Rocker’s death is a reminder: do self-checks for potential oral cancer

We were saddened by the death on Oct. 6 of Eddie Van Halen, the main songwriter and lead guitarist for the rock band Van Halen. He founded the band with his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, in 1972. It went on to become one of the most successful rock bands of all time and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Eddie Van Halen was an innovative virtuoso guitarist and songwriter. (Photo by Alan Light; licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Eddie died at the age of 65 after battling throat cancer. That led to our conversation with DMU alumnus Richard Pitts, D.O.’73, Ph.D., whose distinguished career included practicing emergency medicine and preventive medicine. He is board-certified in both specialties.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, close to 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer every year. Of those 53,000 newly diagnosed individuals, only slightly more than half will be alive in five years. The death rate for oral cancer is higher than that for cancers such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer and many others.

“I have treated many patients with this diagnosis,” Dr. Pitts says. “Usually, I saw these patients on either end of the spectrum – diagnosing a new case or admitting a terminal case as a resident physician in training and later as an emergency department physician.

“Nearly 100 percent of these patients were smokers/chewers, drinkers or both,” he adds. “So what can you do to protect yourself? First, the obvious – stop smoking or chewing tobacco. Second, stop using alcohol other than an occasional drink.”

The Oral Cancer Foundation states that oral cancer is particularly dangerous because in its early stages it may not be noticed by the patient, as it can frequently prosper without producing pain or symptoms they might readily recognize, and because it has a high risk of producing second, primary tumors. This means that patients who survive a first encounter with the disease have up to a 20 times higher risk of developing a second cancer.

Dr. Pitts emphasizes the importance of performing regular, careful cancer and pre-cancer exams on yourself.

“It is really simple. Once a month carefully look inside your mouth, cheeks and under your tongue and the back and sides of your tongue,” he says. “Look for a pre-cancerous white discoloration. Look for any growths or bleeding areas. Be sure to lift your tongue way up. Take a clean finger and sweep the floor of your mouth to search for any hard areas besides your jaw or any hard lumps. Take a piece of gauze and pull your tongue forward and side to side to search for anything that doesn’t look right to you including growths, bleeding, and white patches.”

Dr. Pitts also emphasizes that if you find something, don’t panic and don’t procrastinate; instead, see your doctor as soon as possible.

“Timely evaluation is important but rarely an emergency,” he says. “Make an oral exam part of your normal ‘self’ physical exam. For women, add this exam to your monthly self-breast exams. For men, add an oral exam to your monthly testicular exam, and for men over 45, to your self-breast exam. Remember, approximately 10 percent of breast cancers occur in men.

“Do these exams once a month and then relax after not finding anything of concern,” he adds. “If you find something, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better the outcome.”

Richard Pitts, D.O.’73, Ph.D.

Dr. Pitts is medical director for Outpatient Services – California for Prospect Medical Systems, Orange, CA. Previously, he was the chief medical officer and interim chief executive officer at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center (ARMC), a 450-bed university-affiliated teaching hospital in Colton, CA.

Dr. Pitts is a past associate clinical professor of emergency medicine and an associate clinical professor of medicine, division of occupational medicine, at the University of California-Irvine, where he also was an adviser to the dean of the School of Medicine. He held the position of assistant area medical director at Kaiser Permanente Orange County (KPOC) for 12 years, where he specialized administratively in difficult change management projects and building teams. His many honors include being named the DMU College of Osteopathic Medicine Alumnus of the Year in 2018.

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