It was 1992, just two months after I turned 30, when I felt it: a lump. I had noticed a soreness in my chest before, but chalked it up to the stress of working as a pastry chef in a busy Boston restaurant. But one morning I woke up with a strong urge to do a breast self-check. And there, just underneath the skin, was the lump.
Running in the Family
Unfortunately, this wasn’t my first encounter with breast cancer. My mom lost her battle with the disease when she was just 53 years old, and before that it took my aunt and grandmother. So my strong family history made me hyper-vigilant, and I routinely did self-checks. As soon as I felt that abnormal lump in my breast, I got myself to the doctor.
Surprisingly, my first physician thought the bump was just water and told me not to worry, saying it was unlikely to be cancer because of my young age. But something in my gut told me that wasn’t right. I asked for a second opinion; four days later, I was in surgery to remove the cancer.
The procedure and subsequent radiation treatment was a success, and thankfully I went into remission for 16 years. But in 2008, a chain of events began: not only was I diagnosed with breast cancer a second time, but a third in 2014, a fourth in 2015, and now a fifth time in 2019.
Finding Comfort in Baking
It’s difficult and, honestly, just plain terrible to hear over and over again that you have cancer. But there was one thing that provided solace time and time again: baking. I love how absorbing it is; how I can invest hours in the kitchen, getting lost in the art, the craft, the science.
It’s why I’ve tried to bake as much as I could through each round of treatment. Of course, it wasn’t always possible — some of the surgeries, like the lumpectomy and full bilateral mastectomy, have been extensive, so I had to wait several weeks to get back in the kitchen. Other times, like when I had all of my lymph nodes removed and couldn’t move my arm very well, I pushed through the pain in order to create. It was worth it for the joy of whipping up a batch of madeleines or Danish pastries. In the face of every obstacle, my goal was always to reunite with my mixer, rebuild my strength and stamina, and get my baking mojo back.
Through this latest treatment, I’ve faced a new challenge: the medication my doctors prescribed has essentially killed my taste buds. While it hasn’t deterred me from trying new pastries, not being able to taste my way through the development of a recipe has definitely encouraged me to turn to the ones I know and love. And, surprisingly enough, French pastries haven’t been my go-to. Despite being the American who’s known for creating light-as-air croissants and macarons, I find myself baking up a batch of bagels after a really rough chemo treatment. When I want to say thank you to my doctors, nurses and caregivers, focaccia bread has helped express my gratitude. The irony is that I keep hearing these are the best I’ve ever made, yet I can’t even taste them! To me, that simply shows how baking comes from my heart, and making these beautiful baked goods is exactly what I need to refuel my soul through hard times.
Along with cementing the kitchen as a source of fulfillment and joy, my experience has definitely inspired me to raise my voice. I want to do everything I can to help women learn to be self-aware and speak up if they notice something different about their bodies. On one of my recent, worst-feeling days, I had the idea to begin a Bake Pink series on my blog. It’s where I fill my readers in on what I’m going through, while providing them with recipes for pink desserts in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Whether it’s raspberry bars with a raspberry streusel, beautiful pink marshmallows or strawberry macarons with a white chocolate ganache, creating all of these desserts has given me the ability to bridge the gap between my personal and professional life; hopefully helping other women find comfort and strength.
At the end of the day, baking is what makes me feel good no matter what’s going on in my life. If times are difficult, I’ll bake something. Maybe something simple, perhaps something more intricate. It takes the focus away from what I’m facing front and center, and gives me a chance to create something marvelous — and make someone else happy. I know I’m not alone in these sentiments; it’s like we bakers have this notion ingrained in our souls: When the going gets tough, pull out the mixer. Because, yes, laughter can be some of the best medicine — but baking something beautiful and delicious may be even better.
For more information on the fight against breast cancer or to make a donation, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Thanks for your story Colette, and for your incredible classes. You’re inspiring lots of women. I just made your eclairs with my 14 year old sister in law, who had always wanted to learn to make them, but nobody would ever help her because they hadn’t gotten them to turn out before. They were so delicious I could have cried, thank you for the amount of detail you put into your instructions. We love you!
Wow! I loved your story. It helps me heal from something else completely different. I sang for many years and was known (in very small church circles) for a decent range. Flash forward to an assault where I was thrown to concrete ultimately requiring a lot of metal in my neck. I suffers a slight spinal chord damage . I can hear the notes in my mind, but can’t sing them, so I mouth them from my heart. We go to a completely different church where no one knows me as a singer, but they see me mouth excitedly lol. I’m happy in my heart still, so I almost understand what you’re saying. I have only been pursuing this talent since 2014. I was assaulted in 2011. I’m getting pretty good by watching all your classes. You are the best teacher. I came from a family of teachers. Also, my son married a girl who’s grandma and mom fought breast cancer. I pray she won’t have it but also an aunt passed away. God bless you and keep you completely in remission.
Colette, I have followed you from the beginnings of Craftsy and I just l.o.v.e. how you teach. You truly have this gift. I referred the Craftsy site to a friend and the first thing she did was go to your pastry class and said is that she loved you how you teach. I are s-o knowledgeable.
After readying your story, I saw the extremely strong and resilient woman you are. You are not just teaching baking, pastries, but we are learning something very personal from you; in your attitude towards life and not to throw everything up in the air in discouragement when challenge is starring you in the eyes, THANK YOU. I want to wish you a very wonderful Christmas and extraordinary 2022. Hug and Kiss, Linda from Montreal, Qc, Canada. All my best wishes to you Colette.
I had double mastectomies in 1990 as a preventative. I had “changing cells”. They didn’t have the word pre-cancerous back then. I hope you have had family supper during all of this. My hubby and sons have been my support team for a long time. I see you have what looks like a wedding ring and then off again in the latest Craftsy class. I sincerely hope there are steady, strong support people for you. I am also an RN and worked in the OR before retiring. I saw both sides of it all. I agree with baking helps keep you strong.
Colette: for me, you are the best instructor, you were born to teach, I will pray for your health, may God Bless you.
God Love you, Colette !! What an inspiration. I consider you “a mentor” in baking and watch your classes again and again. I used baking as a recovery tool when I had a cebereal aneurysm surgery some years ago. I was not allowed to do much of anything during the first weeks of recovery. I watching cooking probrams and made up recipes for mental health. Please know you are my favorite chef. Take care and enjoy life. Blessings.
Thank you for sharing your story and your baking. I am also a breast cancer survivor, double mastectomy and three other surgeries in 5 years. It has been so much on my body. Baking with my daughter was definitely one of the things that got me up and moving and and kept my mind and spirit busy. My last surgery was January 10, 2020 and just as I was recovering the pandemic locked me inside my NYC apartment until vaccine are available. Baking has again been the thing to keep my mind and busy. My greatest achievement has been taking your class and making croissants!!! Your lessons so clear and so well structured and I did it! thank you for that. All my best wishes
You’re amazing. My mom is a survivor as well, and it’s a long road for you and your family. Your classes are the best I’ve ever found online and I have learned so much from you
Collette, you are truly an inspiration. I love your classes. Your love of baking is infectious. Stopped in today looking for baking inspiration and I am going straight to one of your classes!
Collette, you are a tue warrior. I too am a breast cancer survivor, and love to bake and keep myself busy. Your story is truly inspirational. I look forward to following your techniques in the joy of baking.
Collette, my heart goes out to you in your too long struggle with breast cancer. Your story is both inspirational and instructional. Everyone needs to feed their soul on a regular basis to maintain their health. For Collete’s fans, here is a link to a website that you can visit on a daily basis that helps fund mammograms:https://thebreastcancersite.greatergood.com/clickToGive/bcs/home