Food & Drinks

After stage four cancer, I find joy in being a chef

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Emily Amuke at Longacres Bagshot farmshop in London, the UK where she sells her homemade granola. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • She had worked for Mohammed Mo Ibrahim, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, had stints at a luxury private club in London and worked for a high net worth individual.
  • A Stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, in a foreign country, living alone, away from family is racking.
  • A cancer diagnosis comes with mixed emotions, some strange, perhaps. When Emily was told she was to start chemotherapy, she burst out laughing.

Emily Amuke beams in her living room in London, UK. Her hair is blonde, almost whitish and short, a new look after it fell off due to chemotherapy.

“I’m growing it back, basically for my mum,” she says.

“I had long beautiful hair. When I was sick, every time my mum saw my bald head, she’d get teary.”

She is witty that her cancer journey does not seem so sad, but like any stage 4 cancer diagnosis, it is a story dotted with fears, triumphs, and a rethink of life and career choices.

The cancer symptoms started after she had left her job. She had worked for Mohammed Mo Ibrahim, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, had stints at a luxury private club in London and worked for a high net worth individual.

“2017 was a very difficult year for me. I remember writing a distraught post on social media at the beginning of the year. Something like ‘I’m having to make one of the most difficult decisions in my life, God help me.’

I had decided to quit a job that I truly loved. I didn’t feel like it is where I envisioned myself. In January, we were doing a big event that I was happy to see the end of organising up to March,” she says.

One morning, while walking home, she felt flu-ish.

“I had started doing aerial yoga.{A type of yoga done while balancing on a cloth hammock or a sling suspended from a ceiling}. I thought a yoga class would stretch me out well, but I felt worse.

At home, I drank my go-to remedy, a ginger and cloves concoction but I kept feeling worse. My throat was swelling and I was throwing up,” she says.

On seeing a doctor, she did a blood test and x-ray and she was to go for the results a week after.

“My white blood cells were up. Then the doctor touched my neck and said “mhh, why don’t you lie down.’ Immediately alarm bells start ringing. She felt my groin and said, ‘I think we have to send you for a biopsy.”

Waiting for the results, she used to wake up with a swollen face, her voice changed and her upper body in pain.

“People who were meeting me for the first time didn’t know that I was swollen. They must have thought I just had a big face,” she giggles.

One night she woke up and her bed was wet. “It was like someone had poured a bucket of water on me. I was like, yeah! my fever has broken.

I went for this temp job and worked through the day. On my way home, I get sicker and at the train station, one of the station masters asked if I was okay. I said, ‘I’m not, but once I reach home, I will be okay.’

The walk down to her house was the most traumatic. A well-wisher called paramedics.

“I was heaving, my temperature and heart rate were high. The paramedics told me to pack an overnight bag, just in case I got admitted to the hospital, given the time of day. Little did I know I was going to be in hospital for four weeks and in and out for months,” she says.

“I reached the hospital, and the most embarrassing thing happened. My bladder opened. I start peeing every so often. I kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I hadn’t accepted what was happening to my body,” she says.

“When I learned that I was being admitted, I turned to my friend and said, ‘this is the PIN to my phone in case anything happens to me,” Emily says.

A Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, in a foreign country, living alone, away from family is racking.

It hit her hard one day when a matronly lady walked into her hospital room and said, “Emily I am here to pray.” “Immediately she said that I thought I was dying and they had decided to send me a nun to do my last rites,” she says.

But it turned out to be a Catholic nun praying for the sick, not just her.

A cancer diagnosis comes with mixed emotions, some strange, perhaps. When Emily was told she was to start chemotherapy, she burst out laughing.

“The doctor told me she had never seen anybody happier after being told that they’re receiving chemotherapy. But to me, at last here was help,” she says.

When you are told you have cancer, the news rarely sinks in until one sees the diagnosis in people’s eyes. “I remember standing to go to the loo on one occasion and I looked back at a friend who had come visiting, I saw her crying. I didn’t feel sad for myself. It is seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes that hurts,” she says.

Cancer drugs have a myriad of side effects from hair loss, nausea, and loss of appetite to hallucinations. At one point, Emily says she woke up speaking Italian.

Do you speak Italian? I ask.

“No,” she bursts out laughing. “I was having hallucinations. I had been reading a book about a person having an adventure in Italy. I woke up thinking that I was in Italy.”

Emily had a type of t-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which multiplies easily that it is sometimes missed at the first stages.

“I am a miracle. Because this form of t-cell lymphoma goes through stages quickly, it responds to chemo as quickly. It is just as silly too with treatment,” Emily says.

What kept her going in the hospital was the many visitors. An old Pakistani cleaner, whom she had conversations with daily asked her, “Who are you? You have so many people coming to see you.”

“My room was littered with flowers. I was lucky. I could tell you epic stories about my journey. I had a friend who used to call a restaurant to bring me food in the evenings. Immediately it arrived, everybody knew where it was going. Room 3. For Emily, the fussy one. I remember one evening, one of my former bosses who had worked for Nicholas Sarkozy {the former France president} sitting on my bed, massaging my swollen feet…,” Emily says.

Her love for cooking

Emily’s fussiness for food stems from her love for cooking and the joy of discovering new tastes, that she even joined MasterChef, a cooking reality TV show based in the UK and open to amateur and home chefs.

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Emily Amuke, a cancer survivor who makes organic granola for sale from her kitchen in London, UK. PHOTO | POOL

“I am just a girl from Kitale who loved cooking from an early age. I love food so much that my friends kept telling me to join MasterChef. One day, I was in between jobs and I was doing administration work for Soraya Khashoggi,”she says. {Soraya Khashoggi is a former socialite, an ex-wife of a Saudi billionaire and arms dealer whose divorce was once ranked the world’s most expensive with a settlement equivalent to about Sh232 billion today}.

Soraya, now in her old age, wanted to join a TV programme called ‘Pointless’. Emily told her that her friends had always wanted her to do MasterChef. Soraya said, “well, let’s dare each other, you apply for MasterChef, I apply for Pointless.”

Emily applied and got in and reached the quarter-finals. I ask her if she would do it again.

“I would because now fear has taken a back burner. Almost as if the worst has happened. So what else? I look at the life of Desmond Tutu who I was lucky to have dinner with one day. He lived life,” says Emily who just finished an internship with Harper’s Bazaar after winning the 2021 Hearst Talent Scholarship.

Five years after the diagnosis, chemo and several surgeries, Emily the chef who likes writing is making granola and selling it to a farm shop in London.

“When I got sick, I started making granola to ensure I ate well and only organic foods. Now I make granola from my kitchen and supply 50 packs a month to a farmshop in the countryside,” she says.

The logo on the packaging is a caricature of her face.

“I come from a family of strong women, my grandmother had cooked in a school so that my mother could get an education and as a result, I am. My therapist pointed out to me that I must have my grandmother’s features, therefore she must be on that face in some form. There is a story of elevation in my packaging,” she says, adding that the granola is good for someone who is going through chemo and has gum sensitivity.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, because her low immunity as a cancer survivor could not permit her to mingle freely, she started a Friday takeaway service, where people order meals and pick them up from her house.

“I had to find a way of keeping myself busy, earning a living, and finding a purpose after cancer. The thought of going back to the office to paper-pushing makes the whole experience I’ve been through feel futile. Cooking nurtures me emotionally,” she says, adding “my dream is for my granola to find space in Kenyan supermarkets.”

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