By Julia Califano
As a teenager, Lottie Bildirici never imagined sheâd become a successful chef and health coach, have multiple half-marathons and triathlons under her belt, and be training for her first Ironman â all before she turned 24.
âI grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish community, where I had very little exposure to sports and athletics,â explains the New Yorker. âI didnât even know running was a thing.â And though sheâd always loved food and being in the kitchen with her mom and grandmother, nutrition was never top of mind. âMy favorite foods were sweet cereals and ice cream.â
But 10 years ago, Bildiriciâs life took an unimaginable turn when, playing with her necklace one afternoon, she noticed an unusual bump on her neck. Her mom took her to the pediatrician, who prescribed antibiotics to see if it might be an infection. When the medication failed to produce any change, the doctor referred them to a cancer specialist. Two weeks and a series of tests (including a chest X-ray, CT scan, and biopsy) later, Bildirici was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
âIt was a good newsâbad news conversation,â she recalls. The good news was that adolescents with newly diagnosed Hodgkin lymphoma can typically be cured. The bad: The cancer had already spread to her spleen, making it stage 3. That meant her treatment â four months of chemotherapy followed by one month of radiation â would need to begin as soon as possible.
âIt was a complete out-of-body experience,â she remembers. âI couldnât believe this was happening to me.â During chemo, she felt constantly dizzy and nauseated. Her parents kept her from descending into questions of âWhy me?â with their positive perspective. Her friends also lifted her spirits by visiting every evening bearing gifts and the latest gossip. Even teachers from the small private Jewish school she attended popped in regularly to help her keep up with her studies.
The most traumatic aspect of treatment was losing her hair. âI had this long, wavy blond hair and everyone knew me for my hair. It was kind of my thing,â she explains. âI could deal with being sick and missing school, but having to look sick was devastating to me. I didnât want to be forever known as âthe girl who had cancer’ in high school.â
Equally daunting for the ninth grader: Going back to school wearing a wig. âIt looked great â just like my old hair â but with nothing to clip it to, I was constantly worried it would shift or fall off. I would tense up anytime someone hugged me or touched my head.â
By her sophomore year, her trademark tresses had fully regrown, and, now considered cancer-free, Bildirici didnât even have to think about her illness other than twice a year at her follow-ups. Yet it was always there. âI kept thinking, âThis happened for a reason,ââ she says. âI need to do something with it, to give back in some way. I just couldnât figure out how.â
One day during senior year, an opportunity fell into her lap. A local cancer center that had been helpful to her during treatment was sponsoring runners to participate in the Disney half marathon in Orlando. Though Bildirici had never run a mile (let alone 13.1), she loved the idea of getting involved and raising money for the center. When she mentioned it to her friends, they were immediately on board. Though Bildirici trained diligently for the event, the first-time runner wasnât prepared for how tough it would be, or how she would feel when she crossed the finish line. âI could barely feel my legs, but it was the most alive Iâd felt since my diagnosis.â
From that day on, Bildirici became a runner. âI began to eat, think and train like a runner,â she recounts. She loved everything about the sport: the sense of community with other runners, the structure it provided, and the feeling that she was finally steering her own ship. âFor years, I felt like everything that happened to me was out of my control,â she explains. âWith running, I was able to take my body and my health into my own hands.â
She gave equal attention to her diet, reading everything she could about how food affects the way you feel, both psychologically and physiologically, along with what foods were best to eat before and after a run. Always at home in the kitchen, she began creating her own healthful versions of snacks and treats, often posting her creations on Instagram. Her feed quickly attracted followers, one of whom was the Olympic long-distance runner Kara Goucher (âMy idol!â says Bildirici).
When Goucher invited Bildirici to do a cooking demo at a running retreat in Napa, she accepted immediately. âI was only 20 and all these people who didnât know me or my story were interested in what I had to say about sports and nutrition. It made me realize that I was so much more than a cancer diagnosis.â
While studying to get her associate’s degree in business, Bildirici also enrolled in an online course at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition to become a holistic health coach. In her minimal spare time, she started her blog, Running on Veggies, filling it with simple, healthful recipes and practical tips like how to create overnight oats in a hotel room. She soon had a sizable following, and was being regularly approached by food and fitness companies to create recipes, do cooking demos, and lecture at fitness events and retreats. âI now actually get paid to cook, which is unbelievable to me,â she says.
Her athletic career has taken off in equal measure. After completing nine half-marathons and two half-Ironman triathlons, she recently teamed up with theÂ Leukemia & Lymphoma SocietyÂ to participate in a full Ironman in Louisville, Kentucky, this October to raise money for blood cancer research. âIâve always wanted to share my story with my followers,â she explains, âbut I wanted to do it in a meaningful way â not just this happened, but this happened, and hereâs what you can do.â
The race will mark 10 years since her diagnosis almost to the day, and she marvels at how all the different facets of her life have come together so organically. âWhen I was first diagnosed, someone said to me, âYouâll look back at this one day and realize it was the best thing that ever happened to you.â At the time I thought, âEasy for you to say. Youâre not spending your freshman year in high school in the hospital.â But looking back, that experience was obviously so instrumental to who I am and everything I have done and continue to do.â
While her current focus is on nutrition and athletics, she hopes to expand her expertise into the cancer arena. âWe have no choice about feeding our bodies the chemo, but we do have control over what else we are feeding it,â she notes. âFood is medicine, and there is so much work to be done in terms of educating patients and survivors, as well as hospitals, about the role of diet during and after treatment.â Bildirici is already rolling up her sleeves.