Michael Douglas’ Tumor Is Gone: Now What?

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Michael Douglas told Matt Lauer on the Today Show on Jan. 11 that his “tumor is gone” after a six month regimen of chemotherapy and radiation to eliminate throat cancer — in his case, a tumor at the base of his tongue. But does that make him cancer free?

Douglas said he will have to be monitored closely in coming months to ensure that the tumor does not return. In addition to gaining back the 32 pounds he lost during treatment, Douglas said he plans to eat a more organic diet and spend some time relaxing. (More on Time: 5 New Rules for Good Health)

He was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in August 2010, attributing it to years of smoking and drinking.  Although he reported  an 80% chance of recovery at the time, head and neck cancer specialists typically cite about a 60% recovery rate for smoking and alcohol-related throat cancer, and that’s only if it is caught early. However, throat cancer related to a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection — the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States — tends to have recovery odds of around 80% with treatment.

Stage four is the worst diagnosis possible and usually refers to cancer that has spread to other areas — in the case of throat cancer, most often to the lymph nodes. It’s not clear why Douglas’s cancer went unnoticed for so long, and his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, told People magazine soon after the diagnosis that she was “furious” the tumor was not detected earlier.

But an oncologist who specializes in head and neck cancer described Douglas’ tumor as eminently treatable because of its placement at the back of his tongue, and expected continued recovery. Dr. Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, who did not treat Douglas, told ABC:

“Over a few months, he would hope to be eating normal food and after six months or more, we usually see someone who looks like they never had an illness.”

Three months after treatment, the patient is evaluated to see if the disease is gone. There is a small risk of getting a second primary cancer “down the road,” he said.

In the meantime, Douglas is enjoying a phenomenon that many cancer patients and survivors describe: a new found appreciation for family and friends. (More on Time: 5 Ways to Stop Stressing)

“All of a sudden the affection from my family, from my friends, and from my fans hit me at a much deeper level than I would have ever imagined before,” Douglas told Lauer on Today. “And it gave me a really new appreciation of just how valuable, how precious good friends are and family. And I’ve talked to other cancer survivors about this, that – that happens, that you just really, really appreciate what’s important in life.”

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