Judy's fight against her daughter Lily's cancer

I met Judy just over a year ago when she was doing a tasting of her BonJu Smoothies at Manor Food. Since then, we've become friends and I've been lucky enough to meet her tribe. Fairly quickly and transparently, Judy confided in me. Since June 2017, Lily has been diagnosed with a rather rare cancer which, overnight, turned their lives upside down. Telling their story is one way, however small, of supporting them. It certainly takes strength and courage, and they have plenty of it, but it's above all thanks to their unconditional love, their many laughs and special moments that they manage, as best they can, to get through this ordeal together. It's a real life lesson that I hope you'll share with as many of you as possible.

The questions in this Interview are in French, but the answers are in English, to preserve the authenticity of Judy's answers.

Judy, can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I'm originally Turkish, born in Ankara, but moved to Canada with my family when I was 4 years old. I grew up in Toronto, where I graduated from Ryerson with a B.Commerce in Marketing. I worked for a few years as Brand Manager at Kao Brands on beauty brands like Bioré, John Frieda, and then I joined Procter and Gamble. My husband Nick and I got married in 2006. Both working for P&G, we accepted a 2-year expat assignment in Geneva... That was 10 years ago! We loved it here, fell in love with the weekend travel, the mountains and the fresh air... We had 2 amazing & smart little girls.

When, why and how BonJu?
A few years ago, as a mom of 2 daughters, I was looking for ways to bring up my energy levels and learned about green smoothies. I started blending leafy greens and fruits daily, and I noticed a remarkable improvement in my energy - I felt I could run a marathon after work! I lost my baby weight, my skin was radiant, my digestion improved, and my mental clarity was sharp. That's why I created BonJu - I wanted to make this gift of health accessible to everyone - helping people live life to their fullest.

Is nutrition a philosophy for you?
Yes, definitely... There are a few principles I try to live by :

  1. Food should leave us feeling amazing & energized. You shouldn't feel bloated, heavy, or tired after a meal. You can drain 80% of your energy digesting the food you eat - so the lighter the digestive load, the more energy left for you.
  2. The right food can heal the body. We saw a huge transformation when we started incorporating copious amounts of plants into our daily diet. More recently, I have seen the power of plants to treat specific issues. For example, I used a combination of Propolis, Astralagus, Pineapple, Papaya and Reishi mushrooms (among others) to boost my daughter Lily's immune system, while she underwent an intense chemo regimen. It worked so well, all her doctors were amazed at her consistent strength. She never missed a treatment, nor had any blood transfusions, despite a very intense chemo program.
  3. Food should be a delight for our senses. Meals should make you salivate, and taste amazing. We eat with all our senses... If food tastes like sawdust, you won't want to eat it. The beauty of plants is that there is so many possibilities to use them, it's just a question of creativity.
  4. To make it daily - Keep it simple. I used to cook elaborate recipes and loved Ottelinghi inspired creations but that took up to 1.5 hours to prep and more to cook. Now I've changed, I go for few essential quality ingredients, and I keep some good sauces in the fridge to spice things up quickly. 5 ingredient meals are my favourite!
  5. It's not only about the food. Food brings people together, it should be enjoyed, not a chore. I had to learn this as I first decided to become plant based. I worried a lot about what I would eat when I was away from home. That's why I decided to compromise: at home we eat plant based, and when we go out, I do the best I can. The priority is pleasure and compensating with the good stuff back home. So, I guess it's of a 90/10 rule... 90% plant base and 10% exceptions.

Does the whole family enjoy your creations?
Yes, my family tastes everything. They love my vegan mac & cheese at the moment! They were also a big part of deciding the final recipes for my BonJu smoothies. Currently, family favorites are Luscious Life and Wild at Heart.

As a "mumpreneur", what are your ingredients for reconciling your personal and professional life?
Actually, it's two things, they might sound contradictory at first, but they really work together, for me at least, like the Yin and Yang.

  1. Integration: I try to involve my kids as much as I can in my work. They taste recipes, they help me prepare food. I want them to feel a part of the success of BonJu. I also want them to see that success takes hard work, and consistently. I hope I can be a good role model for them.
  2. Compartmentalization : I'm learning to manage work and family time at the most appropriate moments. I make plans that brings us out of our routines in order to entirely enjoy the present moment. Family time is between 6:30-8:30 every day and the entire weekend. With BonJu, when I'm working, I shut out the world for blocks of hours, which allows me to be focused and accomplish what I decided, in the shortest amount of time.

Would you be willing to talk about Lily and tell us about your struggle?
In June 2017, we saw a little spotting in Lily's underwear. We took her to HUG right away, and they saw a mass protruding from her vagina. They referred us to a pediatric gynecologist who decided to do a biopsy. 2 days later, we got the devastating news that this mass was cancerous. Lily was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. During the following week, we did an overwhelming number of tests: MRIs, CT scans, catheters, invasive tests, so they could properly assess the extent of the disease and how to treat it. She immediately started a very strong chemo regimen and has just finished her 9 sessions. Later, she underwent an operation in Paris, that unfortunately revealed the cancer had spread out more than initially thought, but it remained in the same area. We have now started 7 weeks of proton radiation at PSI (Paul Scherrer Institute, in Villigen, CH), which will be followed by 6 months of maintenance chemo.

How did you explain to the girls what was happening?
For Lily, in the simplest and most visual way possible. Together with my sister in law who is a child psychologist, we created a personalized book called "Lily's trips to the hospital". This helped give Lily a sense of what the normal routine was going to be. It visualized every part of the hospital journey, and the end point too, the most important. I go to the hospital, I get the medicine, it hurts sometimes but then I feel better and it makes my cancer go away. This book helped immensely. The main objective is to try to create a feeling of control predictability by anticipating what's going to happen within their journey towards recovery. It was more complicated for Ayla as she is older and understands the gravity of the situation. She worries more. The more time we spend individually with her, the better she feels. We all spend a lot of time talking about what we will do when the cancer is all gone. Lily dreams of eating a lot of candy, going swimming, and going back to crèche to see her friends! Ayla dreams of going on vacation the four of us as a family again.

Do you see anyone to help you talk?
We did have sessions while we were in the hospital with a child psychologist. But we should do more, Especially for the girls. Sometimes Lily bursts out of nowhere with a question like "Why did I get my cancer?" and I realize there's more bubbling up in that little body that I realize. It's hard when we hear about other people dying from cancer... Ayla asks me "Will Lily die too mommy?", and I check for Lily's reaction. She just shrugs and keeps playing whatever game she has invented. It's so hard to know what to say, how to reassure them. I do my best in my strongest, most confident voice " no honey, of course not! " Look at her, she has more energy than any of us! She is totally going to beat her cancer. And flash a big smile. That's about all I can manage... I wish I knew what else I could do to help put them at ease.

Where do you find the strength and energy every morning?
I realize how lucky we are to have this very moment together. Right now, with Lily and with Ayla and Nick, there is so much laughter and joy and love. Lots of "Frozen" singing, dancing, and games. So much to be grateful for, right here in this moment. So, when it's too much and I feel overwhelmed, I try to ground myself, to reconnect with my body, in this moment. I meditate. When I'm in my body and grounded, I feel I can handle anything that comes at me, and most importantly, I can be present with my little gems during joyful moments.

How do you organize your days between care, BonJu, school and everything else?
We share the load - between me, my husband and our nanny, we make sure we prioritize family over everything else. BonJu gets dedicated time and I try to make it free of distraction and focus only on the most important projects.

Who follows Lily?
As Lily's condition is so rare, (10 cases in all of the US per year), we knew we needed a very experienced team to help us. Geneva was our home base for the chemo treatments, but when we needed surgery, so we went to the most experienced surgeon - Helene Martelli, at Institut Gustave Roussy, in Paris. When we needed radiation, we went to the expert center for Proton Radiation, in Villigen, Switzerland. Aside from that, we collected outside opinions from many centers - Dana Farber (Boston), Sick Kids (Toronto), MD Andersen (Texas), Kinderspital (Zurich), to name a few. We cast the net wide, to get as many experts talking about Lily as possible. It made things more complicated in a way, but it also opened our eyes to many different scenarios and kept us very informed, able to ask good questions of each team. Unfortunately, none of the outside opinions or lodgings or travel is covered by insurance, so financially it was and still is very difficult. But we are super grateful that our friends put together an amazing GoFundMe initiative that has really helped ease the load and I'm so thankful for that!

Can you tell us about the Chilly's Bottles x BonJu project and the Swiss charity Zoé4life?
I realized that I could leverage BonJu to help fight childhood cancer more broadly. I partnered up with Zoé4life, a Swiss organization that helps find cures for rare childhood cancers and supports families on their journey. We decided to create a BonJu branded Chilly's reusable water bottle, and donate 100% of the profits to Zoé4life. I feel so good about this partnership, and that we can help contribute in some small way to furthering the cause. We are selling the bottles online, through bonju.ch.

If you had to define motherhood in 1 word?
Resilience. I am learning that we as mothers are stronger than we think we are. We can handle more than we think. We don't know what the universe will throw at us, but believe me, we are born with the strength to deal with all of it. It's not in spite of the challenges that we are stronger, it's precisely BECAUSE of them. When everyone else drops off, we keep picking up the pieces, we keep stepping up, we keep on going. There is no end to what we can do. Moms are amazing.

What do you do and where do you go to relieve the pressure?
I meditate 10 minutes every day and if I need to change up my mood, music always works! I drink my daily BonJu, and I'm loving smoothie bowls these days. I run a few times a week, keep a diary and go on regular girls night out. My survival kit !

A little pleasure?
Stationary. I have about 10 different journals and note pads and thank you cards. Can't get enough ! I just wish I had more time to actually write in them all.

A quote?
Love this one from Michelle Obama: "Don't ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn't. "

A message to pass on?
Be grateful for what you have, right now in this very moment! Live in the present & genuinely connect with your family and loved ones. Create precious memories together. Don't worry about messiness, what people think about you, what you don't have, what is annoying you... Let go of that, know the preciousness of what you have here, right now, and relish in it.

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