10 Famous People Who've Had Head and Neck Cancer

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Who gets head and neck cancer? It can affect almost anyone; but if you’re a smoker or heavy drinker, or you’ve had human papillomavirus (HPV), you may be at increased risk. Celebrities, too, get head and neck cancer, and one study suggested that learning about famous people who have had these cancers can help raise awareness of the disease. Read on to learn about famous figures who have dealt with throat cancer, mouth cancer, and other head and neck cancers.

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Michael Douglas

Actor and producer Michael Douglas first noticed an unrelenting sore throat in 2010. His doctors later found a tumor at the base of his tongue — it was stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma. When he first went public about his cancer, he made headlines for stating that the type of HPV-related cancer he had was likely the result of cunnilingus. He is now in remission and works with the Oral Cancer Foundation to raise awareness for HPV-related oral cancers that are on the rise.

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Diane Von Furstenberg

Belgian-American designer and wrap dress inventor Diane Von Furstenberg revealed in her memoir that she had been diagnosed with tongue cancer in 1994, when she was 47 years old. The first noticeable sign was a weird noise in her left ear. Her doctors later removed what they thought was a benign cyst and found it was actually squamous cell carcinoma that had spread. Fortunately, treatment was successful. She wrote in her memoir, “I became much more health-conscious after my bout with cancer.”

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Burl Ives

Burl Ives, a hugely popular American singer and actor in the mid-20th century, was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1994. He was known to be a pipe and cigar smoker; tobacco use is one of the major risk factors for oral cancers. Ives passed away in 1995, after several unsuccessful surgeries to try to treat the cancer.

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Roger Ebert

American film critic Roger Ebert lived with a rare type of head and neck cancer called salivary gland cancer, along with thyroid cancer, for years before his passing in 2013. Radiation treatment and surgery to remove part of his lower jaw left him with many complications, and he ended up needing a feeding tube and a computerized voice system to communicate with others.

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Aldous Huxley

English writer Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box) in 1960. He passed away of the disease nine years later at the age of 69. According to a letter Huxley’s wife later wrote about his passing, he wrote her a note (because the cancer left him unable to speak well) as his final wish requesting she give him LSD. He passed shortly after she gave him the second dose.

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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, often called the father of psychoanalysis, smoked up to 20 cigars a day — and, it bears repeating, tobacco use is the biggest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Unfortunately, Freud didn’t heed doctor’s warnings to quit smoking, even after he developed a cancerous growth on his mouth in 1923. Throughout his life, Freud underwent many surgeries for what was diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma of the palate.


Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union armies during the Civil War and the 18th president of the United States, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884, according to a historical review in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. The first warning sign for Grant was a sore throat. He struggled with the disease for a year, until his passing at age 63. Grant was known to be a heavy smoker and drinker — both major risk factors for throat cancer.

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Grover Cleveland

Grant wasn’t the only U.S. president to deal with a form of head and neck cancer. Grover Cleveland, who was both the 22nd and 24th U.S. president, grew concerned about an ulcer on the roof of his mouth in 1893, according to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine review. He underwent surgery (in secret, as he was in office at the time and didn’t want to spark panic), and a tumor was removed. However, there was much debate during his lifetime about whether the tumor was indeed cancer; it was finally confirmed to be a verrucous carcinoma many years after his passing.

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Sammy Davis Jr.

American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989, after noticing symptoms such as an inability to taste food and a tickle in his throat. Davis was also known to be a heavy smoker. He underwent many treatments, including having his larynx removed. He passed away due to related complications in 1990 at age 64.

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George Harrison

The Beatles’ lead guitarist, George Harrison, who also wrote and sang classic songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997. He underwent radiation treatment, which appeared successful; later, however, he was also diagnosed with lung cancer. He blamed his past smoking habit for the cancers. He underwent more treatments, but ultimately, Harrison passed in 2001 at the age of 58 after the cancer had spread to his brain.