The BAFTA winning actor, who also made headlines with his marriage to actress Catherine Zeta Jones, first broke into the entertainment industry back in the late 1960s going on to enjoy great success with the film adaptation of book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet far from his hectic work schedule and the Hollywood glitz and glamour lifestyle, Douglas went through a tough battle with what he initially said was throat cancer.
In a candid interview with People about his health battle, the star admitted that despite the severity of the condition, he never thought he was going to die.
He said: “It’s weird, I know, but during the whole period of chemotherapy and radiation, it never crossed my mind that I could die.
“My mother was 92 when she died” he continued. “My father, he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday. I have never thought much about death or aging.”
In an interesting turn of events, as part of Male Cancer Awareness Week, Douglas shockingly revealed that although he initially said that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer, in reality he suffered from tongue cancer.
READ MORE: Diabetes: The lipid-lowering oil that drives blood sugar levels down by 30% – study
Talking to fellow actor Samuel L Jackson, Douglas went on to say that it was his surgeon who recommended that he release a statement that it is throat cancer, but went on to say that if he had needed surgery it could have meant the end of his acting career.
“It’s not going to be pretty. You could lose part of your tongue and jaw,” Douglas recalled his surgeon telling him.
In a remarkable interview with the Guardian back in 2013, two years after his recovery, Douglas revealed more insight into his cancer journey, specifically about the cause.
He told the paper that the tounge cancer was “caused” by oral sex as the sexually transmitted disease HPV [human papillomavirus], causes cancer.
Despite his honesty in the interview, his comments sparked an outcry of anger from the public, leading to the star having to clarify what he meant.
Douglas’ publicist later told American news outlet CNN that the actor did not blame HPV solely for his cancer; as he was also a smoker and a drinker. A released statement said:
“Michael Douglas did not say cunnilingus was the cause of his cancer. It was discussed that oral sex is a suspected cause of certain oral cancers as doctors in the article point out, but he did not say it was the specific cause of his personal cancer.”
After doctors found the “walnut-sized tumour” at the base of his tongue Douglas was soon diagnosed with stage four cancer and embarked on an intensive eight week course of chemotherapy and radiation.
“That’s a rough ride. That can really take it out of you,” he told the Guardian. “Plus the amount of chemo I was getting, it zaps all the good stuff too. It made me very weak.”
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, oral cancers are particularly serious with only half of the people diagnosed with the condition still alive five years after. Most often this is because of late diagnosis.
Cancer Research UK adds that it is important to recognise the signs and symptoms of tongue cancer as the disease can form on either the oral tongue [the part you stick out] and on the base of the tongue.
The symptoms of tongue cancer might include:
- A red or white patch on the tongue that won’t go away
- A sore throat that doesn’t go away
- A sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that doesn’t go away
- Pain when swallowing
- Numbness in the mouth that won’t go away
- Unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that’s not caused by biting your tongue or other injury)
- Pain in the ear.
Rightly stated by Douglas, HPV can infect the mouth and throat , potentially causing cancers of the oropharynx [back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils]. However, it typically takes years for an individual to develop cancer after being infected with HPV, with other factors such as smoking or chewing tobacco also playing a vital role in causing the cancer.
The main treatments for tongue cancer include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, either combined or on their own. Treatment depends on how far an individual’s cancer has grown and whether it has spread. It also depends on which part of the tongue is affected.
Advanced cancer, which is what Douglas had, means that the cancer is larger than 4cm or has grown outside of the tongue, invading other tissues or lymph nodes. At this stage the most common treatments include:
- Chemotherapy and radiotherapy together (chemoradiotherapy) to your throat and neck
- Surgery to remove part of the throat (including all or part of the tongue) and some of the lymph nodes in your neck, followed by radiotherapy or chemoradiotherapy
- Radiotherapy on its own.
After being given the all-clear from cancer in 2011, Douglas confessed that he still gets check-ups every six months in order to remain cancer free.