January 9, 2012
I was baptized at Our Lady of Hypochondria Church.
When I get a headache, my mind speeds past simple causes, like "sinus pressure," and goes straight to "inoperable brain tumor." If my leg tingles, it's multiple sclerosis; if my heart hiccups, it's cardiac arrest.
Ah, the pointless trysts with Dr. Google, self-diagnosing ailments I didn't have.
That is, until I got DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). A routine mammogram detected cancer cells in my right breast. Luckily for me, the doctors caught it early, but I would need surgery followed by radiation.
Let's see — 61/2 weeks of radiation. That's roughly 1,092 hours of worry time. And if worrying was an Olympic sport, I'd be on the Wheaties box.
I had to do something to distract myself.
I started baking.
The idea came to me on my third day of treatment, after I casually mentioned making blackberry cobbler for my family the night before.
"From scratch?" asked one of the techs, as if I was talking about some exotic 19th century practice, like brewing my own sarsaparilla.
Suddenly it hit me: These people eat hospital food every day. While they saved my breast, I could rescue their taste buds from the horrors of lime Jell-O with non-dairy topping that packed more chemicals than antifreeze.
That Monday, I arrived at radiation hauling a three-layer red velvet cake, gussied up with fresh berries. Or, as my family calls it, "crystal meth with cream cheese frosting."
A few days later, I brought a warm-from-the-oven strawberry-rhubarb pie with crumble topping. It was empowering to morph from Frightened Cancer Victim into Aunt Bee delivering a picnic basket to Andy down at the Mayberry sheriff's station.
After that came a torte made from 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate, six eggs, 9 tablespoons of butter and freshly whipped cream — a creation so decadent it might qualify as a controlled narcotic.
So it went throughout the summer: humid nights measuring sugar and vanilla, air-conditioned days lying beneath a linear accelerator as it dispensed 20-second hits of radiation. Rather than dwelling on my worst fears ("What if they can't get it all?"), I would envision myself at home, watching ribbons of batter cascade into layer pans.
I got lots of double-takes, sitting in my hospital gown in the waiting room with a cake perched on my lap. Yet I quickly discovered that baking wasn't an escape for me alone. Because they're associated with happy occasions, seeing cakes in such an incongruous setting seemed to transport my fellow oncology patients back in time to childhood kitchens and carefree days before cancer hijacked their lives.
On the last day of treatment, I brought in the dessert that the staff voted its favorite, the one dubbed "a heart attack on a plate" for its artery-clogging ingredients: the red velvet cake.
Hugs were exchanged. Tears were shed. Diets were destroyed.
Imagine. Cake trumps cancer. Take that, ductal carcinoma.
Somewhere, Marie Antoinette is savoring the sweet taste of vindication.
MacDonald, a writer and former L.A. resident who lives in Portsmouth, N.H., has been cancer-free for six years. She can be reached at wickedgoodcopy@
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