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George Chajewski, MUSC Catering, Oral Cancer Survivor

Eat, Cook, Live
Diagnosed with Tongue Cancer, Chef George Chajewski Had to Relearn Life

The bitter irony is not lost on George Chajewski. As the catering chef at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston – and with a professional culinary experience spanning 30 years and three continents – his career depends on his ability to appreciate exquisite subtleties of taste and texture. Yet in 2005 he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. 

George Chajewski was born 63 years ago in Poland and raised in Germany. Originally, he studied medicine in school, but then decided to become a chef and acquired a degree in International Culinary Arts. He traveled throughout Europe – Italy, France, England and Scandinavia – as a cook and a sous-chef, and spent six months in Hong Kong learning to cook Chinese. “By necessity, I not only learned how to cook, but I learned five languages,” he says. He came to the U.S. in 1992 and began working as a banquet chef at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina.

In 1994, George was hired by the Medical University of South Carolina as catering chef, where he has worked ever since. In that role, he is responsible for preparing foods for the deans and student activities at the university, including commencements and board of trustees functions.

In November 2004, George noticed his first symptom: A white spot at the back of his tongue on the left side. He thought it was a canker sore and took over the counter medications to treat it. But it didn’t go away. In February 2005, the staff and patients at the MUSC celebrated Mardi Gras. All around campus, various Charleston restaurants had set up booths. George was touring the various booths with his wife, and encountered MUSC President Raymond Greenberg, M.D., Ph.D.

“Dr. Greenberg asked me why I didn’t taste the food from all the booths. I said I wasn’t eating well because I had a canker sore on my tongue. He asked me if he could see it, so I showed him. He said, ‘George, you’re going to ENT right now.’”

When he arrived at the Ear, Nose and Throat department, staff members were already waiting for him. They examined him and took a biopsy. It was positive for squamous cell carcinoma, and George was scheduled for surgery. “I was scared,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t the youngest person in the ward. Also, I don’t think I need to tell you what this diagnosis meant for a chef.” He underwent 16 hours of surgery, which included tongue dissection, neck dissection, and free flap tongue reconstruction.

Following recovery from the surgery, George underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy. His doctors also recommended that he enter a clinical trial for Erbitux, which had been approved for colorectal cancer but was currently being investigated for the treatment of head and neck cancers. “They thought it might help me,” he says, “so I signed up for the trial.”

Among the advantages of working at MUSC is that he didn’t have to travel far to get his treatments. “During radiation and chemotherapy,” he says, “I didn’t miss a day of work.”

There is no doubt that cancer changed George’s life profoundly, but ultimately in ways that he could not predict. In three months, his weight dropped from 216 lbs to 167 lbs. Eating at first, was painful. He also had to relearn how to cook for himself, creating high calorie, highly nutritional soups and broths. He often added butter and heavy whipping cream to his creations to pack in more calories. After four months, he could begin to tolerate soft foods, and he made his meals denser by adding finely diced meats and vegetables and blending them. And little by little, his taste pallet also improved. “Both eating and cooking became more pleasurable as I slowly returned to eating things that I once enjoyed,” he says.

But even now, after six years, there are some foods that he has not yet returned to. He generally avoids spices, barbeque, condiments and heavily salted foods. “I take one day at a time and enjoy every bite that I am able to eat,” he says.

Since his treatment and entering the clinical trial, George seems to be doing well. Most importantly, he says, he’s taking time to live life more completely. He has started exercising more vigorously, including wind surfing. “People usually start wind surfing as a teenager,” he says. “I started at 61.” He’s taking vacations, and spending more time with family and friends. And George has used his experience to create a cook book for cancer patients, titled “Your New Best Friend the Blender,” sponsored by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, formerly known as the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation.

If you ask George Chajewski his approach to life, he’ll cheerfully exclaim, “Tempus fugit, carpe diem!”

Written by Peggy Carroll, Director, Patient Advocacy at Bristol-Myers Squibb for BMC Convention in Orlando, Florida on February 26, 2010.

Related Links:
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video Video: George Chajewski

- Article, Post & Courier

- Letter to editor

- Cookbook Intro (pdf)

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