Casey Knight celebrated his 40th birthday with a meat cake. Yes, the birthday cake for my brother-in-law was literally made out of at least three different meats. “It was a castle, made from meatloaf, which was a blend of ground beef and sausage, and the ‘drawbridge’ was made from hot dogs,” recalls his then girlfriend and now wife, Kadi Knight.
This was the birthday that preceded a diagnosis of stage-IV pancreatic cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for people with stage-IV pancreatic cancer is just one percent. That means only an estimated one out of 100 people with this cancer will still be alive five years after diagnosis.
Casey Knight from Omaha, Nebraska, is among that one percent. In fact, a pancreatic cancer specialist at Johns Hopkins said Casey is statistically closer to 0.0001 percent (one in 10,000).
But five-and-a-half years after diagnosis, he has no signs of cancer. He has welcomed his third child into the world, and he lives a happy, healthy life surrounded by family and friends.
The big question is: how did he do it?
The original treatment plan involved Casey having surgery to remove part of the pancreas. That plan fell apart the day after his surgery when doctors discovered the cancer had spread to lymph nodes in his armpit and chest.
Things weren’t looking good. If the surgery didn’t work, Casey was told, he could expect to live another six months. “I was scared, freaked out, but positive that there was still hope and that I could beat those odds,” he says.
Casey went through about a year of chemotherapy, as well as stereotactic radio surgery, which is only available for patients with cancer that has spread to two additional sites. For the latter treatment, he had to lie perfectly still in a body cast five days in a row to receive this intense form of radiation.
At the same time, he opened his mind to anything that could potentially help him feel better and improve his overall health. He worked with a herbalist to help ease side effects, tried acupuncture for back pain, and drastically changed his diet.
“I ate mostly meat and cheese. I would say that about 90 percent of my diet consisted of meat. I rarely ate fruits or vegetables.”
The man who celebrated his birthday with a meat cake, decided to give up meat.
Before his diagnosis, says Casey, “I ate mostly meat and cheese. I would say that about 90 percent of my diet consisted of meat. I rarely ate fruits or vegetables.”
Kadi says Casey would start the day with coffee and cigarettes. “Breakfast would be a half pack of bacon and maybe a couple of hard-boiled eggs,” she explains. “Lunch would be whatever ‘Monster Meat Sandwich’ the cook at the restaurant where he works would have made for him. Dinner would be a combination of a few Jaeger and sugar-free Red Bulls and whatever meat and cheese delights the cooks would prepare. If he wasn’t working, he would enjoy a giant rib eye topped with blue cheese and a baked potato slathered with butter and sour cream. Plus, he smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day.”
Besides quitting smoking cold turkey, Casey went cold turkey in other ways. With help and support from family and friends, he shifted to a mainly plant-based diet. In fact, he says, about 85 to 90 percent of his diet is now plant based. He still starts the day with coffee, but the rest of the day’s diet bears no resemblance.
For breakfast, says Kadi, he’ll now typically “have a couple organic farm fresh eggs, multi-grain toast topped with a little organic butter or virgin coconut oil, and some fresh homemade vegetable juice. Lunch is typically a big salad with homemade dressing, or a wrap made with whatever fresh veggies we have on hand. Dinner is whatever I decide to make [see recipes below] or have left over. If he is working, the chef now knows that he prefers healthier vegetable dishes, so she tries to make those for him to try.”
How does a person go from one diet extreme to another and stick to it? For Casey, it boils down to determination, family support, and a healthy dose of creativity. For starters, his mother Susan often shops for him, and delivers plant-based dishes to his home. “When all else was out of my control, cooking for Casey was the least thing I could do for him,” Susan says.
It has also been helpful that Kadi has a degree in culinary science and ran a restaurant kitchen for many years. “She worked very hard to make food so flavorful and good, that I didn’t really miss the meat at all,” says Casey.
Kadi was eager to arm Casey in this battle for life. “After doing extensive research on anti-cancer diets, combined with what I already knew about the amazing healing properties that exist only in the phytochemicals of plants, I concluded that a mainly plant based diet would be the most beneficial for him – especially since that was what he lacked for so long.
“I did some research on some of the best anti-cancer foods. Then I did my best to incorporate those foods into some of our favorite dishes. If it became too restrictive, I figured that he would give up and go back to eating the way he did before. I experimented a lot.”
Kadi says her goal was to “provide the body with the nutrients that we all need, and are becoming pretty hard to find in today’s typical American diet.”
Her goal, says Kadi, was to “eliminate the unhealthy, toxic ingredients from traditional meals and replace them with ingredients that actually provide the body with the nutrients that we all need, and are becoming pretty hard to find in today’s typical American diet.”
A perfect example of this strategy is Kadi’s lentil taco. “I make the taco ‘meat’ using lentils, cauliflower, fresh onion, garlic, and organic peppers, as well as a few healing spices such as cumin, cayenne, and black pepper. I also use Himalayan salt, which provides much needed minerals, and fresh lime juice. That goes on top of a bed of fresh greens, usually Romaine lettuce and spinach, organic tomatoes, cilantro, fresh red onion, avocado, peppers, salsa, and maybe a little side of organic Greek yogurt instead of sour cream.
Bonus: Kadi says the recipe is easy to make!
Fast forward five-plus years and Casey continues to follow a primarily plant-based diet. He also eats some organic cheese and eggs, and avoids all added sugars. Both he and Kadi say they have noticed a marked difference in energy levels and they rarely get sick.
That said, Casey admits his mouth still waters when cooking burgers for other people. And though he hadn’t eaten meat for five years, he chose to mark the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis at a fine New York City steakhouse. While each morsel tasted delicious, he says, his body wasn’t quite sure how to digest it after a five-year meat hiatus.
His main message is this: if a carnivore like him can embrace vegetables, anyone can. “Open your mind and don’t be afraid to try new things, even if they sound weird,” he says. “It opens you up to a whole new world you never knew existed.”
Carrie Knight is a BODYBALANCE Trainer and a BODYBALANCE and CXWORX Assessor Lead for Les Mills in the United States. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science. Her background includes being a TV news anchor, radio talk show host, fitness writer, and recording voice overs. Carrie is thrilled to combine her love for fitness and journalism by writing for Fit Planet.
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