nutch_noindex
CANCEL
/nutch_noindex

CrossFit star faces daughter's leukemia by using his celebrity status for greater good

By Stacy Finz

Khalipa family

Jason Khalipa didn’t think life could get much better. By the time he was 30 years old, he had married his high school sweetheart, started a beautiful family, built a successful global business and acquired financial stability. Khalipa, a rock star in the CrossFit athletic community, counted his blessings every day.

Then his life changed in an instant: In January 2016, he got the news that his 4-year-old daughter Ava had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“We got the call at 5:30 p.m. from Ava’s doctor,” said Khalipa, who lives in Los Gatos, California. “The doctor said, ‘We need you to go to the emergency room right now.’ We were there an hour later and didn’t leave for 16 days. When they told us what we were facing, I sat in the hallway for a while and cried.”

At that moment, Khalipa said his inner athlete kicked in.

“All right,” he told himself. “It’s game on. We’re going to crush this cancer.”

From that day on, he decided to use his celebrity status to educate the public about the disease and to raise support and hold mammoth blood drives for the hospital. Khalipa, who earned the title of “Fittest on Earth” at the 2008 CrossFit games (a competition sponsored by CrossFit Inc. and Reebok), is the founder of NC Fit, which operates six commercial gyms in California and Mexico and 17 corporate wellness programs in locations around the world.

“My mental perspective is that you can act in either a positive way or a negative way,” he said. “You can choose what lens you look through. For me, as an athlete, I learned how to harness my energy for the positive — to win. There are a lot of things, like the cancer, you have no control over, but you’re in control of your efforts and mental edge.”

How it started

At first there were no telltale signs that Ava had cancer, Khalipa said. She was tired a lot and complained that her legs were hurting. Khalipa and his wife, Ashley, took Ava to their pediatrician, who thought it was just growing pains. Then Ava got a series of ear infections, one of which was so severe her doctor said he’d never seen anything like it.

“She wasn’t able to fight off the infection,” said Khalipa, who eventually started noticing bruises on his daughter’s legs.

They went back to the doctor. This time, her pediatrician ran some blood tests on Ava. Shortly after came the leukemia diagnosis. Her Stanford Children’s Health oncologist, Gary Dahl, MD, recommended a two-and-a-half-year treatment plan, including chemotherapy at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

In the weeks that followed, Ava’s doctors gave her a blood transfusion, inserted a PICC line (less commonly known as a percutaneous indwelling central catheter) into a vein in her arm, and took samples of her bone marrow. Later, they removed the catheter and put in a port, a long-term solution for administering chemotherapy.

There was another two-week hospital stay after those first 16 days, but Ava is now four months into her treatment and continues to receive weekly chemotherapy. She’s even attending prekindergarten classes when she feels well enough.

Crossfit father and daughter

Getting the word out  

None of this has slowed Khalipa down. With more than 360,000 Instagram and 100,000 Twitter followers and 74,000 Facebook friends, he’s turned to his social media fan base to rally support with the hashtag #Avawillwin, posting messages about everything from updates on Ava’s treatments to raising awareness of the disease.

“I do believe there is power in numbers,” he said. “And my message is simple: Count your blessings, not your misfortunes.”

Ashley Khalipa, the cook in the family, is also doing her part to help others who are battling cancer. She started an Instagram page called Ava’s Kitchen where she posts photographs of the dishes she makes for Ava and her family. The photographs are linked to her Facebook page, which has recipes and ideas for healthful meals. Her Instagram account has 10,400 followers, and her recipes, which steer clear of processed foods, sugar and ingredients that are high in bad carbohydrates, have gotten praise from nurses and home cooks. Some of her favorite dishes are crispy chicken drumsticks and spaghetti squash casserole with broccoli, cheddar cheese and chicken (see the recipe at the end of this article).

“I’ve been into cooking healthful food for a long time,” she said. “These are just easy things that people can make at home.”

The Khalipas also hosted a blood and toy drive for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital earlier this year at Jason’s NC Fit gym in San Jose, and the response was overwhelming. They filled the studio to capacity, with more than 100 people donating blood and toys for cancer patients. On September 24, 2016, Jason plans to do another blood drive at 100 locations across the country, and he hopes to make it the largest blood drive ever held in the United States.

“I don’t care how much money you have, without someone donating blood my daughter wouldn’t be here with us today,” said Khalipa. He maintains an #Avawillwin page on his NC Fit website that provides updates on Ava along with a video of that first blood drive and information on how businesses and the public can help.

He is also in discussions with the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health on how he can do more for cancer patients at the hospital, including raising money to offer more play opportunities for patients, providing financial support for patients’ families who are in need and rallying members of the CrossFit world to attend Summer Scamper, the hospital’s largest community fundraiser, in June.

 “My mission is to share this with people,” he said. “I’ve had nothing but the best care from Stanford. I’m blown away by their professionalism and their human touch. I think supporting them is a great way of continuing to spread the message that they provide exceptional care — and to help families that can’t afford that care to get it. I’m not saying what my family is going through is easy. I just want to shine a light on having a positive outlook.”

Ashley’s Chicken and Broccoli Spaghetti Squash Casserole

Ingredients:

1.5 pounds chicken breast, diced

2 heads broccoli, chopped and stems discarded

2 small spaghetti squash (or 1 large)

2–3 cups of shredded cheese (I used a mix of cheddar and jack cheeses; adjust the amount based on how much you like cheese; 1 cup would work just fine.)

2 eggs, beaten

12 oz. cream of chicken soup (I like Pacific Foods brand from Whole Foods)

1/2 cup of chicken broth

1 lemon, juiced

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice squash in half lengthwise and put facedown (skin facing up) on baking sheet. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes or until skin is soft. Take out and let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Sauté broccoli in the butter for about 5 minutes, adding in 1 teaspoon of garlic powder and 1 teaspoon of salt. You can also steam the broccoli if you want to eliminate the butter. Take it off heat and transfer to a bowl or plate.

In that same pan, add a little oil spray and put your chicken in. Cook for about 10 minutes until the chicken has lost all its pink color (it will finish cooking in the oven).

Put the cream of chicken soup, chicken broth, lemon juice and remaining salt and garlic powder in a bowl and mix.

Grease a baking dish and get your squash. Use a spoon to scoop out the first layer with the seeds, and discard them. Then use your spoon to scrape the squash noodles out, and put them in the baking dish. Add your chicken, broccoli, sauce mixture, eggs and cheese (save a little cheese for the top). Mix well and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Put the casserole in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top starts bubbling!

Kid-friendly tip: Ava doesn't like broccoli, so I once made this recipe without it for her. They are getting plenty of veggies with the spaghetti squash, so no worries!

Discover More

Stanford Cancer Institute logo