“Unstoppable”: How Brenden Fitzgerald of Planet Protein made incredible accomplishments despite being diagnosed with cancer
We want to live a normal life. Don’t treat us any differently! We still want to hear about your work struggles and the small dramas with your friends. People with cancer gain a sense of gratitude when they aren’t treated like they have any limitations.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenden Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO of Planet Protein.
Brenden founded Planet Protein in 2016 with the goal of offering a healthy vegan protein option with ingredients people could pronounce. Planet Protein’s best-selling Chocolate Magic powder has only eight plant-based ingredients and is one of the most sustainable options on the market — the company plants one tree and saves one animal for every bag sold, in addition to a creative in-house recycling program. (We will have a new Vanilla Magic coming out in a few weeks and I’d be happy to send you samples of both flavors!)
Brenden does not have the crunchy-granola beginnings that you might expect of a plant-based business owner. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, he dreamed of leaving to become a soccer player and the first college graduate in his family. When that didn’t work out, he joined the Marine Corps and served in missions across Southeast Asia. Following his service, he settled in Florida and began his plant-based advocate-turned-entrepreneur journey.
Brenden has overcome many challenges but none quite as difficult as his recent testicular cancer diagnosis and surgery, which forced him to learn how to prioritize self-care over his business. He was deemed cancer-free just six weeks after his surgery, without receiving any chemotherapy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Asa disadvantaged kid growing up in Flint, Michigan, I never learned about proper nutrition. We ate a lot of meat and processed foods because it was what we thought we could afford and should be eating. I eventually found soccer and truly believed it would be my ticket out of Flint. I worked incredibly hard and wanted to be the first person in my family to go to college. But I didn’t make the varsity team my senior year, which meant no college recruiters would be looking at me for athletic scholarship positions. The next best option for a kid like me was the military. I enlisted in the Marine Corps and served for four years.
I landed in Florida some time after that and, through books and documentaries, made the decision to go vegan. As a former athlete who worked out frequently at the time, I couldn’t find a protein option that was clean enough to meet my standards. I just couldn’t believe the “junk” protein that was being offered to people living a plant-based lifestyle, even in 2017. It was the drive to solve that problem that led me to create Planet Protein.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
I noticed a lump almost a year before my surgery. I had gone to see a doctor about it as soon as I noticed it, but he told me it was nothing. When it hadn’t gone away eight months later, I finally sought a second opinion and my surgery was scheduled shortly thereafter. It was such a whirlwind
It’s never an ideal time to receive a cancer diagnosis but, there was so much going on with the business that I had to teach myself to set clear boundaries between my entrepreneurial side and my personal health. I learned that prioritizing self-care could actually make me a better, more effective leader to my team. I also realized that being able to work while I recovered from that major surgery was a real blessing — it gave me a small sense of control during a time that left me questioning many things in my life. Setting those boundaries and being able to compartmentalize different situations allowed me to overcome challenges in entirely new ways.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness?
There are two accomplishments following my cancer diagnosis that I’m particularly proud of. First, I was deemed cancer-free less than six weeks after my surgery. Through consultations with my doctor and my own research, I elected not to receive chemotherapy treatments but I worked incredibly hard to eat cleanly, move my body and clear my mind. To put such an intense focus on my own health was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life. I learned that I can be a better partner, friend, colleague and son if I take good care of myself.
While prioritizing my recovery, I also oversaw the launch of Planet Protein’s new product, Vanilla Magic. There were definitely bumps along the way but surviving cancer makes you realize which bumps are actually worth your stress. We were able to adapt and change course if we needed to. We tweaked the formula many times. When we finally opened up pre-orders on Thanksgiving weekend, we sold every unit in our first run. I’m very proud of how this launch went despite my own personal health challenges.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
I would tell anyone grappling with a cancer diagnosis or recovery to really trust your intuition and to listen to your body. Only you can truly know what you are capable of day-to-day and even hour-to-hour. One day, you may be taking a brisk walk with your dog but the next day, you may not feel good enough to leave your bed. One morning, you could be having a productive call with a vendor but, by the afternoon, you could be in a deeply emotional place.
If you are working during this time, I would also encourage you to be open with at least one colleague about your struggles — as open as you feel comfortable. Allow them to act as your internal spokesperson when you aren’t fully available to your team. You will soon see how generous, hard-working and understanding your team really is.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I could not have achieved this level of success or overcome the many challenges of 2020 without my partner, Carly. I am incredibly grateful for her unwavering patience, support and positivity during one of the hardest years of my life. I know my cancer diagnosis was difficult for her as well but she helped me to prioritize my own health and to stay focused on what’s really important in this life. I know this sounds cliché but she has always been my rock and these recent trials didn’t change that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The whole reason I wanted to start Planet Protein was to bring more goodness into the world. I wanted to offer a vegan protein option that wasn’t loaded with chemicals, additives or the like. I wanted to give people clean protein they can feel good about and can actually consider food!
In addition to our product offerings, we take great care to reduce our carbon footprint. Sustainability is a top priority for us so we work with a non-profit partner to plant one tree for every bag of Planet Protein sold. We send our shipments in eco-friendly boxes and tape. We created a special recycling program, where our customers can send us their empty bag to be recycled and receive rewards points in return.
Outside of our core business, we support multiple organizations that are important to our team, including the Child Rescue Coalition, which works to end child trafficking.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- We may be alive but we have still lost something. Many of us are dealing with a missing body part. Some folks get implants but we still feel a great loss that will stick with us for the rest of our lives.
- Acknowledge your colleague’s cancer diagnosis. You may think it’s best for the cancer patient if you act like everything is normal. However, we would much prefer a word of encouragement or just an acknowledgement so we know you aren’t completely heartless!
- In recovery, every day is different. After my surgery, there were days that I could take a long walk and there were days that I felt completely wrecked. If your colleague or loved one is dealing with something similar, please remember to be patient and encouraging and check in with them often.
- Positivity goes a long way. Cancer patients need to surround themselves with people and activities that lift them up. Laughter is a key component of that. The more laughing the better! It also helps to compliment a cancer patient on something small, since they often feel awkward about new changes to their appearance.
- We want to live a normal life. Don’t treat us any differently! We still want to hear about your work struggles and the small dramas with your friends. People with cancer gain a sense of gratitude when they aren’t treated like they have any limitations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I would absolutely love to have lunch with the late Kobe Bryant. This icon showed me how focus, determination, hard work and perseverance can open up endless possibilities. My heart still aches for the loss of such an incredible athlete and family man but I will continue to look up to him as I always have.