty about taking up time for yourself, was really great. My husband really had to take over for the majority of 2013 and we are all the better for it. I owe him and my family everything. Not having support during cancer treatment is horrible and lonely. I am very lucky.

Which changes made the biggest impact on your health and wellbeing and how have you seen the benefits?

Cutting out processed carbs and other foods that will affect my blood glucose and that require a lot of insulin to be metabolised. I monitor my blood glucose now and try my best to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, although this is often jammed into a few intensive sessions. I also monitor my weight carefully and try to stay lean. That’s hardest for me as I love all food!!!

What changes did you make initially but then drop along the way and why?

My wheatgrass machine broke and I was secretly delighted…

What three recommendations for lifestyle changes, big or small, would you make to someone starting on a cancer journey?

Read the latest science. Avoid listening to too many personal stories and recommendations. Listen to your body. Block out the noise and if you are doing chemo, try to do something really nice after each session. That could be going for a massage or reflexology, or even meeting up with an old friend you’ve been meaning to see for ages. Having something to look forward to during those dark hours, really helped me.

What products, food or otherwise, did you discover through your cancer journey that you have now built into your lifestyle and why?

Photo copyright / Aidan Crawley

We created the Alchemy Juice Company in 2013. I wanted to make food available in a casual-style setting to suit different approaches whether it was wheat-free, dairy free, low carb, vegan, paleo, keto… you name it… everyone wants to approach cancer a different way. I am very proud of it, especially our latest addition to the range: “Golden Shots” – a blend of fresh turmeric juice, fresh ginger juice and pressed lemons with flax oil and black pepper.

Domini Kemp is a chef, food writer and author of five cookbooks, including The Ketogenic Kitchen, co-written with Nutritional Therapist, Patricia Daly. She runs restaurants, cafés and catering companies here in Ireland, including Joe’s, Hatch & Sons, ITSA and Feast Catering & Events.

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