Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.
This week we meet a young man who will graduate from Temple University at age 19. Fabien Navidi- Kasmai is a survivor of both childhood cancer and cancer treatment. The chemotherapy and radiation led to nausea and changes in his palate, making the foods he loved inedible - if he felt like eating at all. His mother's challenge was to find healthy foods he would like to eat, so he could stay in the fight. The recipes mother and son developed together can now be found in their cookbook, "Happily Hungry." They hope it will help other children and their families survive the treatments designed to kill cancer.
From Fabien Navidi-Kasmai:
In Farsi, they call yogurt "mast." It isn't spelled like that though, because well, people who speak Farsi write in Farsi, but it's pronounced like "must."
From a young age I've loved mast. My grandma would dice cucumbers and put them in mast, we would put mast on rice, and add honey to mast as a sweet, healthy dessert. I've even been told stories about how when I was two years old I would demand "more mast!" and my American grandfather would keel over laughing.
When I was 11, cancer brought the relationship to a whole new level of commitment. Chemotherapy ripped apart my stomach, to the point that I could no longer eat breakfast in the morning or enjoy a delicious slice of lasagna because of the acidity of tomatoes (which was quite a tragedy because I also love lasagna).
However, mast remained loyal to my intestines, never causing an argument and gently comforting my throat when I had the appetite for a bowl. It was a cold, soothing snack for when my body was sent into hot flashes because of (the chemotherapy drug) Vincristine, and an easy bit of nutrition after being pumped full of (anti-nausea drug) Zofran. And in all honesty, it was a motivating amount of probiotics when I was declared medically F.O.S. (Full of ... stool).
It's hard to eat during chemo, because when you aren't throwing up, you're not necessarily hungry either. The times you do want to eat become extremely valuable, and you have to take advantage of the appetite. I didn't realize it at the time, but craving mast made complete sense - my insides were a battlefield, and yogurt was the perfect way to put out the fire. To this day I love yogurt, and would take a bowl of it over nearly any other treat anytime.
In my battle against cancer, mast was a must.
From Fabien's mother, Danielle Navidi:
It was my son, Fabien, who said it. We were sitting around the dinner table like many other families. But we weren't like any other family because a few months prior, we received the devastating diagnosis that Fabien, our 11-year-old, had Hodgkin's lymphoma, Stage III. The weeks and months of stress and turbulence that followed in his treatment included surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, blood transfusions, endless scans, and finally, remission.
Here we were, our family of five intact, and somehow we had made it through the storm. He said: "This is my new favorite soup, Mom. It tastes like someone is taking care of me."
His words, sweet and simple, took on a new meaning for me. There was actual truth to what he said. We've heard "You are what you eat," or rather, my preference, "You are what they ate." Food is an integral part of all cultures and there is science behind why some foods are good for us and others are not.
I pondered why people get cravings for certain foods, why others cannot tolerate some foods and why we find comfort in familiar dishes. And then, when the months of treatment were over and we were all home with no more hospital stays on the horizon, the work of healing, restoring health - both physical and psychological - began. There was no prescription for that, I learned quickly.
So on instinct and a lot of reading and research on my own, I began to rebuild the tired, worn, depressed body of my young cancer survivor. I took care of him with soups, broths, vegetables, dishes from ancient times and modern times, and experimented with new ways to satisfy sweet cravings.
This commitment to healing him with foods led me to pursue a master of science in nutrition, and to teach cooking classes and conduct cooking demonstrations in numerous venues, including botanical gardens, schools and at The Children's Cancer Foundation Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Here at the hospital, we launched a unique nutrition program that teaches and counsels pediatric oncology patients and their families about the benefits of healthy food choices.
Our cookbook was designed for the little ones fighting hard to get well again, for families and caregivers whose child is in or has completed cancer
At a time when every bite counts, it is often impossible to coax even the smallest spoonful into the patient. Knowing what to shop for, what to cook, or how to identify the right kinds of foods that will best support this difficult time is an added challenge. And yet, successful cancer treatment is dependent on a patient who is prepared to stay on schedule. Eating well, drinking healthful broths, teas, smoothies and soups all are integral parts of the treatment and recovery protocol.
Treatment causes nausea, impaired taste buds, weakness and pain, fatigue, dehydration, mouth and throat sores, immune-compromised issues, weight loss and a damaged digestive system. Flavor, smell, color, texture and the hidden gems of optimal nutrition must come together and begin the magical powers of healing.
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