Going Plant-Based Helped This Chef Regain Her Health After Breast Cancer
Eleven years ago, Chef Kristen Thibeault's whole world was turned upside down when, during a routine doctor's visit, she received a diagnosis that she had "double cancer" meaning tumors in her breast and uterus. Her mother had died from breast cancer six years earlier, so she immediately went into full fight or flight mode.
After receiving the terrifying news, Thibeault – a former public relations executive – knew she had to make a drastic change to fight back against the uterine and breast cancer invading her body. So she turned to a plant-based lifestyle to take back control of her health, a decision she credits with keeping her cancer-free to this day. Here is her story.
The Shock of My Life, Then the Fight for My Life
“I didn't suspect anything. I was completely numb when I was told the news. My mind started racing and I had a total panic attack. I remember my life whizzing by me and I could not believe that it was actually me they were talking about. I kept thinking they had made a mistake and it couldn't be me."
The Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef decided to change her diet, right then and there. She adopted a fully vegan diet and began to learn to cook for herself in a whole new way. The mother-of-four thought that she was just learning to cook for herself, but ultimately this learning to make vegan foods led her to make a major career change, transitioning from the beauty industry to the culinary world, so she could share her passion for plant-based cooking.
In 2012 Kristen became Executive Chef at the Four Seasons San Francisco restaurant Kombu, the first plant-based restaurant inside the luxury hotel chain.
Three years later, Kristen, now an award-winning chef, became the co-founder and Executive Chef for Nybll, a high-end food delivery service that provides healthy, plant-forward meals to pro athletes and Fortune 500 companies like Amazon.
Fighting Back Against Cancer While Pursuing Her Dream Job
“In 2008, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and was in the throes of all of that," she recalls. "If you or anyone you know has had cancer, you know that you start grappling with everything in your life. You start trying to figure out what you can cling to save yourself if you will. I spent eight years of my early career at AVEDA and The Body Shop where I was exposed to a plant-based lifestyle. I wasn't plant-based back then, but it was always in the back of my mind. So, the first thing I did after my diagnosis, was to dive straight back into healthy living.”
Thibeault says that she believes eating dairy is a factor in "almost every" chronic illness.
“For me, that was a big thing. I'm 11 years cancer-free and I am on zero medication. I rarely see a doctor, even though I have a very high-stress job. For years, I've been up at three in the morning working 14 to 18 hour days, but I'm able to maintain my health at a high level.
Healthy, Cancer-Free and Off All the Meds.
“Physically, I feel like I have a higher level of energy. At the same time, I'm more conscious of how I feel now than I was back then because I was dealing with so much. When you're dealing with a life or death situation, you don't notice the subtleties of what something does. But, in retrospect, I think I have much more sustained energy and I feel more in control of my life. It's pretty extraordinary.”
While recovering from cancer, Thibeault wasn't able to travel. She spent a lot of time cooking for herself in those days. A friend asked if Thibeault would cook for her, too. It was the beginning of her new business.
“Then, all of a sudden, I had not two people, but ten people, and then 15 people who wanted me to cook for them. A lot of them were new moms who simply wanted to be healthier. Suddenly, I was like, 'Wait a second. I can actually see doing this for a living and not having to go back on the road.' That was the birth of my career.”
For more information about Nybll, head over to Nybll.com where testimonials from the San Francisco Giants, Upstart, Glu and individual clients rave about the foodservice. Most importantly, Chef Kristen is healthy, thriving and loving her new career and plant-based life.
Finding a Silver Lining
“So, I was working in Boston doing personal meal planning when I started cooking for a health club chain called Sports Club LA. Then they asked me to do the first plant-based restaurant at a Four Seasons in San Francisco. That sort of changed everything, as you can imagine. It was pretty high-profile. Suddenly, I was in one of the most competitive food markets in the world! People were really hungry for healthy, plant-forward food.”
“From there, I got a call from my first sports team, The Oakland A's, because they had a few vegan players. Afterward, I jumped to the San Francisco Giants then the Golden State Warriors. I've been with them for the past three seasons. In 2016, I was asked to do the World Series at Dodger Stadium. Everything just exploded after that.”
“Two years ago, we served 2,000 players 6,000 meals over five days. Everything was plant-focused. There's definitely been a radical shift in sports. Every team that I work with has vegan players now. It's a little bit slower in football than in basketball but it's rising faster lately. We serve all four major franchises across football, baseball, and basketball.”
Taking Control of Her Health
“One of the most powerful things about making a choice is it's what you need, right? I think as a society – I don't want to call it brainwashed – but everybody sort of just steps in line. Everybody goes to McDonald's. Everybody grabs stuff that's easy to prepare," she says. "Then you realize, 'What a second. It can actually be easier.' I decided I'm not going to have a microwave. I'm just going to cook on the stove. I was testing myself and, sure enough, I still don't have a microwave.”
Thibeault says we've been "indoctrinated with this belief" that media validates behavior. If we see it in a magazine, it must be worth doing--even when it comes to processed "healthy foods."
"I realized it's just as easy to make a smoothie or peel a banana as it is to eat a processed bar. That's when I felt a real shift in my own body. I own my future. I own my own health.”
Snack Attacks, Minus the Meat
Thibeault is an advocate of intermittent fasting, so she skips breakfast.
"My first meal of the day tends to be something like an avocado and kale salad. It depends if I'm in working in the kitchen or not. When I'm with my family, I do a lot of lazy, quick sauteed vegetables. I also do a really good vegan bolognese that my kids love a lot.”
“I love, love, love kale chips. Roasted carrot puree is an awesome, healthy treat to have around. A lot of times I'll just eat half an avocado. My kids and I love coconut ice cream. That's easy to buy or make yourself as well.”
What She Tells Clients: Start Small for Big Results
“Start with something simple. Rather than half and half in your coffee, switch over to Ripple [vegan creamer made from peas]. If you are a processed food person, just increase the number of veggies you cook every day. That's what I always recommend to clients. Get your palate used to things slowly. If you're a high salt user, try using less salt. Or slowly transition away from sugar. After a while, you won't even notice. I haven't eaten sugar in probably eight years. Now if I do, it tastes super sweet to me. There are also so many great dairy-free cheeses. And the vegan butter is phenomenal. I use to butter everything up! Now I use vegan butter across the board in my kitchen. We don't use traditional butter in recipes ever, even if it's a non-vegan item. People don't even know.”
Why Eating Plants Is Easier Than Ever
“It's really not hard to today. Almost every restaurant has options and that's getting better and better. It's not hard to shop, even at low-end grocery stores. It's not hard to find recipes. And you can go to pretty much any city and find at least one vegan restaurant. I think it's more just a matter of convenience. People think, 'Oh gosh, someone cooked for me and I'm going to their house. I have to eat it.' In certain cultures, that may be the one exception to the rule. But, if you're in your own home or a restaurant, there are plenty of options.”
The Bottom Line
“Everybody should consider eating this way because it's better for you," Thibeault says. It's really simple. You will live longer if you eat a plant-based diet. Every single study points to that fact. We know what happens in our bodies when we get cancer and what is supposed to happen. These chronic diseases kill us.”
“The only thing we die from isn't related to plants. It's slipping and falling, but that's because our bones are weak in our lower extremities. That comes from a lack of exercise. But the four main killers all come from eating fat. They all come from eating meat and dairy. Some people say it's too hard or it's inconvenient. But you'll live longer, so I say it's worth it. It's really just that simple.”