Christina Pirello was 25 when she was told she was going to die. The type of blood cancer, acute myeloid leukemia, was very advanced and progressing quickly. She was given a maximum of nine months to live.
She had just spent the previous two years nursing her ailing mother and then mourning her death at 49 from colon cancer. Cancer of various forms was in her family: The majority of her grandmother's 16 siblings had also died of it and so had some of her grandfather's family.
"Of course I have cancer," she muttered to herself.
But when doctors directed her to start chemotherapy immediately, she rebelled.
"I thought, Oh my God, my mother lost her hair three times and [was so] sick. It couldn't make my mom better, or any one of my relatives. I should go through all this and die anyway? No. I'll live my life and I'll die when I die."
She went home and packed her bags to live out her last days in Italy, the home of her maternal ancestors where she had lived for a year, cooking and painting, when she was an art student and amateur pastry chef. But she never made it to Italy.
A sudden and dramatic change in her approach to food saved her life and completely changed its direction, she says.
Today, the 54-year-old American chef remains cancer-free and on a mission to educate the public about the integral relationship between food and health. In addition to writing five cookbooks and hosting PBS's Christina Cooks, she advocates better food labeling, sits in Senate sub-committees on nutrition, works with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and has launched an overseas tour company that serves local dishes using whole, vegan ingredients. Most recently she founded a program to raise public awareness about children's nutrition.
Now, days before a trip to Israel to teach healthy cooking, Pirello tells The Jerusalem Post her story and philosophy.
Your Irish father was a butcher; your Italian mother loved to cook. How much was food a part of your life before you got sick?
When you grow up Italian, it's all about food and family, food and family and lots of guilt thrown in. It's much like a Jewish family. I was always around food and realized from an early age that I wanted to cook. By age nine, my mother had taught me a good bit and I could make a meal by myself. I loved and still love everything about the process - shopping, slicing and dicing, cooking and even cleanup.
How was your health before your diagnosis?
I had a little anemia, but I was athletic and hardy, [though] every now and then after swim team practice, my bones would hurt. I thought I had trained too much. I bruised easily and everyone thought I was a klutz. [In those days] we didn't rush to a doctor for tests. When I got diagnosed, I was exhausted and achy; I thought it was part of the grieving for my mother.
What happened that stopped you from moving to Italy, where you expected to live your last months?
A friend told me she knew a guy who eats weird, vegan food and says it can cure cancer. I thought, "Oh no, now my friends are going to introduce me to every loony under the sun." Robert was a professional runner who was into macrobiotics. His mother had died of a brain tumor and he also had lots of cancer in his family. He read about a doctor in Philadelphia who cured himself from cancer [with macrobiotics] and decided to take his cooking class.
When I met Robert, he had been eating this way for 10 years and was a really good cook. He explained that what you feed yourself infuses your blood, and blood is the first thing to heal in illness. I thought it was either the biggest nonsense on the planet or the best kept secret. He gave me a copy of The Cancer Prevention Diet by Michio Kushi. He was a nice guy, and it didn't hurt that he was cute, so I agreed to read it and then thought, "This totally makes sense" and "I can live in Italy and eat pizza and chocolate until I die or I can stay here and eat brown rice and vegetables and see if it helps." He cleared my cabinets and started teaching me to eat and cook. I didn't know that he was immediately in love.
Did you continue to see doctors?
My doctors agreed to religiously monitor my blood, with the agreement that they could intervene if I was deteriorating. I was very tired out but I didn't feel that bad. But my mother didn't feel that bad either and no one in my family had horrible symptoms before they died either. So we started cooking, and four weeks later I was in remission. What? The doctors said that it happens with this disease and that it won't last, so I shouldn't get my hopes up. For the next nine months I did go in and out of remission, but as the months went on it was more and more remission.
You were supposed to die nine months after your diagnosis, according to the doctors. What happened then?
The doctors said my blood experienced "spontaneous regression." My [white blood cell] counts were not just staying the same but were improving. At 14 months, they said, "Other than anemia, we can't locate any [disease] in your blood. Is it a miracle? Will it stay this way? We don't know." They continued the blood tests every month for six months and it didn't come back. I decided to go back to my life and have only had three or four blood tests since then.
For breakfast, I used to have a sweet roll or even a chocolate bar with coffee. For lunch I had salad and dessert. For dinner I had pizza or deli followed by ice cream or chocolate. I drank lots of juice and ate lots of sugar, cheese and white flour. Now my diet consists of whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, some tofu and tempeh. I still love chocolate, but eat only dark and just a wee bit. I adore desserts, but make them with healthy ingredients and only once a week or so.
Was part of the healing also from Robert's love?
Without him, I would most likely have died. I would say that half the reason I (or anyone) gets well from disease is support and love from those around you. Robert's vision of macrobiotics, health and wellness also created our business and his vision keeps it fresh and alive. I am the face, the teacher. He is the visionary.
You started your new journey with a macrobiotic diet. Can you find wisdom in other theories, other cultures?
I studied macrobiotics and ayurvedic medicine and they are brilliant, but I have also looked at Native American medicine and many other diets. Every person has a different constitution and lives in a different environment, and this is the shortfall of macrobiotics, that it is very rigid - everyone eats the same diet of [brown] rice, seaweed, miso [etc.] and this is inappropriate for Africa, for example, where the main grain is millet and couscous and where it's hot and they are not going to do heavy oven baking. In macrobiotics, you are considered rebellious if you walk away from the Japanese influence on its practice and theories.
Twenty-five years ago, I was asked to set my culture aside. I cut the legs off my table and ate with chopsticks. I thought, this is fun, but I'm Italian; my arthritic father has a hard time sitting on pillows. I was held up as an example of the daughter of parents who ate a lot of meat because I had red hair and am muscular. There are a lot of mythologies. So I threw away my short table, bought new chairs and married the Mediterranean approach [to cooking] to the macrobiotic theory.
You have to think of what works for you. For me dark chocolate works, but for others it might make them fat. I am a vegan, but if a respected teacher told me that wasn't working for me and that I must incorporate some meat or fish to be optimally healthy, I would.
How did you become a TV chef?
I was given a second chance in my life. I wanted to understand what happened to me, so I went to acupuncture school, studied [macrobiotics and Chinese medicine] with Michio Kushi and got a master's degree in nutrition. After, I went back to working as a short-order cook in a health food store. People at the counter were always asking about the impact of food on health, so I was asked to teach classes. My first was for people with HIV and AIDS. I also offered classes to consumers. In college I was a minor in biology; I've always been interested in science and food and art, and this was a way to marry Chinese medicine and science, to evolve into a really unique teacher.
The cooking classes grew and grew and people thought I was funny. I didn't used to be talkative as a young person, but as my kidneys got stronger, an Asian teacher said I became less fearful. Robert, whom I married in 1987, had the idea of the cooking show. In 1997 he raised production money with Eden Foods for a show for PBS.
How was it going from short-order cook and teacher in a health food store to nationally broadcast chef?
When I started on set the first day in Philadelphia, I was a wreck, I threw up 12 times. But I taped the first season, and went to a convention in Dallas, the meat-eating capital of the world, to introduce it, and we got 20 markets on 65 stations, oh my God. I was the only vegetarian food chef at the time and maybe now am still the only one who talks about the effect of food on the body - this is good for the liver, this is good for the intestines, etc. Now we are in the top 200. Notoriety is not that great, but the information reaches so many people. People want to know how to be healthier and how food affects them.
Are there other recovery stories like yours?
Our combined knowledge [was] tested when Robert was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis (from a diet too low in fat for all the running he did) and together, we worked and cooked and cured him with [food and some supplements] but no pharmaceuticals. There are thousands of people who have recovered their health with macrobiotics and other alternatives. Lots of people in my early years of teaching came because they were sick. I have noticed now, though, that healthier, younger people are attracted to my classes as a way to preserve health and prevent illness.
What foods need to be reconsidered?
1) Milk, even organic, is produced for the offspring of animals who need to develop big muscles; this high protein content depletes people of calcium. It also adds to the accumulation of mucus in the sinus cavities.
2) Commercially fed, factory-farmed animals are raised in a cruel and unhealthy way. Grass-fed organic meat is a different product. One gram of factory meat has more than nine grams of saturated fat. Grass-fed organic meat has less than two grams of saturated fat per gram, and has healthy omega 3s [and the meat is antibiotic and pesticide-free].
3) We need five or six servings of vegetables a day, minimum. Variety is the key; each has its own nutritional value.
4) The liver can't assimilate high-fructose corn syrup, which interrupts metabolism, resulting in obesity. In everything from sweets to bread to salad dressing, you can hardly avoid it if you are using processed foods. I am more in favor of natural sweeteners - brown rice syrup, honey, even maple syrup.
5) The quality of carbohydrates determines its health for us. We have to find variation. Wheat, for example, has become somewhat unhealthy because of genetic engineering and eating so much of it in a compromised form of white flour. You rarely see grain intolerances in cultures that eat whole grains.
How do you make vegan, macrobiotic foods gourmet?
Everything from macaroni and cheese to dips, soups, burgers, chili, casseroles to brownies can be made delicious and healthy. The techniques are the same; just the ingredients change.
You have been close to death and have lost many loved ones. Has fear of death been a part of your life, or is it something you can be healed from?
I don't know if you can be healed from it. After the diagnosis, I felt resignation and a lot of fear, rather than depression. I felt I was living in a bad movie about a person who dies young. I was pissed. I would look up at the sky and say, "You gotta be kidding me. I just finished taking care of my mother for two years and sold my business. Thanks."
There were countless days I kicked Robert out and told him to find someone to love who was going to live. But the next morning, there he would be making breakfast. A lot of my confidence came from Robert, because he was so certain.
In 1998, I had, out of the blue, a brain hemorrhage from a genetic aneurism - no connection to the cancer. When I was in the hospital, I reflected a lot on who I was. I was new on TV and a big hit, but I had a lot of time to think about death.
I'm philosophical, I know it's inevitable, and now as I'm in the second half of my life, I feel great, yes, and afraid, no. I know death is going to come, nobody knows when or how. You could be healthy and then get hit by a bus. So I would say I have awareness rather than a fear. I don't take one thing for granted. I risk everything - if you lose, you lose, if you win, you win. I do everything all the way.
What's the worst that can happen?
People often become their disease. I didn't have an easy childhood and I would say, "Now I'm not going to have adulthood; it's so unfair." About eight months after the diagnosis, I met a teacher who said, "Stop being so angry and take responsibility for this illness - you can discover your past and what's going on."
What does it mean to take responsibility for disease - are you saying that people make themselves sick?
I choose what I put into my body every day. Forget macrobiotics - if people ate whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts and fruits, and as a treat sometimes they had meat, dairy, butter, sugar, I don't know what I would do for a living. We wouldn't see this health crisis that we have today.
Christina Pirello will be holding a variety of cooking for health classes January 3-12, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Efrat (and Ra'anana, which is already sold out). Robert Pirello will teach a cooking class to heal osteoporosis in Ramot. The full list of events are here:
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