Four courses for a cure: Jack Witherspoon and other local chefs join forces to help find a Hodgkin’s cure in honor Redondo Beach’s Alese Coco
Alese Coco was 17 years old and had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a rare form of cancer.
She was at her oncologist’s office and saw several small children, some shorn of hair, many in their second or third year of treatments. As the diagnosis sunk in, Coco immediately made a vow to herself that as much as her life was about to change, some things would not. She turned to her parents, Paul and Kathy Coco.
“I have cancer,” she told them. “Cancer does not have me. I am going to fight to win.”
Over the next six years, Coco would wage a battle against cancer that few who witnessed would ever forget. A beautiful girl with long blonde hair, Coco would become rail thin and lose her hair. Yet she remained undaunted.
“She was wearing a wig and really skinny, but she was never once like, ‘I have cancer,’” said Courtney Hermann, a family friend. “She never made that define her. She was always so positive….I’d watch her and I’d think, ‘I want everyone to know how strong this girl is.’”
Twice, she was declared cancer free. Hodgkin’s is a form of blood cancer that rarely recurs. But after Coco beat the disease the first time, she was only cancer-free four months. The second time, she was clear of the disease 18 months. Doctors were shocked when it reappeared. So was Coco, but she rebounded quickly. She’d kept a scorecard, declaring “Alese: 2, cancer, 0” after her second triumph. On her blog, she wrote, “I know that the score will be Alese 3, cancer 0, because I am not going anywhere.”
Paul Coco remembers his daughter speaking to a group of kids, one who asked her what she did to keep from getting discouraged. “Enjoy life,” she said. “Every day I feel good, I enjoy life. On days I don’t feel well, I fight. And I fight to win.”
Coco was well on her way to winning a third time when she suffered an accident during a routine surgical procedure and died seven years ago. Before she passed away, she’d started a foundation to raise money for Hodgkin’s disease, Fight To Win. Because the disease is so relatively rare — it accounts for less than 1 percent of the cancer cases in the U.S. — Hodgkin’s has not been as heavily researched as many forms of cancer. Paul Coco noted that cure rates have not improved for the disease in the last 20 years. And while it is considered treatable, Hodgkin’s remains lethal.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said. “It’s really sad. About 17 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s every day. Most are young, under 40. Three people die a day.”
Fight To Win has raised $150,000 since Coco’s death. The foundation, now headed by the Coco family, has helped create the first-ever Hodgkin’s public service announcement — Alese’s face graced Times Square, still fighting to win.
Hermann has joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual fundraising drive to create a specific Fight To Win campaign that earmarks everything she raises by June 1 for Hodgkin’s research. Her goal is to raise $50,000.
“Alese is inspiring,” Hermann said. “I so badly want to do something so she didn’t die in vain. Something that is attached to her name could potentially save the lives of others, which is what she wanted to do.”
Jack Witherspoon never met Alese Coco, but the two share more than the fact that each faced cancer three times. He was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia at the age of 2, and spent three years battling the disease before being cleared. Leukemia recurred when he was 6. His parents, John and Lisa Witherspoon, were devastated as they left the doctor’s office. “It was like getting hit by a truck,” John Witherspoon recalled.
Jack saw the worry on his parents’ faces. Just outside the hospital, he stopped in his tracks. “Look, guys,” he told them. “We’ve already done this once. We can do it again.”
During the next year, holed up at hospital for weeks at a time receiving treatments, Jack would find a new source of inspiration: cooking. He spent hours watching the Food Network, and when he finally got home — still quarantined for more than a year — he began helping his mother in the kitchen. Soon, he was making his own recipes. When he cooked at a fundraiser for the children’s hospital where he’d undergone treatments, he caught the attention of The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno. At the age of 8, Jack found himself cooking a Shepherd’s Pie for Leno before a national audience of 5 million. When Leno complained about the presence of peas so close to his meat, Jack, undaunted as always, declared, “Well, eat it anyway!” earning a loud applause from the audience and catching the attention of many of his Food Network heros.
Chef Jack has since appeared on more than a dozen television shows, including the Rachel Ray Show, and published his own cookbook, “Twist It Up.” He was diagnosed a third time in 2011, just as his book was about to publish, and turned to the most drastic measure available, a bone marrow transplant. Chances of success were less than 50 percent, but last month Jack was given an official clean bill of health.
Cooking, Jack says, has been essential in his fight against cancer.
“Cooking has been there when nothing else has,” he said. “When I can’t play with friends or do sports or do anything, like school, I can always cook.”
He also made it a point to help give other kids hope. He’s raised more than $100,000 for cancer research.
“Ever since I was little, we kind of decided we were just going to make the best of it — make it so this has a purpose,” Jack said. “We were going to turn this into a positive thing. I was really a baby when I was 2, so I don’t remember too much. But I knew more when I had that relapse, and that’s when I got into cooking, and that is what really helped me get through this thing. Cooking was my hope.”
Chef Jack will help cook in honor of Alese Coco this Saturday night at “Four Courses for a Cure” at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. He will be joined by other local chefs at the event, part of the LLS Fight to Win campaign.
Paul Coco has yet to meet Chef Jack, but he recognizes a kindred spirit to his daughter.
“If you have hope, you have everything,” Coco said. “Some people are born with that attitude – I am not going to let anything get in the way of life. These two are rare people. It makes you reevaluate everything in life.”
Chef Jack said he knew by the time he was 6 that life “wasn’t all rainbows and daisies” but also came over the next few years to appreciate the most basic things, like eating a good meal with his family.
“It isn’t always pretty and perfect and you’ve got to keep fighting and you’ve got to keep going,” he said. “And never give up.”
Four Courses Four a Cure takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday night at Saint Rocke (142 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach) and features Chef Jack Witherspoon, Chef Tin from Little Sister, Chef Nima from Avenue Italy, and Chef Susanne from Lisa’s Bon Appetit, as well as beer from Strand Brewing Company, wine from Happy Hour Wine Beverages, and music by Jonny Perdue. Chef Scott Fellows — formerly “chef to the stars” who runs Critic’s Choice catering in Redondo Beach — will wrap the night up with table-side crepes suzette, assisted by Chef Jack. Tickets are $30 for the event, $40 for the entire night — the Spazmatics and Geezer play beginning at 9:30. See saintrocke.com for more info and tickets.