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Michael Douglas and Throat Cancer FAQ

Michael Douglas Has Stage IV Throat Cancer; Experts Weigh In
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What causes throat cancer? continued...

What's causing the rise in cases, Teknos says, is a surge in the number of cases caused not by smoking and drinking but by human papillomavirus -- HPV, the sexually transmitted virus best known as a cause of cervical cancer and genital warts.

Teknos says an Ohio State study recently found that people with more than six lifetime oral sex partners have the greatest oropharyngeal cancer risk. It's not yet clear why some people with HPV get this throat cancer while others do not. But it does appear that decades can elapse between HPV infection and the appearance of cancer.

"The infection may happen in a person's 20s and only manifest as cancer in the 40s," he says. "We are doing a lot of research to try to identify what is different in people who get the cancer. Because many are exposed, but only a few get cancer."

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

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