But before she went, Cheatham had been on a different kind of journey when she learned of the recurrence of cancer she had beaten ten years before.
Taking the long pilgrimage that goes over the Pyrenees Mountains was really the end of a journey that began the year before, when Cheatham received shocking news. The ovarian cancer she had beat through two surgeries and agonizing chemotherapy was back, and she also had tumors in her spine and lung.
Her doctors in Montrose had her confer with a specialist from Denver who gave her the bad news that she would have to again undergo surgery and chemotherapy to fight the cancer.
Surgery she could deal with, but going through another round of chemotherapy was more than Cheatham felt she could stand, so she started researching the causes of cancer and noninvasive ways to treat it. In other words, she went against the medical establishment and sought her own cure.
Cheatham, a native of Germany, is a French chef, trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris with years of experience at five-star resorts and as a private chef and teacher. So it was another shock when she started researching what food does to the body. She decided to change her way of living and eating, and although she is due for more tests soon, she said she feels great and no longer has any symptoms of disease.
“I cleaned out my cupboards, cleaned out my fridge, went to the organic store and went vegan,” she said.
The results were astounding. From June to October of last year she lost 40 pounds and people tell her she has a glow about her, she says, even though she had a hard time at first adjusting to the vegan diet.
“It’s been 18 months” since her diagnosis, she said, “and I haven’t had surgery or chemo and I’m still here.
“But I could have no chicken, no fish, no eggs, no dairy, and thought, what the heck is left? But in time it opened a whole new country of rainbow colors.”
Cheatham is quick to point out that she is not discouraging people from having chemotherapy or traditional treatments for cancer, but she believes she has found her own road to recovery, or at least she hopes she has.
“I started doing my own research and said I need to help myself,” she said.
As a chef, Cheatham was soon creating her own recipes, many of which, along with a blog on her journey, are listed on her website www.caminonotchemo.com.
“Cancer cells thrive on sugar and fat, and most of what is on our grocery shelves was lab-created,” she said. “Mac and cheese was created in a lab, and when you look at the ingredients, if it has things you can’t pronounce, or more than four ingredients, you don’t need it.”
She used no oil in cooking, except for coconut oil, and only uses a little clarified butter occasionally; even low-fat margarine is out, she said.
“You should see how that sludge looks before they add the color,” she said.
For sautéing, Cheatham uses cooking sherry, she said, because it browns and gives the food a nice color. For French fries, she uses sweet potatoes that she bakes in the oven and drizzles with a little maple syrup and cinnamon. She has also created five different salads she eats regularly, and includes some uncommon greens, such as maché, known in Germany as rapunzel.
“I got so excited when I found it that I did a little dance in the grocery store and they though I was nuts,” she said.
She also uses dried beans a lot and portabella mushrooms as a meat substitute: “Put it in a pan with coconut oil and put red peppers on it and just a pinch of salt,” she said. She adds a few drops of Liquid Smoke and said it tastes just like meat. She also makes a Hungarian goulash with both sweet and white potatoes and chunks of sautéed portabella.
Many of her friends have told Cheatham that they just can’t do the vegan diet, but change is possible when you’re faced with a potentially terminal illness, she said.
“I think when it’s your health, you have to step up to the plate,” she said. “Everything comes from the immune system, and it comes from what you put in your mouth. That’s where it starts.”
When Cheatham went back for follow-up tests, the results showed that the tumor in her abdomen was gone, the one in her back was smaller and the one in her lung was still there. She was also told she had stage-four lymphoma, but she’s convinced that she is healthy because she has none of the symptoms.
Cheatham goes back in a few weeks for her final follow-up tests, and will then make a decision on what to do, but if everything is still the same, she’s not opting for chemo, because she feels so good.
Feeling good and taking charge of her health gave Cheatham the courage to attempt something as extreme as the Camino de Santiago, which she had seen a documentary on.
“It kept calling me, and I thought maybe I need a bit more of a challenge than a walk to the park,” she said. “I thought I couldn’t afford it, but realized that chemo would cost a lot more.”
So she talked her 44-year-old son, Cameron Powell, of New York, into joining her, and 15-year-old Carrie Lane of Grand Junction, who is related to Cameron, begged to come along.
At first, Cheatham said no to Carrie because she’d been to Europe before with indolent, complaining teenagers. But Carrie worked on her, she said, and in the end the three completed the trek together.
No one really thought she would finish the entire walk, which means staying in crowded dormitories at night and walking up to 10 miles each day. It also meant giving up her vegan diet, especially in Spain she said, which increased her burden that included carrying a 20-pound pack.
The 12-hour trek across the Pyrenees “almost killed me,” she said, and huge blisters formed on her feet, but Cheatham wouldn’t stop, although she did take a short bus ride because of her feet.
But a high point was at the Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross, about two-thirds of the way. Pilgrims are supposed to leave something, like a prayer, but for those like Cheatham, who isn’t particularly religious, the pilgrimage literature suggests bringing a small rock from home. Instead, Cheatham left the scan of her tumors.
“I left it there, and I said ‘inshallah,’ if God wills,” she said.
A photo of Cheatham and her son at the end of the trail, at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain, tells the rest of the story. They are standing in front of a cathedral where Powell has just given his mom a bouquet of red carnations and they both break down in tears.
Coming back to reality has been just as much of a challenge as walking more than 400 miles, said Cheatham, who can’t exercise much because of the upcoming PET scan, and so is walking only “a measly four miles” this week.
But the exercise wasn’t the best part of her trip.
“I miss meeting people from all over the world, and they all say ‘Buen Camimo!” she said. “I miss the fellowship where everyone helps, and the human warmth. It’s how we should be.”