Learning about Throat Cancer
- Actor Val Kilmer, 62, returned to the big screen with the premier of Top Gun: Maverick despite the fact that the throat cancer survivor now uses a voice box to speak. Now, the film has been nominated for a Golden Globe award.
- Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. It is an HPV-related cancer. To reduce the risk of your children developing HPV or an HPV-related cancer, make sure they get the HPV vaccine, particularly between ages 9 and 12.
- A cancer diagnosis can change your life. But we’ve seen so many survivors thrive on the other side of treatment – including ovarian cancer survivor Marecya Burton.
As soon as he heard about the creation of the highly anticipated sequel to the 1986 classic Top Gun, Kilmer knew he wanted in. His memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry, details his initial reaction to hearing that actor Tom Cruise, 60, would be working on the reboot.Read More
“Forget the fact that thirty years had passed since I’d seen the ghost of Iceman’s dad. I remembered it like it was yesterday,” he wrote. “The producers went for it. Cruise went for it. Cruise couldn’t have been cooler. And the next thing I knew I was back, as the Beatles said, where I ‘once belonged.’
“Tom and I took up where we left off. The reunion felt great.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges to overcome, however. Since Kilmer has used a voice box to speak ever since his throat cancer battle, he had almost no verbal dialogue in the film. His character was ill in the movie, so he often typed his responses out on a computer screen when speaking to Cruise’s character. But despite sharing few words, Kilmer does an excellent job conveying the deep emotional bond shared by the old foes turned friends.
Val Kilmer’s Cancer Journey
Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 but didn’t speak publicly about the disease until 2017.
He wasn’t considering conventional treatment at first, thinking his Christian Science faith would heal the tumors, but he eventually agreed to undergo chemotherapy for the sake of his children – Mercedes, 31, and Jack, 27, whom he had with his ex-wife, English actress Joanne Whalley, 61.
Kilmer also underwent a tracheotomy – a surgical procedure that connects the windpipe to a hole in the front of the neck – which greatly impacted his speaking voice.
And though he originally kept his cancer battle out of the public eye, Kilmer eventually shared more about his journey through interviews, his memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry, and his documentary, Val, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
“I have been healed of cancer for over four years now, and there has never been any recurrence,” he wrote in I’m Your Huckleberry. “I am so grateful.”
Understanding Throat Cancer
Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. Some of the main risk factors for this disease include smoking, drinking alcohol, a diet lacking in fruits or vegetables, acid reflux disease and the human papillomavirus (HPV). So, one way to decrease the chances of developing the disease is to get the HPV vaccine.
The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 12. The organization also stresses that teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible.
Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, explains the link between throat cancer and HPV in a previous interview with SurvivorNet.
“There are no screening guidelines to screen for throat cancer, unlike cervical cancer with pap smears. And there are no standard tests to determine if you harbor the (HPV) virus,” she said. “However, there is no concern that you’re going to spread this cancer to your partner or to anyone else, because at this point your partner has already been exposed to the virus and likely cleared it.”
There’s no annual screening for throat cancer, so doctors usually discover the disease when a patient sees them with symptoms that may point to it. Some symptoms include:
- A cough
- Changes in your voice
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ear pain
- A lump or sore that doesn’t heal
- A sore throat
- Weight loss
It’s important to note, however, that these symptoms are not exclusive to throat cancer. Still, you should always see a doctor if you have any changes to your health.
Thriving after Cancer
A cancer diagnosis will change your life. But we’ve seen so many survivors thrive on the other side of their cancer journey.
Take Marecya Burton, for example. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 20 years old. Burton was a college student-athlete looking forward to graduation at the time, but all that had to change when she was forced to move home to start treatment.
“That was definitely challenging for me,” Burton said in a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “I was looking forward to graduating.”
She also had planned on pursuing a law degree after graduation – another dream she had to give up.
“I really had to, in a sense, put my life on hold,” she said. “Sometimes I look at where I am, and I can’t help but wonder, would I be further had I not had my diagnosis?”
But instead of law school, Burton found a new passion: teaching. She became a high school teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, and she’s since made peace with her new direction in life.
“I wouldn’t change my career for the world,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling.”