On a perfect autumn afternoon, with the mercury sitting at an almost absurdly perfect 72 degrees, my wife and I rolled over crunching gravel and crackling leaves along a sun-dappled path to an open field at NuGenesis Farms.
Swaying tall grass and the smell of fertilizer infused the crisp fall air as we walked from our parked car to a tasting event at the surging non-profit that – on this day – featured culinary duos of doctors and chefs for the purpose of forging farm-to-table culinary delights; an idea that (by the way) ranks near the top of my list of things that I wish that I had thought of first.
Once I accepted the reality that I did not think of it and someone else did, I was able to settle in and enjoy the afternoon. Our small group was quickly approached, almost before we even entered the fenced-in festivities, by the very person who did come up with this idea: NuGenesis founder, Kathy Bero.
Kathy Bero is a self-described "chronic volunteer." She stands tall with a commanding presence and a confidence that one might assume was born out of a life of unfettered accomplishment. However, the truth is that Kathy Bero has been to hell and back. So much so, that she has been put upon to tell her harrowing story about as much as the 24 hours of her busy days allow.
For the past two years, she has often been cast as a figure of inspiration for those struggling with the merciless and unforgiving disease known as cancer. She has been seen, heard and written about by just about every news or media outlet in our fair city.
For my part, I'll spare you the clinical details of Bero's battle, details that you can find recounted in scientific specificity in numerous other places. Instead, the story of Kathy Bero – as I see it – is best described as one that has not yet come full circle. Sure, it is a story that, with a little added saccharine, could easily be translated into a made-for-TV movie. But that's not the sort of legacy Bero seems to want to leave. Rather, it seemed to be about what she still has left to do.
As I spoke with her over the phone just two days before she was set to return to the hospital for more surgery, I sensed an urgency in her voice. Unlike most any emotionally concise Hollywood film that must absorb a human experience, streamline it and spit it back out as an easy-to-follow narrative that promises an eventual happy ending, Bero's story has been convoluted by peaks and valleys, not to mention being far from rolling credits.
I do not mean to suggest that this pang of anxiety that I picked up was related to her own mortality; rather, I believe it was her sense of time and how much work is left in front of her as the self-appointed liaison of educating the people of this community on the importance of making food a thoughtful part of their lives.
While in remission from stage four breast cancer and two other aggressive cancers in her breast and head, Bero was being treated with a drug called Avastin. It is an anti-angiogenic medicine that cuts the blood supply to cancer stem cells. This was all well and good – miraculous even – for her physical health, but then Aromosin was added to her to keep her cancer under control, and she says it made her a raving mad lunatic.
With gut-wrenching candor, she recalled mood swings and a deep, uncontrollable rage. She told me that she found herself screaming at her children for no reason. But then, came an epiphany.
"If I'm going to die," she said, "I want my kids to love me. I don't want them to be happy that I'm gone."
It was at that time, for Bero, that something had to change. And after reading an internationally bestselling book called "Anti-Cancer" by David Servan-Schreiber, she discovered that it all came back to food. The book discussed the importance of "food as medicine," specifically anti-angiogenic foods that starve cancer cells and stave off the continuous growth of new blood vessels. Foods that include everything from citrus to berries to kale to Maitake mushrooms to, even, red wine.
Bero began a diet that included nothing but these foods. "If it wasn't on the list, I didn't eat it." she said. This new way of eating did not only change her disposition, but also (she claims) prevented the return of cancer. Confirming this belief, a trip to her oncologist revealed that, "there was no indication that it would return."
Seeing how this simple change in diet and the eradication of processed, chemical-laden convenience foods had not only changed her life, but had likely saved it, Bero couldn't help but spread the word. It was then that NuGenesis was born.
Taking the "food as medicine" mantra as less of a fad and more of a siren-scream of necessity, Bero set out to form an organization that would spread the word about eating well and educating adults and children alike about the importance of putting good stuff in their bodies.
Her efforts were celebrated with the Second Annual Harvest For Your Health fundraiser at the NuGenesis Farm in Delafield. Bero acutely recognized that most people don't eat unhealthy foods because they are unhealthy – instead it's because they like them. So, taking a cue from finicky young non-foodies everywhere, she decided to deliver a wide swath of nutrient-rich, anti-angiogenic foods on the platform of everybody's favorite – pizza!
While I was not granted any authority as a judging body for the myriad of delicious pizzas prepared by chefs and docs, the selections that stood out most pleasingly to my palate – and helped me to forget that I was eating something healthy – were the fresh roasted tomato, Crimini mushroom and kalamata pizzas, prepared by Chef Robert Pieper of Merrill Hills Manor and Dr. Kay Klaas in Radiology at Waukesha S.C.; and an excellent steak, bleu cheese and arugula pizza prepared by Chef Gary Chitwood of Quad Graphics, Brian Moog of J&B Events and Dr. Rebecca Gallagher of UW Health Partners in Watertown.
In addition to a wide array of tasty pizza pies were also salad and soup stations. The salad booth, captained by NuGenesis volunteer and MATC instructor Chef Jack Kaestner along with the help of Dr Arch Pequet of Waukesha Surgical Specialists, included a kale salad, a locally inspired waldorf and roasted beets.
Soups were handled beautifully by Chef Adam Brousil of Good Harvest Market and Dr. Chris Davies, also of Waukesha Surgical Specialists, and consisted of a diverse lineup of borscht, green gazpacho and a pork posole that I couldn't stop eating.
Once bellies were full and belts were loosened, the crowd of several hundreds were called to congregate under a big tent to bid on auction items that ranged from catered dinners to Brewers tickets. Local politicians and Bero herself spoke on the importance of community and eating healthy.
Kathy Bero's mission is not about Kathy Bero. It's not even really about NuGenesis Farms. It's about the unifying power of food and what it can do to bring communities together. Furthermore, Bero is not content to live perched on a soap box. She's putting her money where her mouth is.
Along with a team of doctors from the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, NuGenesis has entered the second year of a study on the effects of a diet rich in anti-angiogenic foods for the purpose of heightening the awareness and validity of a lifestyle, of which she is living proof, is a just defender against the world's most devastating disease.