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AJC EXCLUSIVE: Chef Kevin Gillespie talks about his battle with cancer

One month ago, chef Kevin Gillespie underwent surgery to remove a kidney after having been diagnosed with renal cancer. The 35-year-old Atlanta native with the red beard that gives his restaurant group its name has since been recuperating in his home, contemplating what could have been, as well as what’s to come.

“I feel like I dodged not a bullet, but an atom bomb,” Gillespie said in a phone interview. “The kind of cancer that I had is so fatal because it’s not detected. It doesn’t have symptoms. You don’t feel sick. You wake up one morning and you’re peeing blood, then you die a few months later.”

Gillespie rose to national fame in 2009 after appearing on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He made a name for himself locally at Woodfire Grill. Diners later followed him to Gunshow, then Revival. While such success can look like trophies on a resume, Gillespie is more excited for the T-shirt from his co-workers that cheers his medical fight: “Kevin-1, Cancer-0.”

“I don’t physically feel very good right now,” Gillespie said, “but mentally, I feel like I’m winning.”

It was after Gillespie underwent back surgery a year ago that an MRI from a follow-up visit showed his right kidney looking “abnormal.” His doctor recommended that he get a second opinion. “I knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know what that something was.”

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Luckily for Gillespie, doctors caught the cancer early. Now four weeks post-op, Gillespie is still feeling weak, hardly ready to helm culinary operations for the restaurant group he built with business partner Marco Shaw.

“I don’t feel very strong at all. It will be weeks before I am back to myself,” said the chef, who had been working with a personal trainer in the months prior to surgery to build up his stamina as he prepared for his fight with cancer.

Currently, he can’t lift anything that weighs more than 7 pounds. “That’s nothing. It’s like the equivalent of a gallon of liquid. Nearly everything weighs more than that,” he said. And he won’t be back to his exercise routine anytime soon. “There’s a lot more stuff to sew up when they take your right kidney. The recovery is more delicate. There’s a higher chance of internal bleeding.”

When Gillespie’s cancer diagnosis was made public, the normally outgoing chef asked that he and his family be “afforded the time and space to fully restore his health.” Yet the desire for privacy has since shifted to an open sharing of his personal journey. Gillespie posted a photo of himself on Instagram wearing a hospital gown and cap and lying on a gurney just prior to his operation, and again a day after surgery displaying how bloated he felt from the carbon dioxide used during laparoscopy.

“For anyone wanting an update, surgery went great,” posted chef Kevin Gillespie on his Instagram account May 25, a day after having a cancerous kidney removed. After his diagnosis, Gillespie desired to keep his personal life intimate, but realized that “the best way to deal with this was not to see this as a monumental defeat, but to downplay it and make light of it.” In his Instagram post, he wrote: “I seem to be missing a kidney, they have inflated me with so much CO2 that I look like Violet Beauregarde, and I’m being encouraged by medical professionals to be as flatulent as possible.” CONTRIBUTED BY KEVIN GILLESPIE (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The initial desire to keep his personal life intimate, he said, was partly to shield his wife, Valerie Combs, from further pain. Combs lost a parent to the same diagnosis not too long ago. “It was like rehashing a wound we thought was closed,” he said.

Plus, Gillespie did not know what to tell his peers. “If people asked a lot of questions, they were going to be met with an ‘I don’t know.’ Is me saying ‘I don’t know’ code for me saying that it’s really bad?”

But he realized that “the best way to deal with this was not to see this as a monumental defeat, but to downplay it and make light of it. My solution was, rather than cry, why not laugh? For me, it’s a coping mechanism and it genuinely made me feel better.”

Sharing the burden with fans, peers, his family and his restaurant family, he said, has made all the difference. “They all said, ‘Go get it. We wish you the best.’ It means more than I can possibly thank people for. It made me feel that you can fight this personal fight as a team.”

As Gillespie tries to stay patient on the road to recovery, his eyes are set on getting back to where he was before cancer became a household word for him. He knows that getting his strength back will be an uphill battle. “I think it will be a pretty big step back,” he said about when he finally can work out again with his trainer, “but that’s OK.”

His sights are on December, when he hopes to participate in a power lifting competition, one he had originally planned to participate in last weekend; that is, until cancer got in the way.

“I’m not going to let what has happened to me stop that goal. This is just a minor setback in the road I want to go. We set goals and a path, but it has twists and turns. You can turn back because it didn’t go where you wanted it to, or you can go forward with the faith that it will go where you want it to. That’s where I am right now.”

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