I know that this is Week 3 of Foodierama here in Cancer-for-Christmas-land. I’ve been accused of being food obsessed before, so it is what it is.
Yesterday, as I ranged around seeking wi-fi in the aftermath of Irene’s blowdown of the power lines connecting me with the volts necessary for my at-home office, I listened to Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The episode was an interview with Grant Achatz, molecular-gastronomy rock star and chef at Chicago’s Alinea, who among other things has won the James Beard Award and landed 3-count-’em-3 stars in the Chicago edition of the Michelin Guide.
He’s also a guy who beat Stage IV tongue cancer. He talks about both of these achievements in his book Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat (the link will take you to the book’s page on Amazon.com). As I listened, I found myself thinking about my recent post about the choice that Anna Stoessinger was forced to make after a stomach cancer diagnosis, and also about the aftermath that Roger Ebert faced after repeated surgeries to treat thyroid cancer left him disfigured, mute, and unable to ingest anything by mouth.
Maybe we can blame Chicago for at least two-thirds of this epic epicurean destruction? Kidding.
Grant Achatz traveled to New York seeking medical treatment – he was told that the best approach was to surgically remove his tongue and all the lymph nodes in his neck, followed by aggressive chemo and radiation treatment. They would try to replace his tongue with muscle tissue from elsewhere in his body. He was told that this treatment protocol would maybe buy him another few years of life.
He took that message home to Chicago, and discovered that there was a clinical trial at the University of Chicago that turned the traditional treatment dance on its head: aggressive chemo and radiation treatment, no surgery. This approach would burn the **** out of his tongue, and make him sick as a dog, but in the face of a “you’ve got Stage IV” diagnosis, he went for it.
Remember, he’s a world-renowned chef whose entire career has been about playing with flavor and texture. The treatment completely killed his sense of taste, and much of his appetite. But … it came back. Happily, the cancer did not. And he’s been cancer-free since late 2007.
If you take nothing else from this story, take this: don’t take any one doctor’s word for it. Whatever “it” is. Seek at least one other opinion, and if you’re facing some really scary stuff, get a few. And go with the one that gives you the most hope with the best provider possible.
Be informed, be your own advocate, and then surrender to the process.
And let’s all plan a trip to Chicago sometime soon, including reservations at Alinea. I personally can’t WAIT.