When a toothache turned out to be cancer, George quickly learned the state-of-the-art treatment he needed was right here in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo born-and-bred George Hofheins is happy with his “new” life and looking forward to becoming a Florida snowbird.
On October 20, he marked the first anniversary of having his jaw replaced, in an innovative One-Day Jaw Reconstruction surgical procedure now offered at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center as a definitive treatment for oral cancer.
“My life is good again. I’m thrilled that I’m living it the way I am,” he says. “The one-day surgery was what really convinced me to go with Roswell Park and I was very impressed with the teamwork and the people and the results.” Before the surgery, George had been healthy all of his 75 years, except for a few glitches he says were mostly minor and fixable: “I pride myself on exercising regularly, keeping a more-or-less healthy diet, maintaining a proper weight give or take a few pounds, and not indulging in any seriously bad habits, unless you count a glass of wine with dinner or an occasional martini.”
But in June 2021, when he got a toothache and thought it might be an impacted wisdom tooth, George went to see his dentist. His dentist looked at the troublesome tooth and decided to refer George to an endodontist, who extracted the aching molar. George thought that was that.
“A few months later the gum socket had not healed. So I went back to the endodontist, who wanted to do a biopsy,” he explains. “That was the first inkling I had about cancer, because the term ‘biopsy’ does not bode well.”
When the biopsy came back positive for oral cavity cancer, the endodontist arranged an appointment in the Roswell Park Head & Neck/Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery department with surgeon Michael Markiewicz, MD, DDS, MPH, FACS, FACD(c).
“Dr. Markiewicz told me we needed to do major surgery and take out part of the jawbone where the cancer had invaded,” he remembers. “They were going to replace the jawbone with a section of bone from my leg, which didn’t sound very good, but it sounded like that was my only alternative and that it was a big deal.”
George thought his situation could be similar to what Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly might have experienced when he was diagnosed with oral cancer in June 2013. “I’m proud to be in his company,” he says, “I just wish it could be in a different way.”
Staying where the experts are
Because it was a “big deal,” George decided to do some diagnostic shopping and discovered that Roswell Park could do in a single operation what other hospitals were taking up to a year or more to complete. He also found out that Roswell Park is among only a few places in the nation to offer the precise head-and-neck cancer therapeutic treatment available through its One-Day Jaw Reconstruction surgery. After deliberation, George decided to stay home in Buffalo and have his surgery here.
“I was impressed with Dr. Markiewicz, and the fact that Roswell Park was going to do things a little different. They were going to take out the cancer, put in the new bone and put artificial teeth in at the same time,” he says. “Dr. Markiewicz told me that replacing a jawbone requires microsurgery to reconnect vascular tissue just as in an organ transplant. I think that makes me both an organ donor and a recipient on the same day.”
Roswell Park Director of Maxillofacial Prosthetics Vladimir Frias, DDS, MD, FACP, and plastic and reconstructive surgeon Can Ozturk, MD, also were a critical part of George’s surgical team.
One-Day Jaw Reconstruction is a revolutionary procedure that removes tumors or cancers of the jaws and fully rehabilitates the patient with a new jaw, dental implants and teeth all in one surgery. The operation involves three different specialists — a head & neck surgeon, a plastic & reconstructive surgeon and a prosthodontist — working together.
George is clear that recovery from his 13-hour novel operation was grueling. “I was in the hospital five days and I just remember waking up and just feeling, well, horrible. I’m glad it’s in the past. I think everybody did a great job for me, it’s just a lot to go through,” he says, adding that because of the extent of his oral cavity cancer, he also underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy.
To date, George’s doctors have given him a thumbs up for being cancer free. While he still experiences some dry mouth and challenges with jaw movement, eating and talking, he is grateful to his team of surgeons, doctors, nurses and technicians.
“They did an amazing job in a caring and professional way. Prior to the surgery I really didn’t have any problems other than the toothache,” he says, advising anyone who has a lump, bump, growth or sore that doesn’t heal to get it checked out.
“I clearly had cancer and it was going to get worse. I think it could have killed me and, fortunately, it didn’t. I’m glad it’s over and I have my life back. I’m thrilled with that.”
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.