Erin Moran Died from Cancer of the Tonsil

Many were shocked this week by the untimely death of Erin Moran at the age of 54. In the past, the Happy Days actress had gone through periods of drug and alcohol abuse, and many assumed that she had died of a drug overdose. However, an autopsy performed by the Harrison County (Indiana)  Sheriff’s Office revealed that Erin had died of “complications of Stage 4 cancer. ” Moran’s husband, Steve Fleischmann, has now come forward with details of her illness. In a statement posted on Joanie Loves Chachi co-star Scott Baio’s Facebook account, Fleischmann says that at the end of November 2016 Moran woke up with a spot of blood on her pillow. She continued to notice increasingly larger spots over the next few days. Her husband looked into her mouth and noticed that one tonsil seemed enlarged and thought she had tonsillitis. She went to a Ears, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor who biopsied the tonsil. The result came back as “squamous carcinoma.”

” She started radiation and chemo. Five days a week radiation and chemo only on Thursdays. We did that the whole time. It got so bad so fast. By the middle of February, Erin could no longer speak
or eat or drink. She had a feeding tube implant and i feed her 6 to 8 times a day. She was still happy, she was active, she texted people on her phone all day. On the 21st she was having trouble
breathing. She woke up on the 22nd, she was not 100%. She needed Kleenex, so i went to the store and came back. She was there watching T.V in bed. I laid down next to her held her right hand in my
left. I feel asleep woke up about a hour later still holding her hand and she was gone, she was just gone.”

The coroner also told Fleischmann that the cancer had spread to her spleen and brain. She also had a significant amount of fluid in her lungs.

Condolences have been pouring in, many from her former co-stars including Ron Howard, Scott Baio, Henry Winkler and Marion Ross.

What do I need to know about cancer of the tonsil?

Cancer of the tonsil is considered a subset of oropharyngeal cancer- cancer in the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils.  It is relatively uncommon. Although it can occur in any of the tonsils, it is most common in the palatine tonsils.

Cancer of the tonsil can be of two types: The most common type is a squamous cell carcinoma– meaning it begins in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck.

Cancer of the tonsil can also  be of the Lymphoma type and usually arise from the lymphatic cells which are found in the wall of the tonsil.

What are the symptoms?

Tonsil cancer may have one or more symptoms, including:

  • A sore in the back of the mouth that will not heal
  • Tonsil is larger on one side
  • Blood in the saliva
  • Mouth pain
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Intolerance to eating or drinking citrus foods
  • Severe ear pain
  • Lump or pain in the neck
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Bad breath

What causes cancers of the head and neck?

Alcohol and tobacco use are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers. This includes the use of smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”. This is especially true for cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. It is estimated that three-fourths of head and neck cancers are caused by alcohol and tobacco!

Another important risk factor is infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPVs are a group of more than 150 related viruses. More than 40 of these viruses can be easily spread through direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. In fact, more than half of sexually active people are infected with one or more HPV types at some point in their lives. One type, HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue. More than half of the cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx are linked to HPV-16. According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer has increased during the past 20 years, especially among men. They estimate that, by 2020, HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the United States.

How is it treated?

Treatment for cancer of the tonsil can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments. Patients who receive radiation to the head and neck may experience redness, irritation, and sores in the mouth; dry mouth or thickened saliva; difficulty in swallowing; changes in taste; or nausea.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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