September 26th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

Helping the littlest patients fight cancer

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 NavidiKasmai 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 treatment and for those looking for healthful, smart food choices appealing to kids' tastes.

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.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Tracy

    My son went through chemo at age 2-3 for cancer in his spinal cord. He has never eaten well since. Can't stand the taste or the feeling of so many foods... He also had vincristine, like Fabien. I am going to find this book to see if it will help me find things he will eat. According to the doctors, there is tumor growth again after 8 years of remission. It would be nice to be able to help him with foods from the get-go.

    September 26, 2012 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Marilyn

      Hi Tracy, my oldest daughter's name! Anyway, I was thinking maybe a good magazine worth checking out for recipes that use healthy food would be the free booklet mailed to you. Go to http://www.hacres.com and this is from Hallelujah Acres. They have so many wonderful healthy recipes and tips and stories of people having victory over this dreadful disease from eating good food and etc., Best Wishes and prayers for your son and I hope he improves soon. I know myself I feel better when I juice carrots and celery and apples and get so much energy. blessings Marilyn

      September 27, 2012 at 00:01 | Report abuse |
  2. 1800Oncologist

    Here's a great infographic that tells the story of Childhood Cancer: http://pinterest.com/pin/52917364342717304/

    September 26, 2012 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Brent

    The book is called Happily Hungry. It has a lot of good information and benefits not only those with cancer, but also finicky eaters. I saw it on Amazon, but I got my copy at the book signing.

    September 28, 2012 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Fighting Cancer

    That's great.. your information is very informative for me..I've tried to stay positive, and the reason I've been able to stay positive and strong is because there are so many people that stand behind me

    September 29, 2012 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.