Following Michael Douglas – Oropharyngeal Cancer – What Is It and How Can You Protect Yourself?

Michael Douglas told a US television audience on Tuesday night that he has been diagnosed with and is receiving treatment for stage 4 throat cancer. There is more than one type of organ in the throat which can have cancer, and Douglas didn’t go in

to details.

According to specialists, if the cancer started at the base of his tongue (as Douglas’ press representative described), he probably has a type of cancer called oropharyngeal cancer.


Danger level: High

What is it?

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the oropharynx.

Who gets it?

The average age of being diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer is 60, with men getting it twice as frequently as women. It’s more common in African-Americans men than in white men.

There are certain things that raise your risk of getting oropharyngeal cancer (called risk factors). Such risk factors include:

  1. Smoking and chewing tobacco
  2. Heavy alcohol use
  3. A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  4. Drinking a sort of a South American stimulant drink named maté.
  5. Chewing an Asian type of stimulant called betel quid.
  6. Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) – This is a sexually transmitted virus. Unsafe oral sex with multiple partners is a risk factor for getting infected with HPV.

Michael Douglas said in his interview this week that he used to be a drinker and a smoker.


Alcohol and smoking are major risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer. Photo by Darwin Bell

What causes it?

First of all – what is the oropharynx, in which this cancer develops?

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat (the throat is also called pharynx), behind the mouth. This part includes the back 1/3 of our tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils.

As with other types of cancer, oropharyngeal cancer happens when cells in this area start to grow out of control, for reasons not clearly understood.

How does it feel?

People with oropharyngeal cancer may feel any of those:

  1. A sore throat that doesn’t go away – Michael Douglas’ tumor was discovered due to this very complaint.
  2. A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck
  3. A dull pain behind the breastbone
  4. Cough
  5. Trouble swallowing
  6. Weight loss not caused by a diet
  7. Ear pain
  8. A voice change

How is it discovered?

Diagnosis is made by taking a sample of the area suspected to be cancerous and looking at it under a microscope. A CT scan or an MRI are also used, and can help to see if the cancer has spread.

During the diagnosis process, tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread from the oropharynx to other places in the body. This is part of the staging process, common in cancers. Staging tells which stage the tumor is at (there are 4 stages), and can help guide the right type of therapy and also tell about the chances of survival.

Stage 1: In this stage, the cancer is 2 centimeters or smaller and is still in the oropharynx.

Stage 2: It’s between 2-4 centimeters, and is still in the oropharynx

Stage 3: It’s larger than 4 centimeters and is still in the oropharynx, or it has spread to a nearby lymph node.

Stage 4: It has spread further.

(This is a summary of stages, and lacks many details)

Michael Douglas’ tumor is at stage 4.

How is it treated?

Depending on the stage, oropharyngeal cancer can be treated by surgery, radiation therapy, and other types of possible treatments which include chemotherapy, among other things.

What happens after treatment?

That depends on the stage and the location of the tumor. The survival after treatment is better in earlier stages.

The bottom line – How do I avoid it?

1. Stop smoking – This is the most important thing you can do.

2. Limit your alcohol consumption

3. Limit the number of your sex partners. Using a condom, unfortunately, can’t fully protect you from HPV during sex.


Here’s the part of the interview with Michael Douglas, as seen on the David Letterman show: