Donnie Fritts had to make a terrible choice: his face or his life.
That's what doctors told him after he was diagnosed with an extremely rare, aggressive cancer called ameloblastic carcinoma that attacks facial tissue and bones. His only hope to survive was an extreme surgery that would remove his nose, upper lip and palate, part of his forehead and part of his brain.
"He could live without a face, or he could die with his face on," Sharon Fritts, Donnie's wife, told TODAY’s Ann Curry Thursday.
Donnie chose life, but survival came with a heavy price. The 12-hour surgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta successfully removed his tumors — and left him with a gaping hole in the middle of his face.
‘I looked like a monster’
Donnie remembers the first time he saw his own reflection after the surgery; he was so startled he actually jumped back. "I looked terrible, I looked like a monster," he told TODAY. "If I scared my own self, what was I going to do to other people?"
Donnie and Sharon's world shrank. The man who could always make Sharon laugh was now afraid to leave the house. Rather than go out and be stared at, he found refuge in his woodworking shop in the basement, where he'd stay up all night, making birdhouses.
"People say be careful what you pray for," Donnie said. "I prayed for life, and I thought, if this is the best life is going to give me, I have made the wrong decision."
But Donnie had a secret weapon: Sharon, who never stopped believing that he was beautiful. They'd married only a few years before his diagnosis. Many times he told her to leave, to get on with her own life; she always stayed.
"He is so beautiful. I still see the man I saw when we walked down the aisle," Sharon told Curry. "His beauty is he's a giving person, a loving person."
Sharon said she'll always remember how they both laughed through their wedding ceremony, and the look Donnie gave her as they were standing at the altar.
"Some people don't take their vows seriously," Donnie said. "This woman did."
Out of seclusion
After six long years of living in seclusion and wearing a mask in public, Donnie connected with Robert Barron, a former disguise specialist at the CIA, who crafted a prosthetic nose for him. A team of doctors reconstructed his upper lip and palate, enabling him to chew again.
"For the first time this year I was able to sit at the Thanksgiving table," Donnie said. "Here I'm eating away and I look up and all my family's crying. I'm like, 'What's going on? Let's dig in!' "
Best of all, with Donnie's new face he and Sharon can now walk around in public without being the center of attention. On Wednesday night they arrived in New York City for their TODAY appearance the next morning and strolled through Central Park and Times Square.
"You just feel normal, nobody staring at you, nobody gawking," Donnie said. "It was awesome."
Ameloblastic carcinoma is so rare that there have been only a few dozen recorded cases, and even fewer survivors. Medicare and Medicaid paid for Donnie's initial surgery and for some of his facial rebuilding, but would not cover a new nose for him, because that was deemed cosmetic. With the help of their church and friends in their hometown of Calhoun, Ga., Donnie and Sharon raised the money to pay for his surgeries and prosthetic nose. A team of Washington, D.C.-area doctors led by Dr. Michael Singer rebuilt his face.
Donnie's prognosis is excellent,said NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. While there's always a chance for cancer to come back, the fact that he's gone seven years cancer-free since his initial surgery is a very good sign.
But recovering from cancer is a psychological battle as well as a physical one, she added, and that's especially true with facial cancer.
"When your face is literally gone, it's horrifying for people on the street who don't know how to approach, don't know what to say," Snyderman told Curry. "So you have to refigure out your place in society. That requires a significant amount of inner strength."
That's why having Sharon by his side made all the difference for Donnie.
"To see this love that endured, and was able to tackle this as a couple and come out the other side ... the medicine ends up being a small part of the recovery," Snyderman said.
It wasn't always easy, Sharon said. Some days when Donnie told her to leave, she wanted to get up and go.
"And you stayed because?" Ann Curry asked.
"He's mine," Sharon said, holding on to Donnie's hand. "I've got the papers to prove it."