When One of the Best Chefs in the World was Diagnosed with Tongue Cancer, He Called our Doctors and Made a Reservation

When One of the Best Chefs in the World was Diagnosed with Tongue Cancer, He Called our Doctors and Made a Reservation

Chicago chef Grant Achatz was receiving rave reviews for his new restaurant, Alinea, in the summer of 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 his ability to speak and swallow.

Chicago chef Grant Achatz was receiving rave reviews for his new restaurant, Alinea, in the summer of 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 his ability to speak and swallow. Achatz with Everett Vokes, MD

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.

Vokes, along with several other UChicago Medicine head and neck cancer experts, 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.

 Vokes, along with several other UChicago Medicine head and neck cancer experts, 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. Elizabeth Blair, MD

Achatz's care plan was no different than 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 -- often called a culinary genius -- opened a second Chicago restaurant, Next, followed by a cocktail bar, The Aviary. Both have received top honors from the James Beard Foundation. Let's see what's next.

The Medical Team

Achatz's medical team comprised 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 included:

In Grant's Words

In Grant's Words Daniel Haraf, MD

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. 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."

In the News

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:


This story first appeared on our website in January 2008 and was updated in August 2015