Erin Schmitt tells people having cancer probably saved her life.

Four years ago, the 39-year-old mother of four was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She underwent three months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation treatments.

The Buena woman said the experience was life-changing - and it prompted her to change her lifestyle.

"I thought, 'I could take this and sit and cry about it, or I could take it and try to figure out what I could do differently,'" Schmitt said.

"I was honestly living an unhealthy lifestyle. I was overweight and inactive," Schmitt said. "Diabetes and hypertension run in my family. It was a wake-up call for me."

Schmitt started making small changes in her life, starting with meatless Monday meals in August 2011 and gradually cutting meat out of her family's diet. By January, she had gone totally vegan, eating a totally plant-based diet.

Schmitt is now 70 pounds lighter than the 230 pounds she weighed when diagnosed. She also teaches hula-hoop fitness at a yoga studio in Pitman.

Her current lifestyle and diet are a far cry from when she was a young girl growing up in Moorestown, Burlington County, and was known as the child in her family who didn't like vegetables.

"My mom laughs because of the six of us (children) I was the one who didn't like vegetables," Schmitt said.

Christina Botto cooked standard meat-and-potato meals for her family, although she also always encouraged her children to eat their vegetables, her daughter recalled.

A special diet was a focus for Schmitt even when she was young. Diagnosed as being hyperactive, her mother was told she could either put the girl on medication or try to manage the symptoms through diet.

"So she did that. She journaled and logged everything I ate as a child and she was able to control it. I was never put on Ritalin," Schmitt said. "She instilled in me that food could heal the body. I think that has always stayed with me."

Schmitt's mother taught her children the basics of working in the kitchen, but Schmitt really didn't get too interested until she got older.

"She did show us how to cook, but it was something that I perfected as an adult," Schmitt said.

She and her husband, Greysen, built their house in Buena when they became engaged. She said he has been supportive of the family's changed eating habits.

"He's always gone along with everything I've put in front of him. He's very patient," Schmitt said. "He jumped right in (to veganism). He loves it. He says he feels healthier and has more energy."

Schmitt hadn't set out to totally change her family's diet. After adopting the meatless Monday menus, she then began to cut things such as milk and cheese from their meals. She decided to make the total switch after watching the documentary "Forks Over Knives" on Netflix. The film discusses the role diet has in illness and advocates for a plant-based diet.

"I'm a cancer survivor, and that documentary really spoke a lot to me about cancer and foods. They really do believe that you can change a lot of chronic illnesses," she said.

Preparing vegan meals might take a little more work, but Schmitt that if the switch was going to work, she couldn't radically change what her four children were used to eating.

"In the past, I might have relied on quick and easy options, but I've always cooked, so it was just a transition," Schmitt said.

Schmitt said she looks for meals close to things she used to serve her family, or she tweaks familiar recipes to remove the meat and fat.

"I made chili before. Now I make it and it just doesn't have ground beef. A lot of our food is close to what we had before - I just veganized it."

"I believe the food has to look appealing. Now they will eat a plate of vegetables, but back in the beginning it had to look fun. It is a process and we try to make it fun," she said.

Schmitt hopes her efforts pay off with long-term gains for her family's health.

"I hope it does become a lifelong thing (for her children). I hope that I have given the information and, when they get to a certain age, they can make the decision on their own. I hope I just instilled a love of healthy eating," she said.

And while she's happy her children are eating a plant-based menu, Schmitt said the change has helped her, too. She's lost weight and feels better and is more confident in her ability to stay healthy in coming years.

Most family and friends are aware of why she and her family made the change, and do their best to make sure there is something for them at family gatherings and parties.

"Most accept it and understand the reasons for it," Schmitt said. "I can't guarantee that I won't go through that again -but at least I can stack the deck in my favor."

Contact Steven V. Cronin:

609-272-7242

Chocolate Chip Vanilla Butter Cream Stuffed Cookies

Ingredients:

•1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce

•1/2 cup light brown sugar

•1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

•1/4 cup non-dairy milk (I use vanilla almond milk)

•1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

•1 teaspoon baking powder

•1/4 teaspoon salt

•1 tablespoon

•cornstarch

•1/2 cup vegan

•chocolate chips

•Vanilla Butter Cream

•Filling (see recipe)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease cookie sheet. In large mixing bowl combine applesauce, sugar, vanilla and non-dairy milk

In a small mixing bowl whisk flour, baking powder, salt and cornstarch

In small batches mix together the wet and dry ingredients until it is almost combined, stir in chocolate chips.

Drop cookie batter on prepared cookie sheet, making sure you have 16 cookies. Bake for 7 to

10 minutes.

Cool on wire rack.

To assemble the cookies , take one cookie and spread a little butter cream filling on the flat side, then top with another cookie.

Makes: 16 cookies

(8 stuffed cookies)

Vanilla Butter Cream Filling

Ingredients:

•1 cup vegan butter (Earth Balance), softened

•1 pound of confectioner's sugar

•2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

•3 tablespoons non-dairy milk (more if

•needed to achieve the desired consistency)

Directions:

Combine all ingredients together until creamy and smooth. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

(Inspired by Happy Herbivore's Chocolate Chip Cookies)

Lasagna Rolls

Ingredients:

•12 lasagna noodles (I use whole wheat noodles)

•48 ounces marinara sauce

•Vegan parmesan or cashew parmesan (see recipe)

Filling ingredients:

•2 teaspoons olive oil

•2 medium onions, chopped

•3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced (depending on preference)

•10-ounce bag fresh baby spinach

•2 12-ounce packages extra firm tofu, drained

•1 8-ounce package vegan cream cheese

•1/8 cup chopped dried basil

•1/4 cup nutritional yeast

•Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make filling, heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Saute onions and garlic in oil about 5 minutes, or until golden. Add spinach to the onions and garlic, cook 3 minutes, or until wilted. Transfer spinach mixture to bowl of food processor or blender. Add the tofu, cream cheese, basil and yeast. Blend until mixture is thick and smooth. If adding salt and pepper do so now.

In a large pot, cook pasta al dente according to directions. Rinse the noodles in cold water and pat dry with towel. Set aside on a large cutting board or clean surface. Cover the bottom of a casserole dish with a thin layer of marinara sauce.

Spread a few spoonfuls of the filling mixture on a noodle and drizzle a small amount of marinara on the length of the noodle, not too much or it will become to soggy and filling will leak out. Roll the noodle closed. Place the roll in the casserole dish with the crease facing down. Repeat with all noodles. Pour the remaining marinara over the rolls, cover with foil and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with vegan parmesan or cashew parmesan. Serve immediately.

Cashew Parmesan

Ingredients:

•8 ounces cashews, unsalted

•1/4 cup of nutritional yeast

•1/4 cup of dried basil

•2 tablespoons of onion powder

•1 tablespoon garlic powder

•1 tablespoon oregano

•1 teaspoon salt

•1 teaspoon paprika

Directions:

Place all ingredients in a food processor or high power blender, process until sand consistency. Place in air-tight container and store in the refrigerator.