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Michael Douglas and Throat Cancer FAQ

Michael Douglas Has Stage IV Throat Cancer; Experts Weigh In

Can throat cancer be cured?

If caught in its early stages, this "throat cancer" can be cured 85% of the time by surgery or radiation.

Later stages are more problematic. Douglas says his doctors have diagnosed "late stage IV" cancer.

"For the advanced stage IV cancers, it depends on the situation with the lymph nodes in the neck," Har-El says. "There is over a 60% chance of remission if it has not spread to the lymph nodes. But if it already has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, the odds of remission are more like 40% or 30%."

Douglas says his cancer has spread to his head and neck, but that his doctors say his odds of survival are 80%.

Teknos says there's no reason to doubt this assessment.

"We think he is still in the curable category, stage IVa," he says. "Of course we don't know, but his curability could be quite acceptable."

Interestingly, oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV is much more easily cured -- even at late stages -- than cancer caused by smoking and drinking.

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

The most common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer, Har-El says, include:

  • Throat pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain (which is actually pain from the base of the tongue referred to the ear)
  • Bleeding in the mouth or throat
  • Hoarseness
  • A lump in the throat, or the feeling that something is stuck in the throat

Any of these symptoms may signal throat cancer.

"I want people, especially smokers, who have what appear to be simple, stupid symptoms to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor," Har-El says. "All of us have hoarseness at end of the day, but if it persists over three weeks, see the doctor."

Har-El says that patients with ear pain often go to their doctor, who looks in their ear and tells them nothing is wrong.

"If you go to your doctor with ear pain and he says your ear is fine and unrelated to any other problem, go see an ear, nose, and throat doctor," he says.

What is the treatment for throat cancer? What are the side effects?

Treatment for early stage oropharyngeal cancer has traditionally been radiation, usually along with chemotherapy. But Har-El says surgery is becoming more and more popular, because small throat tumors can be removed with minimally invasive surgery or even with robotic surgery.

"This spares the patient radiation therapy, which is quite taxing to the patient," Har-El says.

Advanced tumors present more of a challenge.

"One is to do very, very big surgery. This removes the base of the tongue but sometimes also the voice box, because the base of the tongue prevents food from going through the voice box into the windpipe," Har-El says.

However, Teknos notes that reconstructive surgery can use tissues from other parts of the body to repair the base of the tongue. This technique makes it unnecessary for the surgeon to remove the voice box.

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