Michael Douglas: It Was Tongue Cancer, Not Throat Cancer

Michael Douglas at Cannes in 2010

Back in June, actor Michael Douglas revealed he had been treated for throat cancer, the type associated with a virus transmitted during oral sex.

At the time, Douglas was applauded for shedding light on a little-discussed health issue. The New York Times even compared what he had done for throat cancer with "what Rock Hudson had done for AIDS and Angelina Jolie had done for prophylactic mastectomy."

Just one problem: Douglas fibbed about the type of cancer he actually had. Now the actor admits it wasn't really throat cancer - it was tongue cancer.

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According to People magazine, Douglas, 69, came clean last week in an interview on the U.K. talk show This Morning, saying he was really treated for tongue cancer but didn't want to publicize it at the time.

Douglas, who recently won an Emmy award for his role as Liberace in the HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra, was initially diagnosed in 2010 when his doctor found a walnut-size tumor at the base of his tongue. At the time, the actor was preparing to go to Europe to promote the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

"You can't cancel a worldwide European tour-junket thing and say, 'I don't feel well.' You gotta tell 'em. So I said [to my doctor], 'We just gotta come out [with the diagnosis],'" Douglas explained.

But his doctor suggested that Douglas not reveal this devastating diagnosis on the eve of a major publicity tour. Tongue cancer, he told the star, could eventually involve disfiguring surgery to remove the tongue and part of the jaw.

To keep the focus on the movie and not the possibility of losing part of his face, Douglas agreed to say he was undergoing treatment for throat cancer.

When asked later if his cancer might have been caused by his years of heavy drinking and smoking, Douglas explained that his throat cancer was similar to the kind caused by a strain of the human papillomavirus virus (the type called HPV16), which can be contracted during oral sex.

In truth, both explanations may have played a role in Douglas' real cancer. Risk factors for tongue cancer include smoking, drinking and the HPV virus, according to the American Cancer Society.

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In addition, chronic infection from the HPV16 virus can lead to oral cancer that shows up near the base of the tongue, Eric J. Moore, M.D., a Mayo Clinic surgeon specializing in this cancer, told the New York Times in June when Douglas first explained his diagnosis.

Whether it's cancer of the throat or tongue, oral cancer risk has greatly increased over the years, Gypsyamber D'Souza, Ph.D., a specialist in HPV-associated cancers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Times. It has risen the most in white men 45 and up.

Unfortunately, oral cancer can be hard to detect. In Douglas' case, he had several misdiagnoses until a specialist in Montreal looked inside his mouth with a tongue depressor and spotted the tumor that no other doctor had seen.

"I will always remember the look on his face," Douglas has said. "He said: 'We need a biopsy.'"

Photo: George Biard/Wikimedia commons

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