This January 5th will be my sixteenth cancer-versary. That’s almost as many years as I was old when I first heard the words “cancer” and “aggressive” spoken about me at the age of 18. It’s been sixteen years since I went from being a teenager with cancer to an entrepreneur and survivor. What seemed like a painful derailing of my life plans at the time would become one of the best things that ever happened to me. Getting cancer changed my lifestyle, my diet, my thinking, and my life’s work.
My journey started back in January 1999. It was my senior year of high school and I was healthy and active. I was on the varsity tennis team. School was going well and I was getting ready to apply to college.
Then one day, I was taking a shower and I felt a bump in my lower abdomen. I didn’t think anything of it, and I wasn’t worried, but I told my dad who was a pediatrician. He called one of his physician friends who wanted to biopsy it, the sooner the better. I got the biopsy and then went about my usual business, back to school.
The doctor called us back in and said to me and my parents: “the sample that we took is a type of cancer”. That was the first major shock. I said, “What do you mean its cancer?” “Rhabdomyosarcoma. It’s a cancer of the connective tissue and muscle tissue and it’s very aggressive”, he said.
Instead of suiting up for tennis practice, I was suiting up for exploratory surgery. After opening up from my sternum down my lower abdomen and creating a zipper on my chest, they discovered that the cancer wasn’t localized. It had spread and I would have to undergo twelve months of chemotherapy treatment.
I had to go to the hospital every three weeks and get IV chemotherapy. I didn’t think it was a big deal at first but it literally wiped me out. I lost hair. I felt awful. I experienced nausea and vomiting and I couldn’t eat.
The first week was hardest and the second week was a little better and the third week I would start to come back to life a little more, just as it was time to repeat the chemo again. The cycle of treatments really took a toll on me.
One of the biggest challenges for me was nutrition. My friends and family were bringing me food but I couldn’t eat. I was repulsed by the smell of food. I was losing too much weight, and so my doctor handed me a bottle of nutrition drink and said this is what you need to buy. My mom went to store and came home with four cases. I was drinking six to seven a day because it was my only source of nutrition but it tasted awful.
At this same time, my immune system was down and since I wasn’t able to get out like a normal teenager, I passed the time by reading. I read 120 books on diet, nutrition and wellness, hoping to educate myself and dig out of the hole I was in.
One day, I came across a list of ingredients you should never put in your body. I held the bottle of drink my doctor had recommended for me up next to the book so the ingredients were side-by-side. The bottle was exactly like the page, with nearly every bad ingredient in there.
That was the eye opening moment for me. My doctor came in and I asked him about the drink. You recommended this to me and it’s the worst thing in the world. He said, you’re right, but this is what we have in the form of liquid nutrition. If you find something better, let me know.
From that day on I made a radical change. My mom went to the store for things you should be putting in your body — organic carbohydrates, protein, vegetables. I got a Vitamix blender and started blending my own shakes daily, replacing all the bad ingredients with good ones.
A few weeks into it, I started to notice I was feeling a bit better. The only thing that I had changed was my shakes. I ended up gaining about 20 pounds and my energy and strength slowly returned. It was all from nutrient dense foods.
I finished my year of treatment and was a year behind in college but I was determined that I didn’t want this disease to set me back or slow me down, so I finished college in three years instead of four. Then I went on to medical school.
While there, something resonated with me. We only received two weeks of nutrition training — about the same as if you were to take a weekend nutrition course — and that felt backwards. Why was the medical practice focusing on the treatment of disease not the prevention?
I couldn’t in good conscience tell the patients asking me about weight gain to buy the current off-the-shelf shakes, so I gave them a list of ingredients and instructed them to make their own. But compliance was low because it wasn’t convenient enough. I was in residency and I felt that at that moment, more than ever, I needed to start a business to offer an alternative.
So with the blessing — and help — of my wife, who has a Masters in holistic nutrition, I started Orgain. I set off to create a truly nutritious shake that tasted good. Diet and nutrition are one of the most important parts of treatment, and yet the greatest obstacle. I created Orgain to help alleviate one major obstacle in the journey to recovery.
My experience with cancer was deflating for sure. At the time, I felt there was nothing worse that could be happening to me. But now, 16 years later, I’m helping others with cancer. I’m offering something that is good for people at a time when they need it most.
I know I gained something extraordinary from my cancer journey. While I could help 30-40 patients on a busy day in the clinic as a doctor, I’m now helping tens of thousands of people reach their nutritional goals. It has been a rewarding and motivating journey with an exciting future ahead.