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Rockett has done nine rounds of chemotherapy to battle the cancer. (Photo: Getty Images)
The 54-year-old rocker made the revelation on SiriusXM’s Eddie Trunk Live earlier this week. “In June, I kind of got sick,” he said. “I had this horrible cold, sore-throat thing, and they were scoping me and they were doing biopsies, and nothing was coming up.”
Finally, a doctor did a biopsy and discovered that he had a tumor at the base of his tongue. “This is very similar to [Iron Maiden singer] Bruce Dickinson, very similar to Michael Douglas, similar to [Aerosmith’s] Tom Hamilton, as far as I know,” Rockett said.
Dickinson announced in September that he had stage 3 tongue cancer and heavily implied that he developed it from the human papilloma virus (HPV), contracted during oral sex. Douglas made a similar declaration in 2013.
“Everybody went ‘Ha ha ha ha’ [about Douglas], but in actual fact, the thing about the HPV virus is people don’t know a great deal about it,” Dickinson said in a radio interview at the time.
Rockett says he’s done nine rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation in an effort to fight the disease.
Clearly Rockett isn’t the first man in the public eye to experience oral cancer from HPV and he likely won’t be the last, Brett Miles, MD, an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a leading expert in HPV-associated head and neck cancers, tells Yahoo Health.
Miles says there is an epidemic of oropharyngeal cancers (cancer that develops in the base of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and throat) from HPV, and the data backs that up. About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV, the National Cancer Institute reports.
“These HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers are actually pretty typical in this age group,” Carole Fakhry, MD, an associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Yahoo Health.
Famous people in particular are in a high-risk category. “Athletes, musicians, artists, actors … anyone who might have had a lot of multiple sex partners is at risk,” Miles says.
While most people who are exposed to HPV from oral sex clear the virus, others can develop a chronic infection that integrates into their cells, eventually causing cancer. “The problem is, we don’t know which ones will clear and which ones don’t,” Miles says.
Unfortunately, there’s not much men of Rockett’s age who have already been exposed to HPV can do, but Miles says younger men have a few options. One is to get the HPV vaccine, if they’re still eligible. (According to the CDC, men can get vaccinated through age 21.)
“If you’re past that age, it’s really about behavior and limiting the number of partners you have,” Miles says. “The more you have, the higher your risk will be.” Men who are in a long-term relationship can also ask their female partner to get screened for HPV of the cervix during an annual exam, he says, which is a known risk factor.
Fakhry says using a barrier during oral sex, like a dental dam, may help lower the risk. Smoking may also increase the risk of getting an infection, as well as increase the odds than an infection will turn into cancer, she says.
While oral cancer from HPV is scary, it’s almost always treatable. Says Miles: “It’s highly curable in most cases.”