Two-time sinus cancer survivor: Find humor, joy in hardship

Cancer wasn’t Adel Tawfik’s first medical crisis.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Adel had two open-heart surgeries. In 2015, he had a near-fatal colectomy after Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis diagnoses. Then, in 2016, he fell and broke several ribs, puncturing a lung. Shortly afterwards, he learned that the pain on the right side of his face wasn’t from the fall; it was oral cancer — specifically, sinus cancer — that was spreading across his face.

“I remembered thinking, ‘God, I need a break,’” he says. “Then I felt God say, ‘Why are you asking for another break? I just gave you a big one break in your ribs.’ I began to laugh, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘I can handle this. I’m going to be OK.’”

The 69-year-old has used humor to get through every challenge he’s faced.

“The glass is always half-full. Actually in my case, the glass is probably 90% empty,” he jokes. “But that 10% is valuable and a very good reason to enjoy life.”

Initial oral cancer treatment

For Adel, music and family represent the 10% of joy left in his life. That’s why he initially didn’t want a surgery that threatened to end his ability to sing.

Ehab Hanna, M.D.; Clifton Fuller, M.D., Ph.D.; and now-retired medical oncologist Merrill Kies, M.D.; collaborated to develop a treatment plan that included four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by seven weeks of daily high-dose radiation therapy.

Adel rang the bell at MD Anderson to mark the end of his treatment on Dec. 7, 2016. “My lips were cracked and bleeding from the radiation, but that was one of the happiest moments in my life — without any question,” he says. “We had finally beaten the cancer.”

A sinus cancer recurrence

But, one year after Adel rang the bell, he had an odd feeling in his gums that prompted him to visit MD Anderson oncology dentist Alexander Won, D.D.S.

“Two days later, I got the call that my cancer was back,” Adel recalls. “I went from the peak of happiness to remembering how hard chemotherapy and radiation therapy had been.”

Adel’s first treatments had left him with mild neuropathy and severe hearing loss. This time, surgery was his only option. He was willing to do it since it meant avoiding chemo or radiation.

Surgery becomes only hope for sinus cancer treatment

“Dr. Hanna told me before the surgery that there was a chance I might not be able to speak normally for a while,” he recalls. “I told myself, forget about singing if that’s the case.”

Before his February 2018 procedure, Adel sang a hymn to himself that’s brought him comfort since his cancer diagnosis. As he accepted the possibility that he might never be able to sing after surgery, he decided that he’d one day perform the song for Dr. Hanna if he was still able to sing it as well as he had before surgery.

During the 10-hour surgery, Hanna extracted Adel’s right cheek bone and sinus, including his upper right teeth and gums, to remove the cancer. Plastic surgeon Peirong Yu, M.D., then reconstructed Adel’s mouth using soft tissue and bone taken from his right leg.

“When I woke up from surgery and could talk, I was so happy. It was proof that the surgery wasn’t as bad as I’d feared,” Adel says.

Adel’s speech continued to improve, and within three months, he was able to hit difficult notes he feared he’d never sing again.

“I couldn't believe it,” he recalls. When Adel returned to MD Anderson in June for a follow-up visit, he wore his “Happiest Cancer Patient in the World” T-shirt and surprised Hanna with a rendition of his favorite song.

“To be able to sing again showed me how skilled Dr. Hanna and Dr. Yu are,” Adel says. 

Joy in the face of hardship

People are often surprised by the amount of joy Adel displays. But happiness, he likes to tell them, is a product of the mind, not the body.

“We don’t have a chance to replace this life,” he says. “I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy my life. Even if only 10% of it is enjoyable, that’s the 10% I’m going to focus on. I’m not worrying about the other 90%.”

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