Diagnosed with tongue cancer, top chef Grant Achatz turns to UChicago Medicine

Chef Grant Achatz, tongue cancer survivor

Chicago chef Grant Achatz was receiving rave reviews for his new restaurant, Alinea, in summer 2007. Months earlier, Gourmet magazine had named the high-cuisine hot spot as North America's best restaurant. Yet, at the same time his career was reaching new heights, the then-33-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4b cancer of the tongue — a diagnosis that endangered his sense of taste and ability to speak and swallow.

Several cancer specialists from around the country told Achatz his only option for treating the malignant tumor was to remove nearly 75 percent of his tongue. Faced with this radical and career-threatening decision, Achatz turned to University of Chicago Medicine oncologist Everett Vokes, MD, for yet another opinion.

"Where other doctors at prominent institutions saw little hope of a normal life, let alone a cure, these doctors saw an opportunity to think differently, preserve my tongue and taste, and maintain a long term high quality of life," Achatz said.

Vokes and a team other head and neck oncology specialists who treat the full range of oral cancers offered Achatz an innovative approach of targeted chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor. If the combination therapy worked, Achatz would not require surgical removal of his tongue — and his taste buds would be saved.

Achatz's care plan was similar to what other UChicago Medicine patients with advanced, non-metastatic tongue cancer received at that time. Quoted in the October 22, 2007, issue of People magazine, Vokes said: "We're giving Grant what we think should be the first line for the typical patient. We don't change that because a famous chef comes here."

The treatment worked. A few months after starting therapy, doctors told Achatz that his cancer was in remission. Today, he displays no evidence of disease.

In 2011, Achatz opened a second Chicago restaurant, Next, followed by a cocktail bar, The Aviary. Both have received top honors from the James Beard Foundation.

"These Doctors Saw an Opportunity"

After completing his course of treatment in December 2007, Achatz released a statement that included the following:

"Most of all, I must make special mention of Drs. (Everett) Vokes, (Elizabeth) Blair, and (Daniel) Haraf at the University of Chicago Medical Center, as well as the countless number of medical professionals and support staff there who cared for me. Where other doctors at prominent institutions saw little hope of a normal life, let alone a cure, these doctors saw an opportunity to think differently, preserve my tongue and taste, and maintain a long term high quality of life. Through the use of a new and rigorous chemotherapy and radiation protocol, they were able to achieve a full remission while ensuring that the use of invasive surgery on my tongue was not needed."

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Head and Neck Cancer Care

UChicago Medicine pioneered several key aspects in the treatment of head and neck cancer, including organ-sparing combined radiation and chemotherapy approaches that can cure locally advanced head and neck cancers in the majority of patients while preserving critical functions such as speech and swallowing. 

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