Finding out Jacquelyn Stewart had cancer was one of the worst moments of her life but led to launch of £200k wheatgrass business
The Co Down entrepreneur tells Una Brankin how a frightening diagnosis and being made redundant actually turned her life around
For someone who has suffered from persistent skin cancer on her face and various other parts of her body, Jacquelyn Stewart has a remarkably good, healthy complexion.
The Warrenpoint business woman also has strong nails and thick glossy hair, which - along with her regained health - she attributes to regular shots of wheatgrass.
And she's in good company. Angelina Jolie, Kate Moss and Elizabeth Hurley are all fans of the nutritious shots Jacquelyn produces in bulk, five minutes from her home.
A glamorous grandmother-of-two, Jacquelyn is the owner and MD of the award-winning company Squeeze Wheatgrass, which produces and delivers 2,000-3,000 shots of the health drink across the UK and Europe every week, through its e-commerce website and wholesale network.
The tangy, green concoction has not only made the 48-year-old divorcee healthier and younger looking - it has also made her comfortably off, with a turn-over of between £100,000 and £200,000 annually.
"My nails and hair grow at a phenomenal rate - I need my hair cut every three to four weeks," says Jacquelyn from her Warrenpoint promenade office.
"I wear nail extensions and they need replaced every four to six weeks. And I have an 83-year-old customer, Noreen, who says her skin is glowing and her hair is thicker and in better condition than when she was younger.
"Another good example is Joanne, a hairdresser whose nails were in bad condition because she always had her hands in water. Now she has a lovely, strong set of nails since adding wheatgrass to her diet."
A component of the common wheat plant, wheatgrass is equivalent in nutritional value to the superfoods broccoli and spinach.
But Jacquelyn - along with many nutritionists - is convinced that it has further health-giving properties, pointing out that one 30ml shot of wheatgrass has the nutritional value of 1kg of leafy green vegetables.
"I've run into lots of scepticism about health drinks, and non-believers, along the way, but I believe I am a great ambassador for my own product and brand," she says.
"What I would say to people is don't knock it until you try it - test it for a month and then look at your skin, how your body feels/performs and increases in energy levels and then decide for yourself."
A former bank sales manager - and self-confessed sun worshipper - Jacquelyn discovered wheatgrass after she was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2008, having searched for treatments online.
"I always thought that skin cancer was mostly related to moles but I had a mark on my chest which turned into a kind of blister that didn't go away," she recalls.
"It bled one or twice, so I decided to get it checked by my GP, who wasn't too worried but referred me to a dermatologist to have it removed - mostly for cosmetic reasons. The dermatologist wasn't too worried either, but did a biopsy which came back as a Basel cell carcinoma.
"It was a bit of a shock - if it hadn't been detected, it could have spread into the underlying tissue. I had it removed within a week of the results."
Within the next 18 months, Jacquelyn had a further seven Basel cell carcinomas removed from different parts of her body, and was ordered never to go into the sun again.
"I used to say I was solar powered - I would lie in the sun for seven hours on holiday and come back really refreshed," she laughs.
"I'd always been quite blase about the risks - this was a sudden wake-up call, not just for sunbathing, but also regarding my overall health and wellbeing. I made some radical changes in my diet and I am paranoid about my grandchildren, Hailey (3) and Rafe (1), being in the sun without sunscreen."
The treatment - which left Jacquelyn with "a lovely collection of scars" - didn't end there, unfortunately.
In February 2013, her specialist discovered four possible Basel cells on Jacquelyn's face and decided to try a topical treatment, Aldara, which stimulated the body's own defence mechanisms.
Jacquelyn says: "The side effects were pretty gross - blistered and scabby skin, which I had to ensure was not exposed to sunlight. I got mouth ulcers and felt like I had the flu for six weeks. However, on the plus side it did what it was supposed to do and I didn't have any surgery on my face. I'm lucky to have private health insurance to cover a medical review every three months but I haven't had any Basel cells removed for two years now, which is amazing considering it was about every three to six months at the start."
In the middle of Jacquelyn's treatment, the Bank of Scotland, Ireland made a large percentage of its staff redundant. Jacquelyn used her redundancy pay-out to set up the juice bar in Northern Ireland to grow wheatgrass on the counter, juicing to order.
As the Lisburn juice bar began to attract customers from far and wide, Jacquelyn began to think about easier ways to get wheatgrass to her growing clientele.
With the help of Invest NI, she started research with the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) to extend the shelf life of the shots from the usual two hours to six, then 12.
By the end of 2011, she was up and running - in a market full of powdered and frozen wheatgrass products - with her own fresh ready-to-drink shots, via an e-commerce website.
"In the beginning, I was running the business on my own - planting, harvesting, juicing, packaging, selling, the whole works. I don't think I could have done all that, feeling like I did, without my three wheatgrass shots a day."
Wheatgrass has a high level of alkaline properties which support the immune system, oxygenate the blood and boost red blood cell production.
"I'd read about how the disease can't grow in an alkaline environment, so I thought wheatgrass would be worth trying," Jacquelyn adds.
"It contains over 90 minerals, including high concentrations of the most alkaline minerals: potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium, and 19 amino acids.
"There are lots of ways that people can make their bodies more alkaline.
"Drinking wheatgrass juice is just one of them, and my preferred option.
"Our bodies have been equipped with a fantastic thing called the immune system which has the power to fight off illness and disease.
"But in today's world, the immune system is so busy coping with stress and poor diet and so on, that it sometimes misses the illness.
"Natural health supplements like wheatgrass give the immune system superpowers."
While many of Jacquelyn's customers are using wheatgrass to treat illnesses and cancers, Jacquelyn is quick to point out that she does not sell or promote the juice as some kind of "miracle cure" and does not advocate it as a replacement for modern medicine. "I believe it brings huge benefits to a body and an immune system struggling with illness, supporting the body in challenges," she says.
"Beyond that, the individual most decide for themselves."
Jacquelyn's two-man production teams grow the wheatgrass in Warrenpoint without soil, feeding the plant directly through the roots.
The result is cleaner grass, without the risk of soil-borne bacteria and, as they can cut it closer to the root - a sweeter taste, often compared to fresh peas from a pod.
Squeeze Wheatgrass has now been chosen by Tesco as one of a select number of Northern Ireland companies to take part in a pioneering initiative to market-test their product range.
"A lot of people are surprised that wheatgrass juice actually tastes 'grassy'," laughs Jacquelyn. "It has a fresh green taste and we add a tiny drop of lime juice - a natural preservative - to our shots.
"I have a shot first thing every morning. I have to get up to go to work at the crack of dawn and I'm at work until 7.30pm, and I know it helps keep me going.
"Thankfully, I live about five minutes away from work.
"I'm very lucky to live by the sea, with fabulous views of Narrow Water Castle and Warrenpoint Golf Course from my kitchen window.
"I love spending time with my two grandchildren - seeing the world through their eyes is a great reality check.
"Children appreciate and find wonder in all the things that adults don't even see."
Squeeze Wheatgrass is the only UK producer of a Ready to Drink wheatgrass shot with 12-week shelf life. Shots are available in packs of 14 to 168 days' supply, at £2 per shot. See www.squeezewheatgrass.co.uk
Jacquelyn's Juicy Daily Diet:
- A shot of wheatgrass first thing, followed by a freshly made juice or smoothie for breakfast and lunch. My current favourite green juice has apple and/or pineapple, kale, cucumber, celery, and parsley, blended with avocado or beetroot juiced with carrot and parsnip and some lemon
- For a mid-afternoon snack, it's either a banana or avocado. Sometimes if I am really busy or feel a bit under the weather, I have another shot of wheatgrass in the afternoon
- For dinner, I have grilled chicken or salmon (or other fish) with a salad or sweet potato wedges. At weekends I eat out so it is a lot less healthy - I love Italian food and there is usually a glass or two of wine in the mix. And there have been a few awards dinners recently