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Michael Douglas and Throat Cancer FAQ

Michael Douglas Has Stage IV Throat Cancer; Experts Weigh In

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

The other option for late stage oropharyngeal cancer is radiation and chemotherapy, which Douglas began three weeks ago. Surgery would be necessary only if this treatment fails.

While avoiding surgery, the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy are severe.

"The first few weeks are no big problem, but then patients often have significant difficulty with swallowing," Har-El says. "In most cancer centers -- and we certainly do it with advanced base-of-the-tongue tumors -- they insert a feeding tube right into the stomach through the belly. Mostly we try to do it ahead of time, before problems start, because if you do it later you have to interrupt treatment."

Another serious problem is that the radiation can burn the mouth and throat, sometimes raising blisters. And patients usually suffer severe fatigue during treatment.

Although the burns, fatigue, and swallowing problem usually go away after therapy, patients may have another problem for the rest of their lives: dryness of the mouth and throat.

"Radiation kills the tumor, but it also kills the salivary glands in the throat," Har-El says. "That is why, if you go into our waiting room, everybody is carrying a bottle of water all the time."

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