It was three years ago that Carolyn Grantham first felt the small bump inside her left cheek. Maybe she’d bitten it? She ignored it, but it never went away.
When it became too big to ignore, Grantham went to her doctor. The diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma. Grantham — yes, she is from northern England, but no relation to those Granthams — was put on an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Grantham, who moved to the United States in 1993 and got a degree in writing and publishing from Emerson College, was working in online communications at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and had become facile in social media as it was all taking off. An avid cook and eager eater, she had started a food-based blog two years before her diagnosis.
Much earlier, through friends, she met Diego Garcia, and in 1998, they married. She became a US citizen in 2006. It was also the marriage of two cuisines: from her England and his Puerto Rico, where Garcia was born and raised. An MIT graduate, he works for Bose Corp. in Westborough.
The couple love to cook, dine, and travel, and the blog has included great places to go and fabulous food to eat, with mouth-watering photos. She calls the blog LimeyG: Writing About Eating (www.limeyg.blogspot.com) and it’s subtitled: “If we’re going to hell in a handbasket, we might as well bring a picnic.”
On Jan. 16, 2011, Grantham posted about her diagnosis with the humor she had long displayed on her blog.
“So what do I have to look forward to?” she wrote of her treatment. “Loss of appetite, changes in my palate, zapped salivary glands, a raw tongue and throat. Yes, there are a ton of other side effects, but whatever. These are the ones that bug me the most; what will life be like if I can’t enjoy food?
“Well, let’s find out,” she continued. “I’m going to keep writing throughout the experience, as much as I can. . . . If you’re willing to stick around and come with me, I’d love the company.”
That entry ended: “I start treatment on Tuesday, so we’ll begin with a dissection (!) of hospital food.”
After seven hospital meals, she wrote that the theme was “comforting, under-seasoned dishes.” But she did rag on a “congealed turkey pot pie, in which only the peas are salvageable,” complete with persuasive photo.
On a recent day, Grantham and Garcia sit in their Medford apartment and talk about their journey: hers, mostly, though he has been beside her at each step. Their cats, Rosie and Smudge, are around, and Grantham is wearing a black track suit, the hood pulled over her head for warmth.
“He’s been to every appointment,” says Grantham, who turned 45 in January. “This is an open wound, and twice a day he cleans it. And when I have emotional freak-outs, he’s there.” She reaches for her husband’s hand several times, and he helps with words, as the bandages on her cheek, where the tumor has broken through, make it tough to speak clearly.
“I know if it was me going through this, she’d take care of me,” says Garcia, 44. “I’m really proud of her. She’s really, really tough.”
In her blog, Grantham refers to him as “The Boy.” Her birthday entry stated: “Today, The Boy has booked us a suite at the Hotel Commonwealth. . . . I certainly can’t go on without mentioning everything he’s done to keep me sane . . . falling into roles he never expected, learning medical skills he really shouldn’t need to know. Finding me things to eat. Taking on more of the household chores. Going out in snowstorms to get medical supplies. Letting me rail at him because there was no one else around.
“Y’all better be good to him, is what I’m saying.”
Kate Grams is the nurse practitioner who has been with Grantham since her diagnosis. Her admiration for the couple is deep. “She has suffered horribly, been in incredible pain, disfigured, can’t go out, and can’t eat, which is one of her great joys,” says Grams. “But she has kept an amazing outlook and been game for any therapy and any kind of torture we would dish out.”
As for Garcia, he has been her rock, Grams adds. “He’s become her nurse and her caregiver, trying to work and constantly be with her. Diego is absolutely amazing.”
Grantham’s diagnosis was a shock. She’d never smoked or chewed tobacco, and had no second-hand smoke in her history. “Oral cancers in young people when there’s no reason for them tend to be incredibly aggressive,” Grams says.
After she finished her initial treatments, Grantham took the mask she had to wear during radiation and fashioned it into a colorful papier-mâché mask that now hangs in the living room. On the right cheek is a big red and yellow “POW!” because, she blogged, her oncologist told her “that the only other person he’d known with an attitude as positive as mine was a guy who’d had military training in Prisoner of War eventualities. Which says something about me, though I’m not entirely sure what.”
The treatments, it seemed, had been successful. Grantham returned to work. She and Garcia traveled to Puerto Rico for his grandmother’s 100th birthday, took a trip to Spain, and drove to Montreal to eat at their favorite restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon.
But within a year of her diagnosis, the cancer was back. Which meant more aggressive treatment: chemotherapy again, and radiation twice a day. As the tumor grew, doctors wanted to put her on a feeding tube, but Grantham resisted.
As long as she could sip through a straw, she would take her food that way. “Food is important to me,” she explains. “It’s part of who I am. I didn’t want to lose that bit of independence, that control.”
She was having to puree her food into liquid form, and when she went to restaurants, asked chefs to do the same. She blogged about her experiences for others who, she wrote, “can’t just open their faces and shove food in there. Let’s suck it up together!”
Last September, she wrote about a fun trip to Atlantic City, where chefs had accommodated her by putting her order into a blender and presenting it in pretty glasses. She even posted a photo of her pureed lobster orecchiette at Mia in Atlantic City.
But on the way home, the couple stopped at the Harvest Wine Bar in Greenwich, Conn. — a stop that neither they nor the restaurant is likely to forget. Grantham explained to the waitress why she couldn’t eat solid food. The waitress consulted with the chef and said that was no problem, “though obviously some things won’t blend very well.”
Grantham ordered the salmon, but the chef said that he wouldn’t blend protein.
Grantham blogged: “That’s a bizarre refusal at the best of times, but as I’d just had two dinners and a lunch in Atlantic City that revolved around seafood, it seemed perverse.”
Grantham then ordered the mac and cheese. This time, she watched as the waitress relayed the request to the chef. “And I saw the chef say no. And it wasn’t a ‘Gee, sorry, we’re not going to be able to do that.’ It was, ‘Hell no, I’m not wasting my time.’ ” The restaurant was nearly empty, but the chef never came out to talk to her.
Grantham, tired, hungry, and angry, burst into tears. The waitress then got the chef to change his mind. “Kinda-sorta,” Grantham wrote. It was a dish of mac and cheese that looked as though it had been mashed with a fork. Definitely not drinkable through a straw.
When they left, she saw the chef standing outside the restaurant. From her blog:
“ ‘Really sorry that the concept of drinking through a straw is too complicated for you,’ I said. He faced me, arms folded across his chest, unsmiling. ‘You can’t blend pasta,’ he said. ‘Pasta is a starch. It doesn’t blend.’ Not ‘Sorry we couldn’t find something for you to eat’ or ‘Maybe next time we can do you some veggies.’ ”
At home, and in other restaurants, she’s had plenty of blended pasta. Her Greenwich story, she wrote, should serve as a guide for other chefs: “Sometimes a diner will need a little extra accommodation. Please don’t be offended if we need to crush your delicious, carefully created vision. We’re just hungry.”
News travels fast. The restaurant owners wrote Grantham and apologized for the chef’s “appalling behavior” and offered her a gift certificate. She thanked them but suggested that they donate it to a hospital, which they did.
She blogged that she was happy with the response, and says she bears no grudges against the restaurant.
A week later, she wrote about a positive experience at one of her favorite restaurants, Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square. A friend’s wedding shower was held there, and Grantham had asked that they serve her what everyone else was having but “throw it in the blender.”
She wrote: “Turns out they had separate meetings to decide on a special menu just for me. I get quite misty-eyed just thinking about it.” To start, while the others had flatbread pizza and salad, she had “an amazing chilled corn chowder that tasted as though they’d extracted essence of corn, fresh from the field, and poured it into a glass.”
The followers of her blog — family, friends, strangers — invariably comment on her inspiring attitude. But on Dec. 14, 2013, her entry was titled: “I have cancer. And I’m angry.” She detailed a few of the indignities and losses, including the hole in her cheek that had started to make sucking through a straw difficult.
In January, she wrote of finally surrendering to a feeding tube. “I’m now ‘feeding’ instead of ‘eating.’ Four times a day, I feed.” She is trying not to dwell on memories of food: “That way lies madness.”
On Feb. 19, in a post titled, “End of the line,” Grantham revealed that the cancer has spread to her liver. “So. Here we are.” She wrote that part of her feels she should fulfill her bucket list of things to do before she dies. “Aagh! The clock is ticking! And I’m sitting on the couch watching “X-Files” on Netflix!”
But she added a list of things she had done, which includes “canoodled with wolves, eaten a 10-course lunch in Madrid, patted the tongue of a friendly Beluga, seen the Grand Canyon, helped train harbor seals, seen Paris from the Eiffel Tower, fired an AK-47 and visited the Liberace Museum on the same day, made vermouth from scratch, made people laugh, baked my own bread, known real love.”
An anonymous reader replied: “Was ‘impacted random people’ on your list? Should’ve been.”
In the past, there has always been another treatment to try, but this time Grantham and Garcia know there will be no cure. She’s taking oral chemotherapy that they hope will buy her a little more time.
In her blog, she wrote: “Now I accept it. I have books still to read, movies to watch, things to say. So I won’t get another 45 years. How about 45 days? Yeah, I can do something with that.”Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.