WATCH | Modern Medicine: Cancer survivor's new face brings renewed hope

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  • Luan Adams was diagnosed with sinus cancer in 2009. When doctors removed the cancer they removed part of his face as well.
  • He suffered many complications and infections due to tissue transplants which prolonged his journey to get a facial prosthesis to make him socially presentable.
  • The improvements in technology, processes and materials finally made it possible for Adams to get a prosthetic face after many years of failed attempts. 

When you press Luan Adams about his life goals and dreams, his answer is simple. "One of my dreams is to stop seeing the doctor a lot." Over the past 12 years, he's had countless hospital visits and has undergone many treatments to help save his life.

Back in 2009, at the age of 21, Adams developed sinus problems. He knew something was wrong when his face began to swell. He visited his doctor for a sinus flush, but when the problem persisted, and none of the medication he had been prescribed seemed to work - he sought a second opinion. 

A dentist eventually referred Adams to a specialist at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, where he received devastating news.

"I went to Steve Biko, and the nurse said: 'You know what, I think it's cancer'," Adams told News24.

He initially brushed off the diagnosis, remaining hopeful that the swelling in his face was just a result of inflamed sinuses. But when doctors conducted a biopsy on a piece of his jaw to run some tests, it confirmed the worst - he had cancer.

"My dad was with me, and he started crying," Adams recalled. "He started phoning everyone, the whole family. I asked him why he was telling everyone because there is nothing anyone can do. I said, don't worry, everything will be fine."

It was an emotional time for him, and while he put on a brave face for his family, Adams silently kept wondering why him. 

luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Luan Adams and a previous facial prosthetic, before the treatments advanced.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Luan thanked his friends and family for helping him through dark days.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
A mould is made of Adams' face.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Adams received his brand new prosthesis on Friday afternoon. Here some final touches are being applied.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira

The man in the mirror

His treatment started in December 2009. The best course of action was to cut the cancer out, but it meant that a portion of his face would be removed in the process.

"I was upset. But I couldn't show anything because my family was there. So I told myself I have to stick it out and be strong for my family," he said. "After my first two operations, my head was as big as a soccer ball. I was scared to look at myself in the mirror."

When he finally mustered up the courage, to take a look at himself, he didn't quite recognise the reflection staring back at him.

"When I was in the toilet, I was crying, but I told myself that this is me now and I need to accept it," he said. 

He added:

I got cancer for a reason, God knew I could handle it.

During Adams' first operation, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. As a result, his right eye and portion of his mouth also had to be removed.

He spent the next eight months undergoing radiation treatment and his life revolved around doctors' appointments - with visits scheduled for a few times every week. More operations also followed.

In 2013, he underwent a skin graft procedure where tissue taken from various parts of his body was used to replace the damaged skin on his face.

With a little help from his friends

Despite being cancer-free, Adams, who suffers from severe asthma, is unable to work. He has lost part of the right side of his face and nose, has difficulty breathing and often needs to see doctors to help manage his condition. However, he's not let his circumstances limit his quality of life. The fun-loving Pretoria based cancer survivor loves fixing and selling cars when he is not exploring his city with his friends.

READ | Modern Medicine - Innovations that help improve people's lives

"If it weren't for my friends that supported me the whole time and treated me like a normal person and still being the same around me, I would have stayed indoors. They made it feel like this is easy, and I could handle it," he said.

Adams said he does not have big dreams and doesn't like planning too far in the future as he doesn't want to get his hopes too high. However, if he were to dream, he would love to have his own business. And while he is at peace with his reflection and his friends accept him for who he is, outsiders' stares have not gone unnoticed. 

Prosthodontist and Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) medical advisor Dr Cules van den Heever has been walking the road to recovery with Adams. Van den Heever custom-made a facial prosthetic that will help make Adams socially presentable and regain his confidence.

Van den Heever said:

He's a wonderful person with a wonderful personality. What are the chances of him getting a job with a mutilated face? We are trying to reconstruct his face, making him socially acceptable and getting him back in the job market because he's a healthy man. No one deserves to walk around without half a face.

He told News24 it had been a challenging process. The technology and innovation in facial prosthetics were limited when they started Adams' treatment. His face also continuously changed shape throughout the process due to the extent of tissue damage suffered.

"We tried to make him a facial prosthetic a few years ago, but the techniques were not that good, and the materials were still lacking at the time and weren't successful," he explained.

Advancements in technology

However, with the help of CRPM, which specialises in 3D printed prostheses for medical implants and other devices, they defied the odds. Van den Heever helped create a facial prosthetic made of silicone for Adams. CRPM 3D printed the titanium frame implant which is used to hold the prosthetic in place.

"He [Adams] ended up with us again two to three years ago with serious complications and serious infections inter-orally. We took a CT scan and through CRPM printed a planning model, and that's where the treatment started."

luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Prosthodontist and Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) medical advisor Dr Cules van den Heever has been walking the road to recovery with Adams.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Luan Adams with his new facial prosthetic.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
A visibly chuffed Adams couldn't stop smiling when her received his new face on Friday.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
luan adans, sinus cancer, facial prosthesis
Adams and his brand new prosthesis. He was visibly happy with the result.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira

Van den Heever said that the innovation in technology, materials and processes, had made a significant difference in the quality of prosthetics that they can manufacture and medical interventions for patients with complicated conditions.

Adams was initially apprehensive and sceptical about getting a facial prosthesis because of how long and disappointing the process had been.

But when his final fitting came on a warm Friday afternoon in September he was visibly chuffed, smiling from ear to ear. He also could not stop looking at his new face on his camera phone.

"I'm excited… glad actually, because my prosthetic is finished. I get to go home with it," he said.

Adams told News24 that he was going to go for lunch with friends to celebrate the momentous occasion.

"We change people's lives with what we do, and that's why we do it," Van den Heever said.

*This story was changed after publication to reflect the corrected surname.

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