MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Battling cancer is tough enough. Now, imagine battling the disease as a teenager.
One survivor beat the odds, but the harsh treatments left him bald and a target for judgmental eyes.
That's until a South Florida doctor gave Alex Ford a second chance at living out his dream.
Alex is an identical twin. He and his twin, Austin, were happy children. They were inseparable and shared everything. But, at the age of 11, Alex was diagnosed with brain stem tumor. With multiple lesions on his spine, he went through 30 rounds of radiation and daily chemotherapy for months. Austin never left his side.
Austin remembers the difficult times.
"As identical twins, we're supposed to be same in everything," he said. "But watching as his hair fell out, as I grew up and went through puberty, it was not easy as we diverged."
It was a tough battle, but Alex beat cancer. The treatments, however, left him permanently bald and self-conscious. He was always wearing hats. As a freshman in college, the judgmental eyes of students were sometimes unbearable even for the tough cancer survivor.
"I would get dirty looks, but more inquisitive, more like the freak show from people. It irked me a little," Alex said.
His parents went searching for a solution and found cosmetic surgeon Dr. Glenn Charles who was willing to help.
After exchanging phone calls with Alex's dad, Dr. Charles remembers warning the Ford family.
"I told the father I'm not sure if we could do this. It's not even about the money, I'll do it for free," Charles recalled.
Charles, who has twin boys of his own, was touched by Alex's story and his will for life. He agreed to do a ground-breaking procedure – a hair transplant surgery that had never been done before.
He would have to transplant hair from a donor by taking hair from Alex's identical brother Austin and implanting it on Alex's head.
A group of doctors donated their time and expertise.
Charles used the latest technology in hair transplant surgery called ARTAS® Robotic Assisted FUE (Follicular Unit Extraction). The ARTAS® procedure is a computer-assisted, image-guided and doctor-controlled robot for use with a FUE Hair Transplant. The ARTAS® System uses sophisticated imaging technology to map out the follicular units on a head. It then chooses the optimal grafts to extract with precision before quickly and carefully harvesting each individual follicular unit of one, two, three or even four hairs.
Charles said this type of transplant surgery can only be done from identical twin to another identical twin.
"You can physically take hair from someone and put it on someone else's head, but it's just not going to grow. The body is going to reject it because it's going to be a foreign object," he explained.
After two procedures, about a year apart, and four years later, the results are showing.
Alex showed off all the hair on top of his head that is actually from his brother. He is pleased that he did the surgery because now he has some hair when he takes photos and when he talks to people. He feels as though he has a more youthful look.
"It has improved my quality of life even if we weren't able to do the whole scalp," said Alex.
Austin is excited because the surgery has changed the way Alex feels.
"From the front it looks a lot better," he said. "Had we not done the procedure, it would have been bald."
Alex said this experience has been a reminder of what really matters. He said it's not always about how things look on the outside, but more about how people make you feel in the inside.
"As twins, you are pretty much bonded for life," Alex said. "It increased the love I have for him [Austin] even further just knowing he would be there for me."
Charles is thrilled to have been a part of Alex's journey.
"It's touching. I don't want to think too much about it because I'll get all teared up. People do anything for their kids. If you can help them out, it's a great thing. We're doing what we do to make a living pay our bills, but something like that really has more value than anything," he said.
Alex has been cancer free for 11 years. He is about to graduate college and is planning a career in biology.
If you would like to know more about Alex and Austin Ford or Dr. Charles, visit www.CharlesMedicalGroup.com.
for more features.