A Michigan man who lost half of his face to a rare form of cancer is getting a second chance to thrive thanks to a surgeon who is helping rebuild his features with skin from his leg and forearm.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Tim McGrath is opening up about his three-year battle – and why he’s glad his story has gone viral.
McGrath was first diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in February 2014 after suffering jaw pain.
“I had a biopsy and it was sent off to a specialized lab because of its rarity,” explains McGrath. “It was first suggested that it was a pituitary gland tumor which are usually benign. Unfortunately, I got bad news.”
According to the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, only 1-3 in a million people are diagnosed each year with the disease – a soft tissue cancer which typically occurs in the neck or legs.
Initially, McGrath pursued non-surgical treatments after learning how invasive the procedure would be to have it removed.
“I hated hospitals and I was very health-conscious before the diagnosis,” says McGrath. “I felt I had the discipline to seek other modalities.”
McGrath’s chosen naturopathic treatments included a strict diet, supplement protocol, energy and psychological work, among other things. But the tumor continued to grow over the next 18 months, and in mid-May 2015, McGrath was forced to get a feeding tube and tracheotomy.
Chemotherapy wasn’t a success, so McGrath’s doctors turned to radiation treatment – which finally lead to results: the tumor was shrinking. With the size down, surgeons spent 30 hours removing the remaining mass in October 2015.
“Prior to surgery I was told worst case scenario I would lose my eye, my ear, and most of my jaw,” says McGrath. “The tumor had shrunk to a point where I believed it would be a quick procedure and I wouldn’t lose my eye or ear and I would be back to eating soon.”
Unfortunately, when McGrath woke up “the worst case scenario was the reality.”
Though the plan was to reconstruct McGrath’s bone structure, his body rejected the first attempts. The scars from the previous surgeries left McGrath’s reconstruction options even more limited and had him living with exposed flesh.
In April of last year, McGrath decided to switch surgeons, and turned to Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate, who reconstructed his face with skin and muscle from his left leg, left forearm and a flap from his forehead. Of the five surgeries McGrath has undergone with Chaiyasate at the helm, none have been rejected.
“He has been an amazing blessing,” gushes McGrath. “He has since done five surgeries on my face and the results have been nothing short of miraculous.”
McGrath – now cancer-free – will spend the next year regaining his strength before continuing reconstruction in the winter of 2018.
“At the present time Dr. Chaiyasate acknowledges that I have been through an amazing amount of stress on my body, and he wants everything to rest and heal over the next year,” explains McGrath. “He wants me to go out and have fun and enjoy my life.”
He’s now focused on regaining the ability to eat through his mouth, as well as speak more clearly and drink liquids.
McGrath says that his family have been his champions, adding that his “mom became my at-home nurse for wound changes, IVs, feedings, and so much more,” while his father has “stood by my side from the very start.”
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“We were a close family before but have grown closer because of this journey,” he notes, adding praise for his three siblings and friends. “Those friends continue to amaze me with their support through fundraisers and websites and always reaching out to me.”
Wanting to share his journey has taken time, McGrath admits. “I did not want to be reminded of all the things I had to endure,” he says, adding that now he is focused on the way his ordeal has changed his perspective.
“Going through this has taught me that I am so much more than just my exterior,” says McGrath. “I hope my story can inspire people to be grateful, everyday, that they are healthy and they can enjoy the simple pleasures in life.”
He adds, “I am not someone that enjoys the spotlight, but I knew that my story needed to be shared. Knowing that my story may change lives, save lives and inspire love makes everything I’ve gone through worth it.”