No stranger to struggle

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 expert martial artist who made headlines after he caught an alleged iPhone thief. He’s a restaurateur who more than a year ago 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 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 John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in the summer of 2012.

The doctors at Stroger told him he needed a biopsy. 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 at the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern University she thought Chan should see, 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.

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.


Twitter: @dhnovak

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