Life in the Kitchen After a Cancer Diagnosis: A Conversation with Baking Blogger Lyndsay Sung
Lyndsay Sung ended 2014 on a high note. She had a happy family, a successful baking blog called Coco Cake Land, a large and devoted following on Instagram — where she posted photos of the whimsical, adorable cakes she baked for friends and family — and a brand-new book deal. She and her pink KitchenAid mixer were ready to take over the world, one cute cake at a time.
Then, in January, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is only 38 years old.
The diagnosis came just two days before her mother's 70th birthday party, a high tea for 60 ladies that Lyndsay was hosting at her house with homemade cake, cupcakes, and macarons. "That weekend was such a blur," says Lyndsay. "I spent my time doing all the baking and it was actually a good distraction, but that was probably the last time I baked for quite awhile." She told her two sisters what was going on, but she waited until after her party to tell her mother the news. "I didn't want to spoil her birthday."
Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment followed, and baking took a backseat. "Immediately I felt a total aversion to baked goods, sugar, fat, and particularly buttercream," Lyndsay says. "Those are things I was literally covered in for years." Instead she started focusing on on a healthier diet, drinking green juice and eating lots of kale. "It was more of a way to grasp some sort of sense of control over what I was eating and my health," she says. "It was all so unknown and really scary."
She also had to set aside her career in cake for awhile, which meant telling her agent and her publisher the bad news. "Making cakes was the last thing I felt like doing. I worried that I was going to let my publisher down." Publishing a book had been a lifelong dream and the thought of losing that opportunity made her feel even worse. But she discovered that both her agent and her publisher had seen close family members go through cancer treatment, so they have been particularly understanding and supportive in letting her take as much time as she needs without having to worry about losing her book deal.
But even though Lyndsay is nearing the end of her treatment and is feeling better, she has mixed feelings about jumping back into baking and writing full-time."The thought of moving back into working a lot again, that's a little scary for me because I'm so tired," she says with a little laugh. "I look at all my friends' blogs and I'm like, Oh my gosh, they're doing so much and I should be working on this. And then I'm like, But I feel like s—t. So my inspiration doesn't come as strongly as it used to. But I feel like that'll come back."
She has still been posting photos on Instagram, where — if you never read the captions — you might think she was just another baking blogger churning out perfect-looking, adorably styled desserts. But a cheerful photo of Oreo ice cream sandwiches includes the story of how Lyndsay found the lump that led to the discovery of a tumor, along with a reminder to "cop a feel" and do breast self-examinations. In the caption of a photo of a bright watermelon "pizza," she laments that emotional eating has left her feeling like "a Chinese water buffalo meets grey egghead" and asks for more healthy snack ideas.
Is it difficult to be so honest and at times dark on a social media platform notorious for painting life in the sunniest possible light? It was at first, says Lyndsay. But it was the only thing that felt right. "I didn't feel like posting a stupid picture of a cake and saying like, 'Happy cake Monday!' That's not what was happening in my mind," she says. "I just decided to share." It was scary, but the response from friends she had made via Instagram was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. "So then I just kept writing about it."
Lyndsay also acknowledges how hilarious the gap can be between the on-screen image and the reality behind it, something she realized when she would occasionally post old photos of her cakes for Throwback Thursdays. "I'd be in bed, bald, no hair, wearing my Garfield T-shirt dress ... but posting something really pretty," she says. "It would make me laugh to know that I was in this weird outfit lying in bed."
She is getting back into baking slowly. Her first whole cake was a rainbow layer cake topped with sour cherries from her neighbors' tree. "I felt inspired by the brightness of that ingredient, how it just looked so cartoonish and nostalgic and innocent," she says. But mostly she is saving her limited energy for baking thank-you cakes for all the people who have taken care of her and her family during the past nine months.
After she started treatment, her sisters organized a meal delivery schedule for friends and family to drop off homemade meals for Lyndsay, her husband, and her toddler. "Just that gesture of being provided a meal and a little card — and beautiful meals! — I was really touched," she says. She has already started a mental list of birthdays and other special events where she might be able to make a cake for every person who reached out to help. "I've done it for a few people so far and it's a nice feeling to be able to say thank you in that way."