How One Cookbook Author Beat an Unbeatable Cancer with the Power of Baking

In 2017, doctors told Caroline Wright that she had a year to live. Almost two years later, she’s celebrating with a hundred variations on her “Cake Magic!” cookbook.

By Ethan L. Johns
January 14, 2019

This article contains affiliate links. Price and stock could change after publish date, and we may make money from these links. Images provided courtesy of Caroline Wright and Workman Publishing.


Caroline Wright’s brain scans are coming back clean.

For someone in her early thirties, this would seem like a given. But for Wright, that invisible privilege of health was lost in February of 2017 at the age of 32, when doctors found a glioblastoma—the same malignant tumor that killed Arizona Senator John McCain—in her frontal lobe.

Before the diagnosis, Wright was fully immersed in the food world. She became interested in cooking and baking while studying literature at the American University in Paris, where she saw her peers taking fancy French techniques and making them more accessible. After formal education at the French cooking school La Varenne, she worked as a food editor for Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food. Then, taking the philosophy of simplicity and accessibility that she developed in France, she started writing cookbooks, beginning with Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals.

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Her second cookbook, Cake Magic!: Mix & Match Your Way to 100 Amazing Combinations is a “choose-your-own adventure” kind of a cookbook, which embraces the familiarity of boxed cake mix by proposing a basic dry mix that can be used for every recipe in the book. The photography-forward book features “cake math” (for example, Darkest Chocolate Cake + Chocolate Syrup + Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting = Best Blackout Cake, Caroline’s favorite), which can be recombined and reconfigured however the home baker wants.

Around the time that she submitted the manuscript for what would become her third book, Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean, Wright started experiencing what she thought were panic attacks.

“I was starting to feel weird, but I had also traveled to Spain a bunch of times and was under the insane pressure of this book,” she told Genius Kitchen in a phone interview. “I had gone on a book tour for Cake Magic!, I had a second kid, we bought a house… But also I had gone through the most stress any human could have gone through.”

Unable to figure out what was wrong with her, she visited a doctor who diagnosed her panic attacks as absentia seizures. Headaches and migraines added to the doctor’s concern, so Wright was sent for an MRI.

One look at the scans showed the obvious problem: a seven-centimeter tumor (about the size of a tennis ball) lodged in Wright’s frontal lobe.

After the ensuing surgery to remove the tumor, pathology reports revealed that it was a glioblastoma multiforme—a malignant, Grade-IV tumor that is sometimes nicknamed “the Terminator” for its near-100-percent recurrence rate. Doctors told her that she had about a year to live.

“It was the most terrifying diagnosis that anyone could get, ever,” said Wright. “I went from from being spacey and handing in my book to being diagnosed with the most serious cancer you can be diagnosed with—in just three weeks. And it was really unusual because I’m 30 years younger than the typical case.”

Wright was just turning 33 at the time.

Grappling with the cancer and searching for anything that she could do to help change her fate—“whether imagined or real”—she decided to simplify her diet and let the chemotherapy do its job. Working with a homeopath, she explored natural tinctures. She experimented with diets based on her blood type. She cut refined sugars, gluten, coffee and even her beloved chocolate.

At first, she assumed the new dietary restrictions meant that her career in food was over. After all, when a colleague at Martha Stewart was diagnosed with celiac disease, it was obvious that she would never be able to taste and edit recipes like before.

But slowly, as a form of therapy and as a way to leave her mark, she started writing again. First, she wrote stories for her two young boys. Then she resurrected her food blog, which had been dormant for about eight years, in order to document the healthy, comforting meals that she was cooking for her family.

Four months after surgery, Wright’s follow-up scans were coming back clean. Another three months of treatment went by, still no sign of a tumor. It was starting to look as though, by some miracle, she was going to make it to her 34th birthday. So she started planning her birthday cake—an empowering, defiant and meditative act.

More clean scans and the doctors were amazed. Against all odds, Caroline had more birthdays—even cancer anniversaries—to celebrate. At that point, she realized that she was going to need more than just one grain-free, refined sugar-free cake.

So she started experimenting with nut flours and fruit sugars, mixing and matching Paleo cake mixes with buttercream frostings free of confectioners’ sugar.

The result of her experimentation is an official addendum to Cake Magic!, which is meant to be folded up and stuffed inside the cookbook. It’s perfect for anyone craving a comforting slice of cake—including those with dietary restrictions. The addendum can be downloaded here for free, while Cake Magic! can be purchased on Amazon.

It’s been nearly two years now since Caroline was given 12 months to live, and she says that her doctors “speak in terms of years now rather than months.” And if there’s anything that baking and blogging have given her since the diagnosis, it’s the appreciation that everyday life should be celebrated.

“Writing is committing a language to being present,” she says. “It makes me accountable and here and excited to celebrate the daily stuff. People don’t realize that being healthy is a privilege, and just like any privilege, it’s invisible.”


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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns