'I know what it’s like to wake up at all hours of the night living your worst nightmare and not being able to think straight.'

Cara Houchen

Sabrina Gidda has ‘lived her worst nightmare’ after losing her Mother Sukey to Pancreatic Cancer.

She lost her mum just five months after she was diagnosed and she found herself in a situation she could never have imagined. She is now raising money for Pancreatic Cancer UK as an Ambassador and talks to The Staff Canteen about her experience, the cancer itself and how important it is to remember members of your team may sometimes go through really tough times outside of work, and they may need extra support.

In 2021, Sabrina, a former Great British Menu contestant, resigned from her role as Executive Chef at AllBright to start her own business.

“After so many years working with great businesses – I wanted to set up my own consultancy and do all the things I really love about food and beverage, in a way that was autonomous and varied,” said Sabrina. “I have been lucky enough to run kitchens in some fantastic restaurants and for some wonderful clients – but I decided it was the right time to change my working model, to go it alone and to set up my business”.

Pancreatic cancer - Did you know?                                                                                                                                                                               What are some of the symptoms?                                                                                                                                                                                                 

That decision was made off the back of a conversation with her mum. Unfortunately, one week before her last day at AllBright, Sabrina received a call about her mum who wasn’t well and she found out she had stage 4, metastatic pancreatic cancer. She had suffered bouts of sickness sporadically for a few years which she was told was down to food intolerance.

She would avoid anything too high in acidity when eating as it would make her feel sick. But it was only after getting a second opinion on a scan after a really bad episode in January 2021 that a 7.2cm tumour was discovered in her pancreas which had spread to her liver and lining of her stomach.


“I received a call from my brother, whilst I was in the kitchen prepping for service. I left immediately – still in my chef whites and I drove up to my parent’s house in Wolverhampton. That was the beginning of a five month whirlwind and all of our lives changing.”

Sabrina felt as though she had preordained the fact that she would be free from the kitchen for the last five months of her mum’s life.

“I have missed so many events over the years whilst working – it seemed like a clear calling to me that my sole focus and duty would be in looking after my Mother along with my family.

“It is actually quite challenging to verbalise the intensity of this journey, or to eloquently explain what it is to live in abject fear, panic and miraculous hope every moment of every day – but those who have lived it know that feeling”.

Becoming a carer when you work in hospitality

Sabrina says she would still have left her position even if it wasn’t already in the pipeline.

“I am tremendously lucky to have had the support of my family as we cared for mum. I cant imagine navigating that time and having to do my job, I just don’t think I could have managed.

“I became a full time carer, looking after my mum, with the support of my family but I know it’s not possible for everyone to do that and I’m tremendously grateful that I was able to have that time with her.

“For me, my mum’s diagnosis stopped the wheel I was on. It allowed me five precious months to spend all my time with my mum. As I work with Pancreatic Cancer UK I hear so many stories about how little time people have when their loved ones are diagnosed, it is tragically unfair. I’ll forever be grateful for the time we had.”

She and her family tried to learn as much as they could as fast as they could. While getting what seemed like a crash course in pancreatic cancer, medications, managing chemotherapy side effects, cooking through such an illness - Sabrina could never have imagined the world she saw.

“It is just incomprehensible to grasp the magnitude of the situation, every decision, every moment counts as you desperately try to stay in the light and beat the odds.

“14 different medicines to administer, the injections and the timings, which day in the chemotherapy cycle we were on, so we could all prepare for what may happen – when I talk about cross skills, it was that. I built a spreadsheet, which was taken off a rota template from a kitchen brigade. We had briefings, daily updates and a chart to map our marker readings.

“There’s only one way I was going to be able to do this and it was by having a sheet of paper there with a tick list, with timings and alarms for medications and measurements and drawers labelled with all of the emergency medications that were needed. 

“It was like mise en, that was exactly how I rolled. I ran it like exec chef because it was the only way to feel like there was any control over the situation. But also, there was just such a massive amount of information, with constantly managing the symptoms of the illness or the chemotherapy. We couldn’t afford to make a mistake because that would lead to more pain for mum or exacerbate other symptoms.”

While this awful situation was unfolding Sabrina was offered her book deal. It was a great moment as a family - and in the August of 2021 when the deal came through she was able to clink a glass of champagne with her mum to toast the moment.

"I am so glad she knew the book was coming," said Sabrina. "My book is dedicated to my mother, on the inside cover.

"I think it saved me really because I had a big project and I didn’t want to let her down. I went home to my dad and started writing in February. I tested all of the recipes in my mother’s kitchen, cooking with her pots and pans and a huge photo montage – it was a tremendously emotional journey for me.”


Mental health and wellbeing – how do people offer that support to those who work for or with them?

Sabrina feels like the industry has been talking about mental health and well being for some time. The environments in hospitality can come with such a tremendous amount of pressure, this isn’t just junior staff feeling the pressure from their line manager – it’s top to bottom. And sometimes life events happen well out of your control.

She said: "We all find the same things really important, we love our careers, we take pride in what we do but we also really love the people that are in our lives.

“You give a lot and there will come a point where you need to take something back. The taking back is not always a pay rise or a bonus, it’s the taking back of time for things like this. Sometimes its saying I’ve given everything to this business and now this thing is happening in my life and I’m struggling to manage.”

“I think the answer is kindness and humility,” she continued. “No one is expecting paid leave but it’s just to understand, that this could be happening to you. Once you’ve experienced this sort of situation I think you are more inclined to be mindful of it, if I was in a kitchen now and someone came to me with a similar situation I would feel better equipped to deal with that.

“I know what it’s like to wake up at all hours of the night living your worst nightmare and not being able to think straight. If I had been working and someone would’ve asked me for something I’m not sure I would’ve been able to give them the right thing at any point during that experience because my brain just was not there." 

This is where the power of a great team makes such a difference – and the camaraderie and love amongst a brigade is second to none. She says it’s not something you can address with a one size fits all approach. But as long as you are there to offer open dialogue to someone who may be struggling – no matter what they are going through.

How do you deal with grief?

“It’s a luxury to have avoided profound loss and grief in life,” explained Sabrina. “But when you do it can be all consuming. And you need people around you to help you carry it.

“If I put my pragmatic hat on, I know that grief is a tremendously personal journey. We all have our own ways of dealing with things but also there is also strength in sharing. People didn’t know how to talk to me, they didn’t know how to ask me about my situation, and many people stopped speaking to me – and that is before I lost my mother.

“I just want to talk about it, all of it. We talk about mental health, wellness but there are some big things going on in people’s lives and I think some tools or just a safe space where they can say ‘it’s a bit difficult at the minute’ and ‘how do I best mange it?’, would be beneficial.

“It has been very special to have people reciprocate their stories as I share my own – and I think it is important to have moments to acknowledge the life changing nature of some of our own experiences. 

“Not everybody is as lucky as we were to get the time we did with my mother. Some of this narrative is finding gratitude in the worst time of my life, which is a challenge. I am grateful I got five months when they told us we had three at best. I am grateful for my mother Sukey, she will always be my mum and being her daughter makes me proud”.

The charity

“In an attempt to channel my loss, I’ve become an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer UK. There is not enough knowledge surrounding symptoms – and I am keen to raise as much awareness as possible in the hope of earlier diagnosis. 

“As a family we immediately reached for the charity – opting for a legacy fund instead of flowers being sent for mum’s funeral – something we felt was incredibly important."

They have raised £10.5k since they began in 2021.

“My first big challenge this year is to cycle 100miles for Ride London 100 – cycling from London to Essex and back in a day. I am so lucky that 7 of my friends have agreed to cycle with me – to raise vital finds for earlier diagnosis research. We hope to raise at least £15,000 although secretly I am hoping for more! 

“Next is an exciting annual fundraising event that will kick off early next year. I want to find a way to bring together the remarkable people in hospitality to cook together, raise awareness and continue to support Pancreatic Cancer UK in all they are doing with their teams to help change patient outcomes. This isn’t a short term fix and I am in it for the long run. 

She added: “Only 2% of the annual UK cancer research budget is directed towards pancreatic cancer. This doesn’t work for me. 1 in 4 people diagnosed die within one month, 7 in 10 receive no treatment at all and 2 in 3 adults are unaware of the symptoms.

“It has never been more important to share our experience and our knowledge – and it is imperative to do so in the hope of someone recognising a symptom and asking to be checked. Early diagnosis is the best possible hope for patients diagnosed – and everybody deserves the opportunity to fight.

“I know it’s a big ask for donations when times are tricky, but for those who can, your donation would make a massive difference, no matter the size. And for anyone who can’t afford to make a contribution – you can share the message and post about the symptoms. You really never know who you might help.

“This particular cancer doesn’t present itself, often until it’s too late.”

If you want to sponsor Sabrina on her 100 mile cycle – you can do so here 

For more information about the amazing work Pancreatic Cancer UK are funding, or if you have been affected, please click here: https://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/

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Cara Houchen

Cara Houchen

Editor 18th May 2023

'I know what it’s like to wake up at all hours of the night living your worst nightmare and not being able to think straight.'