October 20, 2010 at 9:48 am , by Julie Bain
According to a friend at Yahoo, searches for “throat cancer symptoms” are up more than 3,000 percent this month—“likely a result of actor Michael Douglas’ recent diagnosis,” she says. While I was sad when I heard Douglas was sick, I was hopeful that his ordeal might bring more awareness to this cancer, which is growing.
I first learned about the link between throat cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV; the same virus that can cause cervical cancer) years ago when I heard a researcher present a paper on it. Yes, oral sex can transmit this very common virus between two people and then, years or decades later, may lead to cancer. It happened to my friend Steve. And to a famous chef. And to the husband of another friend. And now Michael Douglas. (We don’t have direct confirmation about Douglas’ HPV status but publications such as People magazine have mentioned it.) Yes, women get it, too. Steve’s cancer treatment was brutal but three years later, he’s feeling strong and is cancer free. I asked him to share his thoughts in this guest blog.
Michael Douglas, Greed, Cancer and Me
By Steve Reynolds
It’s impossible not to have noticed Michael Douglas lately, given the press and his recent sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. A great actor, Douglas is cemented in the communal pop memory by his note-perfect performance in the 1987 film Wall Street.
It got me reminiscing about the ’80s, beyond yellow ties, pasta and cell phones the size of bricks. I was fresh from college, and New York was a blaring, braying juggernaut of energy, of greedy energy. “Greed is good.” It wasn’t just the guys in yellow ties who took that Gordon Gekko line literally. My own greed was a hunger to experience everything. I worked a job, did off-Broadway theater, partied as much as I could, had as much sex as I could. And now I wonder if it was then that I gave myself up to the HPV virus.
Douglas’ face and words are somehow part of those memories for me. And now here he is with the same disease: HPV-borne throat cancer, my throat cancer. He’s even being treated at the same hospital and maybe even by some of my same doctors.
I am sure he is well along, if not finished, with radiation by now. I remember reporting to the second floor every day. Changing into those raggedy gowns. No clothes, jewelry, glasses. It leveled us all. You have nothing but your survival. Everybody in that changing room looked gaunt, pasty and hairless. Yet I felt comforted by seeing the same faces each time, trudging together in those steps of misery. The tissue where the cancer resided was being systematically burned away in slow and careful daily exposures. I lost my ability to produce much saliva, making it hard to swallow. I had a patch full of narcotics that I wore, dragging myself to the subway and up to the hospital. When each day’s radiation was over, I collapsed.
By then, post-surgery, I had lost 40 pounds, could not chew, could not swallow very well. (I read that Douglas is not having surgery.) I had a feeding tube drilled into my stomach and taped to my shoulder. Pouring liquids into this thing was the only way to get calories into my system and prevent dehydration. I could never manage it right; it was always bubbling over and spilling. Once we had people over and everything I had just poured in there leaked onto the floor.
The chemotherapy was hell, too. Nausea, retching, room spinning. I would ratchet up the painkillers and float away but the nausea would always come back. Any real food that I put in my mouth, even bland stuff, would sting and burn. I felt like I never wanted to eat again. And then I lost my taste buds. As my wife, Hilary (above with our son, Tynan) said, “First they set you on fire, then they hit you over the head with a hammer.”
You think somehow that you got picked, out of all the jerks in the universe, to get cancer because of something you did. Some kind of punishment. It isn’t, of course. The universe is far more random than to single out any one mortal. But it all still falls on you as somehow personal; you deserve this.
I hope Michael Douglas doesn’t feel that way, and that he gets through it all. In Money Never Sleeps, there’s a poignant moment when his character says he realizes that time, not money, is what’s truly valuable. Turns out, the very latest research shows that patients with HPV-related oral cancer have a better prognosis than those with non-HPV oral cancer. That’s good news for him.
While I wouldn’t wish the experience on anybody, in a funny way I would not take it back, either. There is something gained when we lose things, and I think I carry a perspective now that I would otherwise not. I am probably better for my 7-year-old son, better for my wife, having had to pass through this thing. Maybe Michael will feel this, too. I would tell him that we find a greed to go on.
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