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Restaurant owner who nabbed iPhone thief also faced down cancer

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:36AM

After months of radiation, the first thing Chicago restaurateur Jason Chan said he could taste was his mother’s rice dumpling soup, something she had made for him as he recovered last summer.

His mouth had been raw and his teeth were largely gone — pulled out as part of his cancer treatment.

Chan, co-owner of sushi restaurant Juno, is not only the martial arts expert who made headlines after he caught an alleged iPhone thief. More than a year ago, he was trying to open the Lincoln Park restaurant he co-owns with chef B.K. Park when he was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.

Chan, 47, first found something swollen on his neck in early 2012, but he assumed it was an old injury from Shidokan, the martial art he has practiced for 19 years. It didn’t go away. At the prodding of his friends — and because he had no health insurance while he worked to open Juno — he went to Stroger Hospital in the summer of 2012.

The doctors at Stroger told him he needed a biopsy of the mass — and it took months to get definitive results.

He learned he had cancer on Oct. 18, 2012, and a few days later he endured a dissection of his neck to remove a tonsil and lymph nodes. The day before flying to Asia with Park on a food research trip, Chan had a full scan of his head, neck and chest. When he came back, he was told the cancer was stage 4, the most dangerous type.

Chan doesn’t really remember the prognosis he was given. He said he didn’t hear the doctor speaking; he knew it was bad.

“I tuned everything out. It’s human nature, you’re sitting there . . . you’re just not really listening,” he said

He didn’t Google his illness, or read anything about the treatment he faced. But his best friend, Caryn Struif, had watched her own father deal with a neck cancer and knew that Chan had to be treated quickly. Struif identified the doctor she thought Chan should see at the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern University and worked to get him an appointment that week.

“She filled out all the paperwork. I just couldn’t do it,” Chan said. “She’s my angel.”

The problem of paying for the treatment was unresolved, but Struif and Chan said he was able get a grant from the Lurie Cancer Center that paid for the treatments. His friends also set up a site on to raise money for rent, medication and bills.

“We really just rallied around him,” Struif said. “It was never a question whether I was going to be there.”

“I was insolvent at the time,” Chan said. “My friends saved my life, from all their love.”

A month after he finished his treatment in March, Chan was in remission. His restaurant opened in June.

Chan loves food — but months of harsh treatments eliminated all of his taste buds and his appetite. His body — normally 200 pounds of muscle from daily workouts — lost more than 25 percent of its mass.

Dr. Dan Price, a head and neck surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said patients who have radiation through their mouths often lose their ability to taste normally for the rest of their lives.

With a raw mouth that lacked most teeth, Chan couldn’t initially taste the food Juno was serving. But by summer’s end he was regaining his sense of taste — something he figured out while enjoying his mother’s soup.

Today, he wears dentures to replace the teeth he lost, so he can chew. He says his sense of taste hasn’t returned 100 percent — but it’s close.

“I can eat everything, and it’s wonderful. The way you can really taste freshness is in the texture,” Chan said.

Besides his friends, it was his martial arts training that kept him strong, he said.

“The doctors told me because I was in such good shape, my body healed quicker,” Chan said. “I was able to endure things.”

Now he’s focusing on his restaurant, which received a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating last week, and getting an insurance plan for himself and his employees.

Of his pursuit of the alleged thief — who is charged with taking an iPhone from a Juno customer — many of Chan’s friends say it was about protecting those who come into his home, the restaurant he built. Chan tracked the suspect to another Lincoln Park eatery and at one point the two had a physical confrontation; Chan restrained the man before police came and made an arrest.

While Chan balks at talking about his illness, Struif thinks his story needs to be out there for people who need inspiration.

“It’s one of the most beautiful stories I ever heard,” she said.


Twitter: @dhnovak

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