Kilmer Brings Hope To Cancer Patients On the Big Screen

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Actor Val Kilmer, known for his role in the movie "Top Gun"

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Actor Val Kilmer’s real-life experience with throat cancer carries over into his character’s storyline in the current box office hit “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Kilmer reprises the role of Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, which he played in the original “Top Gun,” released in 1986.

In the new edition, Kilmer appears in a scene with Tom Cruise. The Los Angeles Times calls their brief exchange the movie’s “most powerful moment.”

And Sameep Kadakia, MD, director of Premier Health’s Comprehensive Head and Neck Cancer and Reconstruction Program, tells Premier Health Now that Kilmer, returning to the big screen with his voice impaired by cancer, makes a powerful statement for cancer patients and their families.

“Anytime a patient is afflicted with head and neck cancer, throat cancer in this case, it can cause a number of impediments in your quality of life and even your functionality. But I think when you see people like Val Kilmer getting back to his career and his passion, it can give hope,” Dr. Kadakia says.

“Maybe you’re not going to get back everything you lost because of your cancer, but you can get back many of the aspects of your quality of life.”

Throat Cancer Treatment

Since the original “Top Gun,” he adds, head and neck cancer treatment “has made such progress, very nicely, with a true focus on restoring quality of life, not just quantity of life.”

Dr. Kadakia explains that “throat cancer,” the term used in news reports to describe Kilmer’s disease, covers a wide range of cancers affecting various parts of the mouth and throat. For instance, the tongue, the larynx (voice box), and the pharynx (the back of the mouth where food passes into the esophagus).

Medical and surgical subspecialists partner in treating throat cancer patients, depending on their needs.

“Speech and swallow therapists have become a crucial part of the team,” Dr. Kadakia adds. They often teach patients voicing techniques, following surgery, to help them improve voice quality.

Some patients lose their voice to radiation treatment or having their voice box removed. In his treatment, Kilmer underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and tracheostomy surgery. He’s now reported cancer-free.

A variety of technologies are available to help patients communicate if they lose their voice. “It’s not a case where every patient may have a fantastic voice outcome, because of the kind of cancer and the kind of treatment that’s been performed,” Dr. Kadakia explains.

In his scene, Kilmer uses a device to type out his conversation with Cruise’s character, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. He also delivers an audible line using artificial intelligence-based technology that cloned his voice, based on recordings before his cancer treatment.

Surgeons can implant prosthetic devices that allow patients to speak. “Maybe not the same kind of voice they were able to generate prior to having treatment, but they’re able to make sounds that are translated into voice,” Dr. Kadakia says. “A lot of the calibration and the teaching in terms of how to optimally use the device is done by the speech therapist.”

Another option, he adds, is an electrolarynx, a handheld device that picks up vibrations, decoding them into an electronic voice. Some patients, he says, elect to use electronic writing and drawing tablets to communicate if they are not comfortable using new voicing methodology or prefer to use a non-vocal communication style.

Risk Factors And Symptoms Of Throat Cancers

Not everyone who gets head and neck cancers smokes or drinks alcohol. But these activities are the leading contributing risk factors, Dr. Kadakia says. Coming in third, he adds, is “the synergistic effect” of using tobacco and alcohol in combination.

HPV, the same virus associated with cervical cancer, is another leading risk factor, particularly in cancers in the oral pharynx, “the back of the mouth,” he says.

“The rates of HPV cancers are increasing, while the rates of smoking- and alcohol-related cancers are decreasing, in regard to that particular area (the back of the mouth).”

Dr. Kadakia talks about the risk factors, symptoms, and diagnosis of head and neck cancers.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

In addition to quitting tobacco and limiting alcohol use, getting regular checkups with your doctor and dentist can reduce your risk of head and neck cancers. “Many times, dentists will catch growths in the mouth and the back of the mouth,” Dr. Kadakia says.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers can include:

  • Mouth or throat pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Voice changes or hoarseness that worsens and lingers
  • Persistent cough
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fever
  • Lumps or swelling on the neck
  • An ulcer or irritation in the mouth that does not heal

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