Caroline Wright: Brain Cancer, Motherhood, Writing, Food, Hope
9 Minute Read: Women in food, food as medicine, cancer, writing, motherhood, self-care, inspiration, hope, healing, lasting love.
Those who follow my Real Life series may have noticed some powerful, beautiful stories appearing in the Recipes + Links section lately. Specifically, I’m talking about the work of Caroline Wright – an author and cook living in Seattle with her husband, two kids, and a terminal brain cancer diagnosis.
Caroline was writing her third cookbook in 2017 when she was diagnosed with having a glioblastoma. She was given a year to live.
Her diagnosis brought drastic changes to her lifestyle, including the foods she cooked and ate. It also brought her life and work into sharp focus. That work is full of passion, inspiration and hope.
Below, Caroline shares glimpses of her journey, including:
The foods she cut
The foods she loves
What she’s drinking
Her transformed approach to writing
Her transformed approach to self-care + movement
How motherhood is woven into her story
How her work offers hope + healing to others
I’m honoured and grateful to share Caroline’s words + spirit in this space – please savour them!
Please introduce yourself!
I’m a writer, but also a cook, mother and brain cancer patient. I’ve written three cookbooks and one children’s book, all published through mainstream publishers. I’ve written two other books I self-published; all the books were inspired by and dedicated to people I love. The most recent have been in honour of my family.
Could you talk about your journey with illness + healing?
My illness – an aggressive brain cancer diagnosis, a glioblastoma – came on suddenly, as diagnoses can, and entirely disrupted what I thought was my healthy life. I was 32 with two little kids and a rising career as a cookbook author. It made no sense to me and I had no clue where to start, so I examined every possible element of my life and questioned how it served me.
I made a sudden and consummate effort to shut down, to get totally silent with myself, and listen. I knew I had no idea what was going on inside my body, but as I stripped away distractions, I learned how untrue that was. My body was smart and strong, smarter and stronger than I had believed. I just didn’t have an idea of how to listen to it at first. My journey with cancer involved getting out of my own way and being gentle to the instincts that were already there.
How did this journey change the course of your work...and your eating + lifestyle?
Well, before my diagnosis I was a food editor and writer for major national outlets – I started my career working with Martha Stewart at a magazine that now no longer exists called Everyday Food that had me making up and writing recipes for home cooks to serve to their families. I then worked a lot of random food media jobs, all under what I would consider as amounting to a kind of industry generalist with a broad background in mass food media. My story wasn’t part of the picture at all, which was part of all of my job descriptions.
My first two cookbooks, I would say, were using the skills of my early career to make approachable recipes with a creative twist, that I then very subtly layered my story into. For my third and most ambitious cookbook in many ways, I was a named ghost and my voice wasn’t intended to be heard at all. I was a channel to help tell a chef’s amazing story. Then I got sick and I had to walk away from that dream book, a book I had worked on for three years at that point with a head full of future plans. After handing it to an uncredited ghostwriter, it was largely rewritten and my vision of it fell away almost entirely. It was irrelevant, however – I was suddenly struggling for my life. I didn’t even know if I would be alive to see it in print.
So, like that book, I dropped everything in my life – including any plans I had for my career, really – and examined every angle with a microscope. I knew I needed to make my body unrecognizable to itself if I was going to stop this unstoppable cancer and figured every aspect of my life needed to shift.
Food, of course, was the first place I started in this examination. (It’s my language, it’s how I fix most things.) So, I started researching and combining ideas I had talked about with other cooks over the years, looking at different anti-inflammatory diets, and kept my two young sons at the centre of every decision I made, that my food choices were also the food of their childhood table and it needed to be delicious, too.
I came to an amalgamation diet of my own creation, a cobbling together of what felt like the most reasonable and sustainable parts of all of my research. I immediately cut out major backbones of my career at that point: sugar, chocolate, gluten and even grains in general; not to mention some other personal favourites like pork and coffee.
I honestly thought I was walking away from my career, and I did – from that version of it, anyway. But I also know that it doesn’t matter after what I’ve been through. I’m just enjoying today, my family, and making projects that inspire me. And I’m so grateful for every last bit of it because I am very much aware of how precious it all is.
Could you talk about your writing? Children's books, cookbooks, a memoir, Food52 + More!
I write a lot, yes. Every day. I’m lucky to be a fast writer, and lately writing about the most personal parts of my life because my cancer taught me that connecting over anything else feels a little shallow.
When I was bald during my treatment for nearly a year, I used to say that people don’t walk up to a bald lady with a big scar on her scalp to talk about bullshit. My cancer gave me this opportunity to open up and get real and I ran toward it, buoyed by the community that embraced me that way.
Could you talk about your "why" when it comes to writing?
It feels too simple to articulate here, but I try to write the truth that seems to be spilling out of me in some form or another. I get these ideas and they bother me until I write them down. I think about things while I’m cooking, as I’m falling asleep, and I try to make sense of stuff.
I write with my two sons in mind ever since they were born because being their mother inspires me to be true and good in ways I never thought about before they arrived. I love them in this big, crazy way that truly has no bounds, and writing for them makes my work kind of crazy and limitless, too. Food inspires me, my children inspire me, and writing is a kind of love language I’ve used my whole life to translate the world around me, so it’s only natural I mix it all together; now I’ve just come to a place where I put it all out there for anyone to read.
I’m in a place now, surviving a cancer I’ve been told would kill me, where I know that planning for the next step is a false comfort. I’m done “producing” my story (second instinct for me at this point, I guess), wanting it to be perfect or digestible for someone else. So I don’t – I just keep writing. I don’t yet know where it will lead, but I’m having conversations that interest me and continue to find inspiration there, so I keep digging.
Because I’m here today, too, I’m very invested in helping others – both patients and their children – who don’t have a voice and struggle to find hope. It’s always there, I really believe that, but it lives inside of you so only you can find it. I think that’s part of my “mission” now, too. I wrote a book for my sons while I was sick about my undying love for them; it’s called Lasting Love and comes out next month from Rodale Kids, a division of Random House in New York. I hope it gives families facing the loss of a parent the kind of hope it gave mine.
How does being a mom weave into the rest of your story?
It’s inextricable: I’m more “me” now as their mom than ever. I write, cook and live in their light and hope to continue to do so for a very long time.
Do you find any rituals or routines helpful in supporting your body-mind-spirit?
When I changed my diet, I also changed my lifestyle. I am far more active than I was, making my body a priority, but I’m also far more gentle about it, too. I used to think that health and fitness looked a certain way that involved training and suffering – the opposite of my nature, really – because I am not a natural athlete. I felt that if I was going to be healthy it required punishment.
I realized while in treatment for my cancer that truly simple changes – walking, going to a gentle yoga class – were powerful too. I suddenly saw a picture of myself informed by all the changes I had found that included a balance of self-care, rest, energy work, creativity, eating well, and gentle exercise that looked nothing like the statistics my doctors told me about. (If you want an actual summation of what I did, check it out here.)
I found a way to live the clearest, happiest life of my years to that point – really living, not dying at all. I’ve gotten busier since then, but still maintain my lifestyle as though I’m in treatment.
What's in your mug or tea cup these days?
Green tea. Only until noon, though, otherwise it makes me too hyper. And lots of water with fresh lemon juice.
What's your favourite go-to meal?
It really shifts with the season, but right now in summer:
Breakfast: avocado and eggs. (This is actually my answer year-round. My toppings vary with the season; summer is either hot sauce or some variety of herb sauce.)
Lunch: a composed salad full of crunchy vegetables and nuts, crisp greens and drizzled with a delicious, balanced vinaigrette.
Dinner: grilled fish and a warm grilled vegetable – grilled cabbage is actually one of my favourites right now. Seasoned just right, tossed in a lot of oil and finished with some kind of acid, I don’t think it can be beat. This may actually be my kids’ favourite dinner right now, too.
Could you speak to the connection between food + memory?
I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to support other people’s connections to food and memory – advocate for new ones at the dinner table, or find a way to tell other cooks’ stories in books or on TV.
What I learned there is that it all comes down to love. Food is an energetic exchange, no question, and creates a shift when shared – memories, I think are a byproduct of that shift. My cooking now is necessarily somewhat adaptive; since my life has been divided into a “before” and “after,” the foods I create have an active relationship to memory and the past. On my blog, The Wright Recipes, I’m just telling my own story through food.
What advice would you offer people wanting to pursue their heart-sourced passions but afraid to begin?
Take it from me: Life is short, no matter the years you’re given. Don’t wait.
How can people find you and learn more?
I left social media, to the chagrin of my various editors, when I was diagnosed and haven’t looked back. (I never found a way to really connect with people over social media, anyway, I was always distracted by the form or what other people were saying.)
Instead, now I write a monthly newsletter in which I sum up my month’s thoughts, ideas and excitement and send them out into the world as a celebration of my life and how it hopefully connects to the person reading it; I am humbled by the fact that people I know, as well as people I don’t, write back and we start a real conversation together. It feels personal and real to me in ways social media was not.
Read past newsletters and sign up here to keep in touch.
Thank you from my heart, Caroline! I savour your blog posts and am deeply inspired by your writing and way of being. I look forward to following your healing, hope-giving story.