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Michael Douglas: Throat cancer survivor

Douglas "tumour free”, next three years critical
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
michael douglas

11th January 2011 - Actor Michael Douglas, 66, says his throat- cancer tumour is gone after seven weeks of intense radiation and chemotherapy.

"This is a very, very, very, good sign," says throat cancer expert Dr Gady Har-El, chair of head and neck surgery at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.

Based on details Douglas made public in a TV interview in the US, Har-El - who is not involved in the Hollywood’s star’s care - says Douglas has made the first step on the road to recovery: what doctors call a "complete response" to treatment.

A complete response means that Douglas' base-of- tongue tumour can no longer be detected by physical examination, anatomical imaging with CT or MRI scans, or by functional PET-scan imaging.

"Obviously Mr. Douglas is not completely out of the woods, because there is a chance of tumour recurrence," Har-El tells us. "As time goes by, his odds get better. If he has no evidence of disease in the next three years, his chances of cure are extremely high."

Further scans

As Douglas explained in his interview, he will get physical examinations every month. Every six to 12 months, the scans will be repeated.

Douglas appears to have had a large tumour - too large to remove by surgery. His throat cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, had reached a dangerously late stage.

Unfortunately, oropharyngeal cancer is becoming more and more common. Smoking - and to a lesser extent drinking - are risk factors for the disease. The disease is also caused by HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, Har-El says, tends to be more readily curable.

The bad news, Douglas says, is that his salivary glands aren't working properly. Radiation treatment for oropharyngeal cancer kills the tumour, but also blasts the salivary glands.

Har-El says Douglas' salivary-gland function is likely to improve over time, but may never fully recover. Most people, he says, don't fully appreciate how difficult it is to be unable to salivate normally.

How does it feel to swallow without saliva? Take a bagel, put butter on it, then dip it in beach sand and try to eat it," Har-El says. "It is very rough and has effects on the teeth, on swallowing, and on speech. It does get better with time, but in most cases doesn't go back to full recovery.”

Reviewed on January 12, 2011

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