Frances Walsh was just 32 and living the life of a busy solicitor in Dublin when she first noticed the signs that something might be amiss. She felt tired a lot and was getting dizzy spells.
Her first thought was that it was fatigue; work as an inhouse counsel for IBRC involved long days and she freely admits she was far too stressed. “I always felt a lot of pressure, I even used to keep a notebook beside my bed for when I’d wake up and think of something I had to do. I definitely don’t feel I was good at handling stress, I was always worrying about the worst-case scenario.”
On top of that, there were plenty of nights out and she describes life as “busy busy busy”. Her blood tests were clear but she started getting a pain in her abdomen and says she knew she was not fine, whatever the tests said.
She was admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital through the emergency department where CT scans and a biopsy confirmed her instinct was correct. The diagnosis was a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer which, given her young age and lack of family history, shocked even her doctors.
Despite this, however, Walsh went into survival mode. “I didn’t really think why me, I thought, okay this is happening, what do we do about it? I didn’t want to hear a prognosis or my percentage chance or anything; I wanted to know what the treatment plan was and from then I took it one day at a time.”
Walsh had six intensive courses of chemotherapy, receiving it three days in a row every three weeks. She developed infections during two of them and had to be admitted for antibiotics and blood transfusions.
“I couldn’t believe how sick I felt, it was really, really tough. Nothing prepared me for how bad I felt. I did still feel though that I had to keep focusing on one day at a time so I’d plan my day, maybe to get up and sit downstairs for a few hours or walk around the garden. The next day I’d do the same again.”
Following the intensive chemo, there was a less-intensive course in the form of tablets she could take at home for 10 months.
While there were some side effects, it was nowhere near as tough as the initial chemo. At that point she decided to do something for herself. She says that while some might decide to travel the world, she felt she wanted to become a calmer person and make her body as healthy as it could be.
She began looking for information and says that while the internet was great, it could also be scary. “It could be overwhelming and contradictory but I did read a lot about changing your diet, eating more vegetables, more whole foods, less processed foods, and I thought that was something I could do.
“I wasn’t thinking this was going to cure me but I figured it wouldn’t do me any harm. Even when I was on chemo if I had energy I found it therapeutic to be in the kitchen so it was something that resonated with me and I felt it gave me a little bit of control over what was happening.”
Walsh had previously been a vegetarian but says that on reflection her diet hadn’t been ideal. “I would call myself a junk food vegetarian – I ate a lot of white carbohydrates, a lot of processed food.” Her new choices took her towards a plant-based almost vegan diet, although she says she does still occasionally have dairy. It also led her to incorporate things like juicing into her daily routine.
“I juice things like kale, cucumber, celery, ginger, lemon. It seems to work very well for me. I grow my own wheatgrass and have a few shots a day too. If I go on holidays, I wouldn’t be militant about it but I would definitely notice after a week away that I have less energy,” she says.
In addition to finding contentment in the kitchen, yoga provided a welcome respite. Walsh started when she finished the intensive chemo and describes her first class as “the first time in so long that I felt carefree, as though a huge weight had lifted”. So yoga became a staple.
While she admits she was – and still can get – exhausted, she says she is a big believer in trying to exercise. “I think energy creates energy.” So the next step was to get a personal exercise coach, who took the form of Coco the puppy.
“While I was on chemo I got a little puppy and having her has been so brilliant that I now have two dogs. I wouldn’t be a big walker but she gave me a reason to go out every day as I started to feel better. I think dogs are just fantastic for people who are sick, for exercise, companionship – everything.”
Meditation too has helped and she finds it gives her the headspace to make better food choices. “I try to meditate first thing in the morning, although I don’t always manage it,” she laughs.
“Since being sick – and I don’t know if other people feel this – if I’m in a crowded situation or a public place and I’m tired, I can get claustrophobic and a bit panicked. In places such as airports or shopping centres, I can get a bit claustrophobic so I do meditation and it helps me calm down.”
With food playing an increasingly central part in her life, and family and friends complimenting her meals, a blog felt like a natural progression and was something to focus on.
“For me, going to the market and cooking and preparing food was therapeutic. I was also very tired so was spending a lot of time on the couch with the laptop so I set up a website, for something to do really, and started documenting my recipes. After a couple of months I decided to make it public.
“I felt the food I was cooking was really tasty. People sometimes think vegetables are just rabbit food and they really aren’t, so I wanted to share the recipes.
“The website isn’t a cancer-curing website or anything, it’s not me saying, ‘Do this if you have cancer,’ it’s for everyone and anyone, and was just a way of sharing what I was doing.”
The result was The Honest Project (www.thehonestproject.com) where Walsh shares plant-based recipes with what has become a global following. "I have a lot of followers here but also in places you wouldn't think of, like the UAE and Russia.
“Once I posted a smoothie recipe and someone asked where I got my smoothie maker. I said they were on offer in Electrocity and she replied that she didn’t know it. When I looked to see where she was, she was in Texas and I had to say, ‘Oh, Electrocity is in Kilkenny.’ You sort of presume the readers are down the road.”
Kilkenny comes up repeatedly and it is clear Walsh loves being a part of the city’s thriving food community. “I had two demos at Savour Kilkenny last October and everyone was so supportive and encouraging, all these well-established places. A local butcher came to my vegan demos and was so interested in what I was doing; it’s just that passion for food.”
There is a lot of commentary right now about Ireland’s eating habits and the surge in obesity levels and Walsh does feel this is a conversation worth having. “I think we possibly need a bit of a reality check. We say, ‘Oh, I have a balanced diet because I’ll eat cake but then I’ll eat lettuce’ but actually we’re probably eating way too much sugar and not anything like enough veg.
“People can dismiss different ways of eating as faddy but I think when you are eating a lot of vegetables, cutting down on sugar and processed foods . . . surely that isn’t a fad? I think we sometimes operate on the assumption that if something is in a shop it must be fine, that there is some higher body looking out for our wellbeing and that just isn’t the case.
“It’s up to ourselves to be smart. I follow a plant-based diet but I’m not saying that’s the only one that’s healthy. I think if we all just think more about our choices, we’ll automatically eat better.”
One of the things Walsh heard a lot from people who wanted to make changes was that they struggled for ideas so she now provides a “Veg of the Week” slot, posting about different vegetables with preparation ideas and recipes. She has been staggered by how popular it has been.
“It’s just taking everyday veg and showing different ways to cook with it – for example, roast cauliflower in chilli, oil and lemon juice tastes a million times better than soggy overboiled cauliflower.”
Walsh is insistent that she is neither a chef nor a nutritionist. “The temptation can be to rely on medicine for our general wellbeing,” she says. “I of all people know how amazing modern medicine is, but anyone I know who has changed their diet to include less processed foods and more wholefoods would never go back. They feel so much better, look better – they enjoy food so much more.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. I know people who’ve been diagnosed with serious illnesses and the last thing they want to do is change their diet, it would cause them utmost stress. But even if you start to up your vegetable intake and improve your diet 10 per cent, that’s still 10 per cent better than before. That has to be a good thing.”
As for the cancer, Walsh still has a tumour on her liver but, thankfully, it is now dormant and has been for two years.
She was getting scanned every three months but now it’s every six months and she says that while the fear is always there that it will come back, keeping positive helps.