This season of Top Chef has only just begun, and cheftestant Fatima Ali has already emerged as a top contender for the coveted grand prize, having wowed the judges with just about every dish that she's prepared so far.
But now Fatima, 28, is unfortunately facing one of the biggest challenges of her life. The Top Chef contestant was recently diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a type of bone and soft tissue cancer, and has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy this fall.
Fatima has kept fans updated on her journey on Instagram, giving a glimpse into her treatment and the little things that are helping her stay strong during this difficult time. "Embracing the new look as cancer treatment continues," Fatima captioned one photo of herself on Instagram in November. "I know a little piece of me has changed already and as each new challenge is conquered with the help of my family and friends, I can only hope to emerge even more resilient, honest and kind."
The Daily Dish recently caught up with Fatima via email to learn more about her cancer diagnosis, the sweet way Padma Lakshmi showed her support, and what the future holds for her on this journey.
Can you tell us about your diagnosis?
Fatima Ali: I was recently diagnosed with a Ewing’s Sarcoma which is a bone and soft tissue cancer. Mine appeared in my left shoulder.
When did you find out?
I started to experience pain in my shoulder in the early fall, but I was working on a popup restaurant for the US Open, so I brushed it off as a pulled muscle from cooking. Then I woke up one morning, towards the end of the event, with excruciating pain in a very swollen shoulder and went straight to the emergency room. From there, I went through many tests and biopsies and finally got the diagnosis three weeks later. I met some wonderful doctors along the way who made all the right calls, and I know that is not always the case, so I'm thankful for them.
How have you been handling the news?
I’m 28, so hearing that I had a rare and high-grade tumor that is potentially life threatening was a serious shock to the system. I suppose I’m handling the news the best that I can: having friends and family around, watching lots of cheesy old TV shows, spending time with my cat, Mr. Meow Meow — he is a great nurse. I'm just trying to be as normal as I can when the chemo isn’t kicking my a--.
What treatment are you undergoing?
I’m on my fourth cycle of a type of chemotherapy, which is a cocktail of five different drugs. It’s meant to be the "worst of the worst" because of the large size and sensitive placement of the tumor. But my fabulous oncologist, Dr. Wexler — shout out to the entire MSK team! (Memorial Sloane Kettering) — pulled out all the stops and has been seeing some good results. The tumor seems to be shrinking, and I will be having surgery to remove it in the new year.
Have you heard from any of the other cheftestants and/or judges since you found out?
All of the contestants have reached out in many ways; we are a tight group. I’ve had an outpouring of lovely messages and care packages from the production team and the producers. And Padma has been wonderful. We've caught up over lunch, and she has come to sit with me during my chemo treatments to keep me company. I'm pretty thankful for my Top Chef fam.
What message do you have for others who may also be going through something similar?
It really is a mind-over-matter situation. You lose many parts of you as you undergo treatment. Your body betrays you, physically, psychologically, and mentally. You can’t blame yourself and almost have to embrace the sickness. Just take it minute by minute and day by day. And definitely get a medical marijuana prescription ASAP. I'm serious about that last part. I may have to become an advocate for that at some point. It is a miracle drug.
What’s next for you on this journey?
I'm looking forward to getting back to work. I've been drawing up plans for my first restaurant, and I'm thinking Los Angeles might be the place. I've also been doing a bit of writing in my downtime, so perhaps that will come together in some kind of book form. I'm very grateful for my family and the wonderful friends I have in my life, and I can't wait to pay it forward.
— Reporting by Jocelyn Vena
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