Eddie Van Halen Thought His Tongue Cancer Was Caused From Putting Guitar Picks in His Mouth

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  • Legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen has died from cancer at 65.

  • Van Halen originally had tongue cancer, which eventually moved to his esophagus. He once speculated that it was caused by putting metal picks in his mouth. He was eventually undergoing lung cancer.

  • Doctors explain the causes of tongue and throat cancers, and what you can do to minimize the risk.

Photo credit: Paul Natkin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Paul Natkin - Getty Images

Tributes have been flooding in for legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who died from cancer at the age of 65. Van Halen’s son, Wolf, shared the news of his father’s death on Twitter Tuesday.

Wolf said his father died after a “long and arduous battle with cancer,” adding, “my heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss.”

Van Halen opened up to Billboard in 2015 about his diagnosis, including how he had to have one-third of his tongue removed due to cancer that eventually moved to his esophagus.

“I used metal picks—they’re brass and copper—which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer,” he said. “Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that’s filled with electromagnetic energy. So that’s one theory. I mean, I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything. But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible.”

In an Instagram tribute, Van Halen’s ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli confirmed that he was eventually undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

Van Halen first publicly shared the news of his cancer diagnosis in 2011, apologizing to fans in a statement on his band’s website. “I’m sorry for having waited so long to address this issue personally. But, cancer can be a very unique and private matter to deal with,” he said at the time.

Photo credit: Daniel Knighton - Getty Images
Photo credit: Daniel Knighton - Getty Images

How are tongue and throat cancer related?

The oral cavity includes the lips, inside lining of the lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, front two-thirds of the tongue, floor of the mouth below the tongue, and bony roof of the mouth, per the American Cancer Society (ACS). The area behind the wisdom teeth can be included as a part of the oral cavity, but it’s usually thought to be part of the oropharynx.

The oropharynx is the part of the throat just behind the mouth, the ACS explains, and it starts where the oral cavity stops. The oropharynx includes the back third of the tongue, back part of the roof of the mouth, tonsils, and side and back walls of the throat.

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers impact those areas. About 53,260 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2020, per ACS estimates, and 10,750 people are expected to die of the diseases.

What are the symptoms of tongue and throat cancers?

There is a laundry list of symptoms that someone with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers can experience, including the following:

  • A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal (the most common symptom)

  • Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away

  • A lump or thickening in the cheek

  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth

  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away

  • Trouble chewing or swallowing

  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue

  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth

  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable

  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw

  • Voice changes

  • A lump or mass in the neck

  • Weight loss

  • Constant bad breath

What causes tongue and throat cancers?

While it’s an interesting theory, it’s unlikely that Van Halen developed cancer from metal picks in his mouth, says Jeffrey Chang-Jen Liu, M.D., associate professor in the department of surgical oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “Certain chemicals in the environment are linked with cancer. For example, in 18th century England, exposure of soot by chimney sweeps led to a specific kind of skin cancer,” Dr. Chang-Len says. “However, I have never seen evidence to suggest that guitar picks may be a source of head and neck cancer.”

Trad Wadsworth, M.D., vice chair of Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology Department, also says it’s “unlikely” that metal guitar picks would cause oral cancer. “There is no known good evidence to support this notion,” he explains.

However, Dr. Chang-Len says there is “ample data” that shows a link between smoking and these forms of cancer. In fact, both tobacco and heavy alcohol use are strongly linked to the diseases, and it’s thought that both can damage the DNA of the cells that line the inside of the mouth and throat, eventually leading to cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) may also play a role. This virus can cause cells to make proteins that turn off some genes that normally help keep cell growth in check, and uncontrolled cell growth can eventually lead to tumors.

“There are some patients who do not smoke or drink that develop oral cancer and we do not know why,” adds Caitlin McMullen, M.D., head and neck surgeon in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Oncology Program. “However, it is vastly more common that smoking and heavy alcohol use cause this disease in patients with these habits.”

How to reduce the risk of tongue and throat cancers

Not all cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers can be prevented, the ACS says, but there are some things you can do to lower your risk. “The number one way to reduce your risk of throat or oral cancer is to avoid smoking, chewing tobacco, and excessive alcohol use,” Dr. McMullen says.

While HPV vaccination is “very important to reduce the risk of certain types of throat cancer” it has not been proven to help prevent oral cancers, she explains.

The ACS says that limiting your exposure to UV light (for cancers of the lips), eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, and wearing proper-fitting dentures may also help.

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