Byline: Catherine O'Brien
To the casual observer, Julia Thomas's country kitchen is a temple of modern domesticity. Your eye gravitates from the slate floor to the stainless steel range cooker and scrubbed-oak table - at the centre of which is a plate of exquisite home-made cupcakes. Perfectly formed sponges iced in an array of pastel colours or fulsomely frosted in swirls. I'd like to say they are too good to eat, but it is not long before a lemon and vanilla concoction is melting in my mouth while Julia opts for a dainty lavender number.
Six years ago, when she was 42 and nine weeks pregnant with her first child, Julia, a former businesswoman, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her world turned upside down and for many months she feared she could lose her baby and her life. Today, her fridge door is adorned with photographs of her five-year-old son Charlie, and Julia herself is a picture of glowing health. Her recovery has given her a new lease of life - and, in a totally unexpected way, it has led to her new career as an award-winning cake-maker.
'I cringe when I hear people say that cancer is the best thing that happened to them, because I don't think for one minute that it ever is,' she says. 'But I've learnt that it isn't necessarily the worst thing that can happen to you either.' Now 49, Julia has the calm demeanour you might expect from someone who managed the busy corporate billing department of a top London law firm. The elder daughter of a design engineer father and stay-at-home mother, she grew up in Essex, just outside London, and throughout her 20s and early 30s was focused on her career. Then she began dating John Griffiths, a reinsurance executive turned antiques dealer. John, now 52, had moved more than 100 miles from London to Hereford, and two years into their relationship, Julia joined him. She took on a job as CEO of a children's charity and they were ecstatic when, in 2004, they discovered Julia was pregnant.
Her pregnancy had been confirmed just a few weeks when she first noticed a small lump in her right breast. 'I can remember the moment, but I don't remember feeling alarmed. Being pregnant meant my body was undergoing all sorts of changes and I thought that it was connected to that.' Julia's mother had died from breast cancer at 56, but even so, Julia did not panic. She spoke to her GP who referred her to a breast-cancer screening unit where she underwent an ultrasound check and biopsy. 'The unit staff told me I'd need to wait 48 hours for the results, and almost as an afterthought, as I was on my way out, I asked the doctor what she thought it was. She said: "I'm 90 per cent certain it is cancerous," and my world stopped. My throat dried up, and I just wanted to get out of the door.' Two days later, she and John returned for the biopsy results which confirmed the cancer diagnosis and Julia found herself having to make the mental shift from excitedly anticipating motherhood to anxiously discussing the best life-saving treatment options. To protect the pregnancy, she was advised to wait until the end of the first trimester before undergoing surgery. At 12 weeks pregnant, had a lumpectomy and woke from the undergoing surgery. At 12 weeks pregnant, she had a lumpectomy and woke from the anaesthetic to the news that the cancer had spread to six of her lymph nodes. The surgeon was 'very blunt', Julia recalls now. 'He said I should consider termination, not because I couldn't have a healthy baby but because there was only a 20 per cent chance of me being here in ten years' time. ' Fortunately, Julia's oncologist was more optimistic. 'He said there was no point dwelling on statistics, because treatment is moving on so fast that many of them are ten years out of date.' Using latest research, he tailor-made a chemotherapy course to accommodate Julia's pregnancy. (Chemotherapy drugs cross the placenta and are unsafe during the first three months of pregnancy, but studies have established that several drugs can be used in the second and third trimesters with minimal risks to the baby's development. …