In March, I was back home in South Africa for a holiday and to speak at the first South African Food Blogger Conference. I'd been chatting via e-mail and Facebook with my friend Colleen (the powerhouse behind the conference) and in the course of our Facebook conversations, one of her friends (Robyn) recognised me as an old school friend. Small world!
As a result of this chance meeting, Rob let me know that there was going to be a small gathering of schoolmates in Cape Town when I was there and invited me to join them for tea at Kirstenbosch Gardens. I had been in touch with some of the girls fairly regularly over the years, and others I had seen only at school reunions, but we all fell into conversation as if we had last seen each other yesterday. But the one jarring note was J arriving on crutches and with a stylish headscarf.
I had heard through the grapevine that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago while still in her 30s, but that she had bravely stared down a mastectomy and chemo and was in remission. But as I learned, the cancer had returned with even greater ferocity and she now had multiple lesions, including some in her bones, causing her great discomfort and making a crutch a necessity. However, as you spoke to her, her demeanour betrayed no sense of the seriousness of the situation. Her blue eyes still sparkled and her sense of humour was as naughty as ever. We all said goodbye with some sadness as we did not know when we would meet up again, but it had been a lovely afternoon.
Less than 4 months later, I got word that J had been visiting friends out of town when she had suddenly taken a turn for the worse and had to return urgently to Cape Town for tests and treatment. Sensing the tremendous concern for her from her old friends, she posted a message on our class Facebook page to say "Just want to let you know that I'm not at death's door quite yet!". Ten days later, in July this year, she passed away, aged 41 and leaving behind a devastated young daughter, husband and family.
It was maybe a month after that when I heard that another high school friend's younger sister (let's call her M) was in hospital for a double mastectomy. She is not even 40 yet. But when I asked when she had been diagnosed, I learnt that she did not have cancer. However, her mom had died young of breast cancer and tests had revealed that M had an abnormal BRCA1 gene. Women who inherit a defective BRCA1 (or BRCA2) gene have risks for breast and ovarian cancer that are so high that they often consider having healthy breasts removed in order to prevent the development and possible spread of cancer later in their lives. This is exactly the terrible decision that M had been forced to make. Having witnessed her mom's death and having two small sons herself, she had finally taken the painful decision to have her two healthy breasts removed.
I have heard people expressing doubt about the wisdom of a prophylactic mastectomy, removing healthy breasts "just in case". People can view it as an overreaction and point out that the surgery itself carries all sorts of risks. But at that moment all I wondered was what my old school friend J would have said to M if she could just have had a few minutes to sit and talk to her. But most of all I wondered when we will be able to live in a world where young, vital people are not snatched away from their familes in the prime of their lives, and where women like M will not be driven by fear of a disease to make such terrible choices.
Today, 2 October 2010, has been designated LiveSTRONG Day 2010. LiveSTRONG is a charity funded by cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong to provide support for people affected by cancer and to fund research into cancer. For a number of years now, my lovely friend Barbara (also a cancer survivor) has been hosting A Taste of Yellow to coincide with LiveSTRONG day and it is now an official LiveSTRONG Day event. This year Barbara has asked us to submit yellow food once more… but with a twist. Once a week this year, she has been posting a picture of a heart on her blog, and she has asked us to do the same, in yellow. Here is my contribution, dear Barbara, dedicated to you, to the friends I have lost to cancer and to the friends who are cancer survivors. Live well, live long, live happy – but most of all live strong.
Food purists, close your eyes! This is not a classic custard recipe like a traditional creme brulée – it is the cheat's method! The result is pretty good though, with a texture being a good approximation of the real thing – and it takes about 5 minutes to make. Only one word of caution – don't do what I did and casually sprinkle the top with whatever sugar happens to be in the sugar bowl (soft brown, in my case). The sugar will clump together and make patches of caramel, rather than a lovely all-over crispy shell. Trust me, use icing sugar.
EASY LEMON BRULEE (serves 4)
280ml double (heavy) cream
140g lemon curd
Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold in the lemon curd and mix well so that there are no lumps or streaks. Spoon into oven-proof ramekins and refrigerate until needed.
Pre-heat a medium hot grill. Sift icing sugar over the top of each ramekin so that the mixture is totally coated. Place under the grill for 2-3 minutes until the sugar has caramelised (alternatively, caramelise it with a cook's blowtorch). Serve immediately.