With One Year Left To Live, 'Top Chef' Fatima Ali Isn't Wasting A Second Of It

"I’m scared. I suspect I won’t last very long ... Until then, every day is an opportunity for me to experience something new."

In late 2017, former Top Chef contestant, Fatima Ali, was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. After a brief remission period, she revealed on Tuesday, October 9, that her cancer cells were "back with a vengeance." 

In a poignant essay for Bon Appetit, the 29-year-old chef wrote about her diagnosis and what it means to her. "It is incredibly cathartic for me to be able to put into words such abstract emotions that are often so overwhelming to begin with," she told A Plus regarding the piece. "It helps me center myself and it brings purpose to another wise chaotic situation. For someone who is keen on having control of their surroundings at most times, it helps me control my own narrative."

In the essay, Ali wrote, "My oncologist has told me that I have a year to live, with or without the new chemotherapy regimen. I was looking forward to being 30, flirty, and thriving. Guess I have to step it up on the flirting. I have no time to lose." 

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Ali goes on to explain how confronting death has, ironically, allowed her to pursue a life truly worth living. 

"It’s funny, isn’t it? When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living," she noted. "When that choice is yanked away from us, that’s when we scramble to feel."

Wanting to "overload" her senses over the next year, she plans to make reservations at the world's best restaurants, reach out to past lovers and friends, and smother her family, giving them the time she "so selfishly guarded before." Coming to the U.S. from Pakistan at age 18, Ali attended the Culinary Institute of America before working her way up through the New York City restaurant scene, according to her Top Chef bio

Though she used to dream of owning her own restaurant, Ali now has "an ever growing list" of the ones she needs to visit. At the top is Noma, a two-Michelin-star restaurant run by chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen, Denmark. Told with a sense of humor, Ali recounted how she slid into the restaurant's DMs and, though she hated to use her illness as a "tactic," asked if they could accommodate a table for two during their already booked seafood season. "I'm floored when I receive a reply from chef Rene Redzepi himself," she wrote. "Turns out that people respond when you tell them you're dying of cancer." 

Aside from filling her next year with great food and even better friends, Ali also plans to make amends. "In my wallet, I keep a crumpled cocktail napkin with a list of names scrawled on it ... I have to learn how to ask for forgiveness without expecting to receive it," she explained. "It's probably the most frightening thing I have ever had to do, and I've experienced some seriously terror-inducing moments."

In those moments, Ali has nonetheless stayed calm, according to her essay. "Everyone's amazed that I'm taking it so well. But when you hit rock bottom, there really is no place to go but up," she said. "An odd sense of relief has settled inside me, knowing that I can finally live for myself, even if it's just for a few more precious months." 

For Ali, that means dying half her hair platinum blonde and buzzing the rest. '"I love your hair!" they all say when I'm done. They think I'm brave, but really, I'm not," she continued.

"I’m scared. I suspect I won’t last very long ... Until then, every day is an opportunity for me to experience something new."

After Ali published her essay, several members of the Top Chef family, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, and most notably Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi commended Ali on social media.

On Wednesday, October 10, Lakshmi posted an Instagram of Ali and herself at the hospital. "Over these months, I have come to know her family ... I am pleased to share my friend's story with you all today. I am so proud of her," she captioned the picture. "... I was with her last night as she went in for radiation and she still turned back to smile at her mother and me when the nurse with the wheelchair came. I hope that this year brings her as much as she can hope for. You've said on the show that growing up I inspired you. But Fati, now, it's you who inspire me. Everyday." 

Lakshmi is far from the only one inspired by Fatima Ali. Since posting an Instagram about her essay on Tuesday, it has since received more than 22,000 likes and hundreds of positive comments. "I have been blown away by the response on social media. We already know the breadth of what sharing information through the web is like, but I couldn't have guessed the kind of traction the essay has received," Ali told A Plus. "It is nothing short of miraculous in itself. Doors are opening for me all over the U.S. by kind and generous people and organizations ready to help me through this journey a am embarking on during this new phase in my life." 

And though Ali concluded her essay wishing "to have a simple, uneventful life," she's already made a powerful difference with the one she's got. "I wanted to share my experience with others who may be going through similar situations, not just for their sake but mostly for mine," she said. "...I simply hope that I am able to make others feel less alone. Illness in general can make one feel incredibly isolated and distant from even close loved ones in their lives. And if reading my words even makes one person feel less alienated then I have accomplished more than I could have hoped for." 

A Plus has reached out to Padma Lakshmi for comment.

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