Can Michael Douglas Beat Throat Cancer?

VIDEO: Ron Claiborne takes a look at the disease the actor is suffering from.
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Throat cancer can be a devastating illness -- hard to diagnose, hard to treat and especially hard on the body, with the possibility of losing the voice and even the ability to eat, but doctors say that actor Michael Douglas seems to have a positive prognosis.

Last night on David Letterman's "Late Show," the actor said his doctors told him he has an 80 percent survival rate from a stage four cancer.

"He is being treated at Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center," the actor's press representative Allen Burry told ABCNews.com. "The tumor is at the base of his tongue and his doctor's prognosis is for a full recovery."

Doctors say that the optimistic prognosis is rare in throat cancer, which, if it is associated with smoking and drinking, as the actor suggested, is usually around 60 percent, but only if caught in earlier stages.

"Mr. Douglas is very curable," said Dr. Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center and a medical oncologist who specializes in head and neck cancer.

The actor said he had just finished his first week of radiation and chemotherapy after doctors had diagnosed stage four cancer, which Douglas called "very intense." The actor said he had been diagnosed three weeks ago with cancer above the neck, although the first symptoms of a sore throat appeared earlier this year.

The Road Ahead for Michael Douglas

"Typically cancers of the tongue we treat with chemotherapy and radiation. The two are given at the same time," according to Cullen, who said the actor would not likely lose his voice.

Douglas will have eight weeks of daily outpatient radiation treatment and a couple of rounds of chemotherapy along with it.

"Together, it has proven to give a good chance for a cure for the disease," said Cullen. "But it is important to know if it is HPV-related, because those are the cancers that respond well to chemotherapy and radiation and have an excellent prognosis. The ones associated with smoking and drinking respond well, but not as well."

Survival rates for smoking and drinking-related throat cancers are around 50 to 60 percent and "the numbers go down from there," according to Cullen.

Those for HPV-related cancers are "higher than 80 percent," he said.

Douglas has said that he has a "walnut-sized" tumor at the base of his tongue.

Treatment Causes Sore Throat and Swallowing Difficulties

Treatment is "manageable," Cullen said. "People get a sore throat and difficulty swallowing and they can also have irritation of the skin and throat from the radiation. But those things get better rapidly after treatment. Over a few months, he would hope to be eating normal food and after six months or more, we usually see someone who looks they never had an illness."

Doctors will determine when Douglas is "out of the woods" after two or three years, according to Cullen.

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.

Still, the doctors we spoke to for this story all said that since they haven't seen the patient, they would need more information to speculate on Douglas's prognosis.

"I actually read about this in the news and it's hard for me to know where his cancer is exactly," said Dr. Nishant Agrawal, an otolaryngologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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