Rikki Rockett, drummer for the rock group Poison, has been diagnosed with oral cancer, specifically cancer of the tongue.
Rockett, 54, was diagnosed in June, when he saw his doctor for a sore throat. A small tumor was found at the base of his tongue. Like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, actor Michael Douglas and Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton, it is believed that the cause of the cancer is HPV.
According to Rolling Stone, a doctor at USC told Rockett that he’d contracted a “hell of a cancer” but one that was “very treatable.”
Rockett underwent 9 rounds of chemotherapy and 35 sessions of radiation therapy:
“At the end of the day, it was really the worst thing that you can go through, for me. I’ve had a decent life. … It was just a battle that I had to get through, and I got to the point where I couldn’t really talk. I had, I think, 16 canker sores in my mouth at one time. And it’s, like, if you could take your throat and turn it inside out and sunburn it. … I had to use this stuff called Magic Mouthwash just to drink the water. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t. … And I’m still on a liquid diet.”
“Both [of my] doctors said I’m doing excellent, and they both have excellent prognosis,” he said. “In early February, I get my PET scan, and that’s the end-all. That tells you if there’s any activity. They both said they suspect that there won’t be. And so I’ve got fingers crossed. … It looks like it’s in remission.”
Cancer of the tongue is a cancer that occurs in the front two-thirds of the tongue and is considered to be a type of oral cavity cancer. When the cancer begins in the back third of the tongue, it is considered to be a type of oropharyngeal or throat cancer. Like other head and neck cancers, it arises in the squamous cells that make up the surface of the tongue.
Squamous epithelium, which comes from the Latin word squama, or “scale,” consists of flat, scale-like cells. They form the outermost layer of the skin, but also line the mouth, the female cervix, hollow organs of the body, as well as the surface of the respiratory and digestive tracts.
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.
Cancer of the tongue can cause white or red patches on the tongue. It can also cause hard lumps on the side of the tongue. These can sometimes have an ulcer (sore) on them. They can bleed if bitten or touched. Early on they are not painful, but may become painful as the tumor progresses. Sometimes, tongue cancer can cause numbness and trouble moving the tongue. This can cause speech problems.
Depending on the location, and stage of the tumor, cancers of the tongue are treated with some combination of surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy and targeted therapy.
During the last few years, doctors have come to understand that HPV-positive and HPV-negative tumors are almost two different diseases and that treatments need to be personalized for each type. Each patient first needs specialized laboratory tests if they have an HPV-positive or an HPV-negative cancer.
HPV-positive cancers have a better prognosis and can be treated less intensively. HPV-negative tumors need to be treated more intensively. For HPV-negative cancers, a targeted drug called cetuximab (ERBITUX®) can be used in combination with radiation and traditional chemotherapy.