Charlie Watts: ‘You get cancer and waste away and die’ – star’s health battle before death

Charlie Watts: The Rolling Stones drummer dies aged 80

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Once labelled as the “greatest drummer of his generation” due to his skills as a musician, Watts’ death was confirmed by his publicist on August 24 in a statement that revealed he had passed away peacefully in a London hospital, surrounded by his family. Although the exact cause of the star’s death was never revealed, shortly before his passing Watts was forced to pull out of the band’s US tour after undergoing emergency surgery. Again the medical procedure was unspecified but it left the rock star needing to take some time to fully recover. In the aftermath of the star’s death there was an increase in searches regarding symptoms of throat cancer, which the star battled back in 2004.

In a throwback interview Watts recalled the moments after his diagnosis he shared: “It was benign, but [the doctor] said we should take it out. On the slide, it had tiny cancer cells on it.

“He said, ‘You have cancer of the whatever.’ And that night I thought I was going to die. I thought that’s what you did.

“You get cancer and waste away and die.”

After being diagnosed the star had two surgeries, the second in order to take cancer-affected lymph nodes out.

He continued to say: “When they [take out the lymph nodes], the muscles go,” he said in 2005, a year after beating cancer.

“Then you sit around for eight weeks in treatment. You can’t lift your arm. It’s like being paralysed. It was a worry, because of what I do for a living.

“We’ve got a tour, and I didn’t know if I could get through a song. You can’t stop once you get going, if you’re a drummer… I didn’t know if I could make it… but it’s amazing how quickly your body heals.”

From feeling on the brink of death to going into remission a year after having surgery and subsequent chemotherapy, it cannot be said that throat cancer was the cause of Watts death.

However, for many diagnosed with throat cancer this is not the case. Cancer Research UK explains that there are several different parts of the throat that can become cancerous so throat cancer is an umbrella term for cancer of the general area.

Throat cancers could be in one of two main areas that doctors call the:

  • Pharynx – a passage that makes sure food and drink go in one direction (down the food pipe) and air goes in the other (up and down the windpipe).

  • Head and neck – cancers that start in the head and neck area (for example, the tongue, the nose, voice box or thyroid gland).

The leading UK-based charity explains that symptoms of throat cancer are often similar to other much less serious conditions, sometimes making it difficult for cancer to be caught in its early stages.

For example, common symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • Ear pain
  • A sore throat
  • A lump in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Change in your voice or speech
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of something stuck in the throat.

Due to these symptoms also being connected to other more common illnesses such as throat infections or a common cold, individuals are urged by the NHS to seek their GP’s opinion if they notice any new signs and symptoms that are persistent.

Although it is not clear why throat cell mutations happen in the first place, certain lifestyle factors have been identified to increase an individual’s risk of throat cancer.

These include the following:

  • Tobacco use, including smoking and chewing tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Viral infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus
  • A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Exposure to toxic substances at work.

Many people remain unaware that HPV can cause cancer or assume that it can only cause cervical cancer, but in reality it can cause a handful of cancers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recent studies have indicated that as many as 60-70 percent of throat cancers may be linked to HPV – or caused by a combination of HPV, alcohol and tobacco.

Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, also commented in the past about this “difficult disease”.

She said: “There are no screening guidelines to screen for throat cancer. There are no standard tests to determine if you harbour the virus.”

Once diagnosed, throat cancer is typically treated with a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted cancer medicines. If diagnosed early enough, radiotherapy or surgery can be used to remove all cancerous cells and cure the condition completely.

For individuals whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes a procedure known as neck dissection is used. For larger tumours surgery to remove whole parts of the throat may be needed. For example it may be necessary to remove an individual’s entire voice box. During this surgery the windpipe is then attached to a hole (stoma) in the throat to allow the person to breathe (tracheotomy).

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