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S&Co. president recalls battle with HPV-related throat cancer

Actor Michael Douglas made headlines recently when he revealed in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that his stage four throat cancer was caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), a disease that can be transmitted through oral sex.

Mr. Douglas’s suggestion that his throat cancer may have been linked to oral sex is consistent with a trend in the number of HPV-related throat cancers. In recent years, scientists have observed a rise in throat cancers caused by HPV type 16, which can be transmitted through oral sex. The sexually transmitted disease is now responsible for about 70 percent of all throat cancers.

HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer (occurring in the back of the throat, including base of the tongue and tonsils) is more common in men than in women. According to the CDC, each year, more than 2,370 new cases are diagnosed in women, while nearly 9,356 are diagnosed in men.

Tony Simotes, artistic director and president of Shakespeare and Company, was diagnosed with stage three oropharyngeal cancer in 2009. The cause, it was found, was HPV.

“I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem real,” Mr. Simotes said of his reaction to learning he had cancer.

The first indication that something was wrong came when he was directing a show for Shakespeare & Co. and was doing a voiceover. He heard his voice during playback, and said he thought, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like my voice.”

A visit to an ear, nose and throat specialist revealed a mass in the back of his throat. The tumor had pressed up against one of his vocal chords and paralyzed it, which had caused his voice to change.

Mr. Simotes had two operations to remove the mass in his throat, and then he started treatment at Dana-Farber. The treatment involved doing chemotherapy and radiation concurrently.

When asked if there were any side effects, he replied, “Oh my god, a ton!”

“The one thing people don’t realize is that having the radiation act in your throat and around your mouth can destroy your taste buds, your saliva glands; it can destroy your teeth, it can affect your hearing, hair loss, burn your skin, all kinds of stuff,” said Mr. Simotes.

He still has soreness in his mouth and said it still is hard to swallow. During treatment he had to be on a feeding tube for 10 months.

“It was really tough,” he said. “I lost a lot of weight.”

Although his cancer was caused by HPV, Mr. Simotes said exposure to the disease is not always brought about through oral sex.

He and his wife, Lucy, participated in studies through Dana-Farber, and he said researchers were “really not sure if it’s just through oral sex. They really believe that there’s a strong indication that the exposure to HPV can come through when you just start kissing with a partner when you’re a kid.”

Mr. Simotes said he thinks his exposure may have come early on when he was a teenager.

His wife was worried she might also have HPV. But she was there to support him through and through.

“Had I not had Lucy there to be my advocate and my partner through this I know how difficult it would have been because the treatment is not, it is not pleasant,” said Mr. Simotes.

And despite the positive numbers associated with the cure rate, he said, “The reality is that people around didn’t make it, and when that happens, you realize you’re still fighting for your life. Not only do you feel horrible because of the treatment, but there is the fear that you might be the next one to die.”

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Posted by on June 13, 2013. Filed under National News,News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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