Combination Therapy Saves Chef's Tongue from Cancer

As seen in the news:
» Read the "Nightline" story
» Read the New Yorker story
» Read the Chicago magazine story

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

Grant Achatz Grant Achatz

Achatz consulted with several cancer specialists from around the United States who all told him that his only treatment option was removal of nearly 75 percent of his tongue. Faced with this career-threatening decision, Achatz turned to University of Chicago Medicine oncologist Everett Vokes, MD, for yet another opinion.

Dr. Vokes, along with several other University of Chicago head and neck cancer experts, prescribed a new combination approach of chemotherapy and radiation to treat the cancer. If the first-line therapy worked, Achatz would not require surgery -- saving his taste buds.

Everett Vokes Everett Vokes, MD

For Dr. Vokes, Achatz's treatment plan was no different than what other University of Chicago Medicine patients with advanced, non-metastatic tongue cancer receive. "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," he said in the October 22, 2007 issue of People magazine.

The treatment worked. In December 2007, just a few months after beginning therapy, doctors told Achatz that his cancer was in full remission. After receiving the good news, Achatz released a statement that included the following:

"Most of all, I must make special mention of doctors Vokes, Blair, and 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.

Achatz's treatment team was comprised of several University of Chicago head and neck cancer specialists who treat the full range of oral cancers, from mouth and lip cancers, to cancers of the tonsils, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) and upper esophagus. Experts who treated Achatz include:

Throughout Achatz's treatment, several major news outlets, including ABC's "Nightline," The New Yorker, The New York Times (blog only), The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, People magazine, and Chicago magazine reported on his journey:

January 2008