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Alex Niles Headshot

Chemo With a Side of Kale

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Line Klein via Getty Images

On September 10th, 2013, at age 30, I was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer, which affects my digestive system. It began at the junction of my esophagus and stomach, and unfortunately also spread to my liver, as well as to other sites. This diagnosis came as a shock to me, completely unexpected, not only because of my young age, but also because I have been an active, health-conscious individual throughout my entire life. At first, I was extremely disappointed, and I felt as if my body betrayed me. All those countless hours of my life dedicated to being healthy, to becoming a Division 1 scholarship athlete, to eating right -- where was that now?

My answer to that question was to adapt my old habits to my new life.

One of the challenges of battling cancer is maintaining weight during the harsh treatments you endure. The poisonous chemotherapy breaks your body down, eating away not only at the cancerous cells but also at the good cells you need to thrive. Too often it is the treatment that patients succumb to, not the cancer itself. For this reason, I was instructed to "eat whatever I could," to get "as many calories as possible" in order to fight this fight. Yes, although in the past my appetite had been compared to a pregnant woman's, I began to follow these instructions and soon I was eating whatever I got my hands on -- Skittles, pastries, ice cream. If it had calories, I consciously attempted to stomach it (pun very much intended). 

But soon I started to notice how I felt after devouring a bowl of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, for example. I felt queasy and green around the gills. I began to ask myself, Why am I detouring from eating healthy at this point in my life, when I have to poison my body through treatment, and when putting the most nutritional value into my body is a matter of life and death? I remember saying to myself one morning as I was making breakfast (yes, I was talking to myself, let's blame that on the treatment) that I was going to control as much of this battle as I can. One area I focused on, one that I know has been paramount to my overall success while battling stage IV cancer, was nutrition. I have had a near-obsession with the stuff I fill my body with. 

What were the best foods to eat while running my cancer marathon? Since the treatment itself sapped my body of vital nutrients, those nutrients in the form of food, aka "nature's medicine," was the answer. I am by no means an expert in nutrition, but I educated myself intensively. I learned that I can regain my body's natural level of hydration through eating foods containing high potassium, selenium, and iron; such foods also had detoxifying effects.

Over all, I have adopted a raw, plant based diet -- focusing on eating (and juicing) a ton of cruciferous green vegetables that help maintain an alkaline system, incorporating nuts, beans, and legumes that provide the ever-important fiber that carries toxins out of our bodies, and completely avoiding processed foods, refined sugars, and other items cancer feeds on. I definitely miss the chocolate chocolate chip ice cream and the meatball parm heros, but I say good riddance to the Skittles and the Ho Ho's.

I can confidently say that the meals I'm making would compete with the best of them. They are not only extremely healthy, I believe, but as delicious as any meal I've had. There's my Roasted Artichoke with Garlic Aoli, my Spinach, Basil, and Cashew Puree, my Quinoa Pasta with Rapini, and my Chard Oshitashi. Still hungry? Try my Red Lentil Kofta with Spinach and Curried Cauliflower Soup, or my Kale and Spinach Juice with Quinoa Pilaf.

Of course, not every entrée is a success. My Parsley Hummus was not warmly received -- too much tahini, I think -- and it was soon whisked off the menu, as my mom secretly drained it down the sink.

More seriously, I believe my focus and commitment to nutrition has allowed me to recover from treatment and regain the strength to fight my illness. It also has given me confidence. 

Family and friends have all tasted from the offerings of "Chez Niles," and they all come back for thirds and fourths. Reservations are currently being accepted. (But don't look for that Parsley Hummus. It may be healthy, but my ego is too bruised from the last time!)

*****

RECIPE: SEARED RED CABBAGE MAITAKE CUPS

Ingredients:

1 head of red cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
2 8 oz maitake mushrooms, cut into small pieces, through the stem
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 tablespoons refined coconut oil, more as needed

Instructions:

Heat 3 tablespoons coconut oil over medium-high heat in a cast iron or nonstick pan. When hot, place red cabbage wedges and cook 3-5 minutes until golden brown on one side. Using tongs, turn over and cook on other side for another 3-5 minutes
Heat garlic and 2 tablespoons coconut oil over medium-high heat in a cast iron or nonstick pan, for about 2 minutes. Place cut mushrooms in, and cook cut side down pressing to flatten, around 3 minutes per side. Reduce heat and mix together.
Serve wedges and put mushrooms inside to create your seared red cabbage maitake cups!

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