Jan 17 2011
Acclaimed Hollywood legend Michael Douglas is a throatcancer survivor. He announced recently he has had a complete response to treatment, the first step on the road to recovery. The walnut-sized base-of-tongue tumor can no longer be detected by physical examination or medicalimaging. He will now enter the standard routine of monthly visual examinations with periodic medical imaging and testing. While Douglas termed his cancer as throat cancer, experts say it was most likely oropharyngeal cancer — a very specific form of throat cancer from which the celebrity is recovering optimistically.
What is oropharyngeal cancer?
Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which cancerous (malignant) cells form in the tissues of the throat, the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate or the walls of the pharynx. Often called oral, mouth, tongue, tonsil or throatcancer; every day In the United States there are approximately 100 new diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer, with one person dying from the disease every hour of every day. Oral cancers are the largest group of cancers which fall into the head and neck cancer category.
When diagnosed in the early stages, oropharyngeal cancer has an 80 to 90% survival rate at five years after diagnosis. Unfortunately, because of a lack of public awareness and standard screenings, the majority of cases are detected in the later stages with a survival rate of 30 to 45% at five years. Do you wonder why your dentist grabs your tongue with gauze and moves it side to side while examining your mouth? One reason is to look for irregularities, lesions, discolorations and other signs of diseases such as oropharyngeal cancer. Dentists are often the first to discover the disease.
Michael Douglas admits to heavy use of tobacco and alcohol throughout his adult life, and that is most likely the leading cause of his cancer. If the tumor was related to alcohol and tobacco use, his likelihood of recurrence is 45% in five years, with the greatest risk of occurrence in the first two years.
What causes oropharyngeal cancer?
The past five years have seen a dramatic increase in cases, with an 11% jump in 2007 alone. The heavy use of alcohol and tobacco has long been implicated as the leading cause of orohparyngeal cancer, more than 75%. Recently this cancer has been increasingly linked to exposure to the sexually transmitted HPV-16 virus (Human Papilloma Virus, version 16), the same virus responsible for genital warts and the vast majority of cervical cancer in women. The cases linked to HPV-16 are generally more treatable, with a cure rate of approximately 70 to 80%. This is because the malignant cells are not as deeply embedded as they are in tobacco related cases. The use of alcohol and tobacco irritate the tissues in the mouth and the lining of the throat, which over time cause DNA mutations which can lead to cancer. Nearly 5% of all oral cancers have no discernable risk factors, or may be related to family history.
According to the Oral Care Foundation: “You are the most important factor in an early diagnosis. You should always contact your doctor or dentist immediately if you notice the following symptoms in yourself or a loved one:
- A sore or lesion in the mouth that does not heal within two weeks.
- A lump or thickening in the cheek.
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth.
- A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing.
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
- Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth.
- Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.”