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Facing cancer, 29-year-old chef Fatima Ali reflects on how far she's come

In an essay for Bon Appétit magazine this fall, Fatima Ali, a chef who gained popularity on shows "Top Chef" and "Chopped," revealed the cancer she was diagnosed with last year has returned. Doctors told the 29-year-old she has a year to live.

But she's not letting that stop her from indulging in the experiences of living. Ali has been eating at restaurants on her bucket list, spending time with family and friends and even cooking a little for Thanksgiving. In her Note To Self, Ali shares the personal reflections of a woman who still has so much to offer.


You are 18, ripe for the world and the picking. I know you are raring to go full speed and absorb it all. You've just moved to the United States from Pakistan to attend culinary school with three suitcases, a knife roll and a slight British accent. I know you've been feeling like a caged lion that's finally been set free. Well, I hate to burst your bubble Fats, you'll never be free. But that's okay. I'm here to tell you that you will wear your chains with grace.

Enjoy the next 10 years that you have, because you will never get that valuable time back. In fact, you may not even get to see your 30th birthday. Life is unfair and something unfair does happen to you. You will get cancer. A rare form of it. And the toll it will take on you and your family is immeasurable. Forget about the physical side effects (though those are pretty bad). I'm talking about the uncertainty you will live with every day. You will have days where you lie in bed moments after waking up, feeling the softness of the comforter around you, wondering if today is the day that the cancer spreads to your liver or lung or kidneys. You somehow will live with this uncertainty and learn to thrive in it. You wear your chains with grace. 

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Along the way, you'll get to do some pretty amazing things. You actually get to turn your passion into a career. You become the youngest sous chef at one of the largest restaurant companies in New York City. You will win a couple of cooking competitions and people will vote for you as their favorite. You will even get a verified tick next to your Instagram handle. You always wanted to be a bit of a celebrity and you will become one, although it will come with a cost. Your cancer opens up doors that would have probably remained shut to you at this point in your career. Your cancer makes you famous.

You do some pretty brave things. Like warpaint, you buzz your hair and dye it platinum blonde. Unfortunately you couldn't decide if blondes have more fun or not. You reach out to some of your role models and you eat at their restaurants. You get messages from around the world daily. You help people in your own way and thousands of people help you.

Reach out to mom more. That's one thing I urge you to do. I know you are far away from her in a new country with the freedom she never had at your age. Respect her wisdom and use it to advise you. Her love for you is something I cannot begin to describe in words. Turn to her when your chains are too heavy to carry by yourself. She will heft the weight like cotton wool. She is your guardian angel.

I know the thought of an ordinary existence makes your skin crawl, but sometimes you have to keep it simple, slow down, and don't take things so seriously. It may seem like a lot. Almost too much for you at times, but I'm here to tell you that with the love and support of your family, friends and well-wishers, that chain becomes a meager string around your neck. You are no longer shackled against your will. You no longer wear your chains with grace. You are grace itself.

Big Me

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