UPDATED: 11:50 GMT, 16 December 2012
Ten years ago Kris Carr was diagnosed with inoperable tumours – yet today she feels better than ever. Jane Mulkerrins discovers how Kris became the go-to guru on changing your life through diet
Kris Carr is impressively frank about her former life, which she calls BC: Before Cancer. As an ambitious young actress living out a long-held dream – with the lead in an Arthur Miller play on Broadway directed by the playwright himself, and a role in a touring production of Chicago – she paid little attention to her health. ‘I was caught up in a crowd that was partying,’ she admits. ‘Everything I ate was processed and microwaved, and at the end of each day, I would grab a bottle of wine, a packet of cigarettes and a takeaway.’ Her primary concern, she quips, was ‘not having back fat in a leotard’.
However, her work-hard, play-harder lifestyle in New York was steadily taking its toll. ‘I was definitely burning myself out,’ she nods. ‘By my mid-20s, I’d started having a lot of problems with my digestion, with eczema and allergies, and with fatigue and depression.’ The latter she self-medicated, with ‘pills and booze and stupid men’.
Even so, when agonising abdominal pains finally sent her to see a doctor, Kris was in no way prepared for the damning diagnosis she received: epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, an extremely rare form of cancer, was ravaging her liver and lungs.
Kris left her hectic NYC life behind and moved upstate to a farm, from where she runs her Crazy Sexy business
‘I was 31 years old, and I was told there was no cure, there was no surgery that would make this go away…and it was stage four.’ With cancer, there is no stage five. ‘I was terrified,’ she says. Her doctors do not know what caused Kris’s cancer, and although she sought out the best oncologists she could, harsh chemotherapy or radiation therapies would have little effect, she was told.
‘They are not sprinkling fairy dust on you; these treatments are hardcore chemicals that may or may not kill you themselves,’ she says. ‘The drugs they could offer me weren’t going to cure me, and I felt, why take away my quality of life if you can’t take away my disease?’ she shrugs.
Instead, Kris decided to find her own way to manage her condition, through a combination of a plant-based diet and nontraditional medicine. Just as she does not claim that her former fast-living ways caused her cancer, nor does she believe that green juice, yoga and pH-conscious foods will cure it. But she did have the power to radically improve her overall health, which might just work wonders.
‘The drugs they could offer me weren’t going to cure me, and I felt, why take away my quality of life if you can’t take away my disease?’
Next Valentine’s Day, it will be ten years since Kris first heard the words, ‘You have cancer.’ She is not cancer-free; her tumours remain, and she has annual scans to monitor their growth, or otherwise. Fortunately, her cancer, the specialists discovered, is the slow-growing rather than the aggressive sort.
But as the self-ascribed ‘poster girl for cancer’, Kris is a powerful advert for her own alternative approach – she is glowing and vital and looks at least a decade younger than her 41 years. ‘I’ve not only been surviving, I’ve been thriving – with cancer,’ she agrees. ‘I actually feel better with the disease than I did without it.’
And inadvertently, through focusing first on her own holistic health, then on that of others, she has become a celebrity health guru, a ‘wellness warrior’, teaching better health for all by banishing the bacon and grabbing the juicer.
Her new book, Crazy Sexy Kitchen, is a perky, colourful collection of 150 recipes, including smoothies, salads and soups, all developed with her co-author, the chef Chad Sarno, plus personal anecdotes and explanations of her philosophy for eating and for life – her ‘veggie manifesto’.
On a chilly November night in Manhattan’s trendy Tribeca district, I witness the extent of Kris’s fervent following. The cooking demonstration and meet-the-author event to promote the book – her fourth in the US, but the first to be published in the UK – is packed to the rafters with hundreds of polished post-work New Yorkers, keen to ask Kris questions about whether vegan diets are suitable while training for a marathon, and what meat-free, plant-friendly treats to cook for ‘nonbelievers’ this Christmas. In tight black jeans and spike-heeled boots, with her blonde hair in big, bouncy waves, Kris holds court with humour, warmth and inspiring enthusiasm. And the samples of dishes being handed around, and hungrily devoured – a crunchy kale salad, crostini with artichoke pesto and mushrooms, and a creamy, festive smoothie called For the Love of Nog – would satisfy even
the most finicky gourmand.
Kris grew up several hours north, in the small town of Pawling in upstate New York, where she was raised by her mother and her grandmother, a cook who ran a local French bistro, the Village Gourmet. ‘While she was a very talented chef and used lots of fresh produce in her cooking, we still ate a lot of animal products,’ Kris tells me when we meet a few days later at her 16-acre farm in Woodstock, NY, a town suitably well-disposed to her sunny sort of revolution. ‘It was very heavily meat-based – the standard American diet – delicious but full of highly inflammatory foods.’
This is the crux of Kris’s food philosophy: that a standard American (and British) diet, heavy in meat and dairy, and highly acidic, causes inflammation. ‘And inflammation is the root cause of chronic disease,’ she asserts, patting Lola, her black and brown rescue dog, the first of many rescue pets she has plans to offer a home to.
By contrast, she argues, a highly alkaline, plant-based diet can alleviate, combat and actively prevent a multitude of health problems, including not just cancer but also autism, arthritis, depression and diabetes.
Though Kris brings a slightly hippie tone to much of her mission (she talks about ‘love and unicorns’), this is not cod-science. After she was diagnosed, she quickly sought to become a serious, well-researched expert on the subject.
‘I learned about epigenetics [how genes can be altered by influences other than our DNA] and nutrigenomics [the effect of foods upon genes]. I began to learn that your genes are not your destiny; they are not the whole story,’ she enthuses.
At the same time, she began to record her own journey of dealing with her diagnosis. ‘I turned the camera on myself just to have somebody to talk to about it, to help me process what was going on in my life,’ she says. ‘The camera was totally neutral – it was like having a therapist in my bedroom.’
The therapeutic endeavour eventually became a documentary: Crazy Sexy Cancer. ‘It took me four years to make the film, and it put me into debt,’ she groans, rolling her big green eyes. But in 2007, she took the finished film to the South by Southwest music and arts festival in Texas, and made sure copies found their way into the hands of some influential people. The fashion designer Donna Karan, who had lost her husband to cancer, threw a launch party for Crazy Sexy Cancer at her house in the Hamptons, with a guest list including models Christie Brinkley and Christy Turlington, and there was a write-up in Vanity Fair.
Two months later, the day after the documentary was shown on US television, Kris was sitting on Oprah Winfrey’s famous sofa.
The film also led her to love; the man who is now her husband, the film-maker Brian Fassett, was the editor of her documentary. ‘I was looking for Mr Right for years and years. I didn’t think I would have to get sick and make a film about it to find him,’ she jokes.
‘I felt that I had a tiny little window of opportunity after Oprah, and I might as well seize the day,’ she continues. So she wrote a book, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips. ‘It’s advice from the trenches, such as: “OK, girlfriend, you just got diagnosed; the s*** just hit the fan. Here you go, read this,”’ she says breezily. ‘Because that is what I wanted when I was first diagnosed, and it wasn’t out there.’ A second volume swiftly followed, Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor, focusing on self-esteem.
‘I’ve not only been surviving, I’ve been thriving – with cancer. I actually feel better with the disease than I did without it’
Kris began holding workshops and one-to-one coaching sessions, as well as replying to an
ever-growing mailbag. ‘I think the tipping point came when I realised that the majority of people emailing me did not have cancer,’ she says.
‘I’ve had people come to me with anything you can name, from autism to HIV, but I never assume that I have the cure or the answer for anyone,’ she makes clear. ‘I simply say, this might impact
heavily on the way you feel, give it a try, here are some resources.
‘In the beginning, I wanted to cure myself. That didn’t happen, and that was hard for me,’ she admits. ‘But ten years in, what I have seen in my life is a total transformation – body, mind and spirit – and I know that I am contributing to my wellbeing, I am contributing to my longevity.’
She has amassed a huge flock of followers with rheumatoid arthritis. ‘They come off dairy and reduce sugar and start eating more plants, and then they are off their medications and feeling
great for the first time,’ she says proudly.
Is it wise for people to abandon traditional Western medicine, I ask? ‘I never suggest that people come off their meds,’ she assures me. ‘I’m not a doctor, and I don’t get involved with that side of things.’
Her third book, Crazy Sexy Diet, she calls her bible. ‘That was very much about educating people about the philosophy, and about where food comes from and building a lifestyle around reducing inflammation.’ Published in 2011, it shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Her latest book, Crazy Sexy Kitchen, is the natural follow-on from that tome. ‘It has 150 recipes, and there are dishes in there that are very decadent, as well as ones that are clean and healing,’ she says. ‘It is really about embracing plant foods, and it takes into account that many of us are foodies.’
Her own condition, these days, is stable. ‘I have seen vast reductions [in my tumours] at times and I have seen slight increases at other times, so I do not measure my success by my tumours,’ she says. ‘I measure my success by my vitality and my happiness, which has exploded, and is constantly increasing.’
She is impressively candid on her and Brian’s plans for a family. ‘It is a tricky decision; there isn’t enough known about my disease, so my doctor is definitely cautious about me going through pregnancy – he worries about waking the sleeping dragon,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘If we decide not to take the risk, then we will look into adoption. It is much harder for cancer patients to adopt, though… I suppose we are not the best candidates in some people’s eyes.
‘But even if I can’t have my own, I can help many other children,’ she continues brightly.
‘In my next books I want to focus on empowering children and teaching them how to eat, as well as women’s empowerment.’
‘Ten years in, I have seen a total transformation – body, mind and spirit – and I know that I am contributing to my wellbeing’
Though her ever-expanding wellness industry is conducted, she claims, from ‘a laptop and a Moleskine journal’ at the farm, her work calendar is full until 2014. Doesn’t that feel overwhelming, I wonder? Kris insists not. ‘We need to wake up our fellow citizens about the importance of diet, and that might take me into a more vocal, political realm,’ she says.
‘But I don’t need my business to be a supernova; what I need from my life is joy and happiness and peace and a sense of contentment. I still walk that fine line between taking care of myself and taking care of others, but I make sure that it stays balanced.’
Taken from Crazy Sexy Kitchen, published by Hay House, price £18.99. To order a copy for £14.99 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop, tel: 0844 472 4157, you-bookshop.co.uk
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