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Roger Ebert and Thyroid Cancer

Roger Ebert was the Chicago Sun-Times film critic who joined the Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel, in hosting a nationally-acclaimed show on PBS television. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for reviewing movies and the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He published more than 20 books and his reviews were syndicated in more than 200 newspapers.

In 2002 at age 60, he had a thyroid cancer surgically removed.  Thyroid cancers have  better than a 90 percent cure rate, but Ebert's recurred along with recurrence of a salivary gland cancer that had been removed in 1987.    He had a high risk for these cancers because he had received radiation to treat uncomplicated ear infections when he was a child. Today no doctor would ever think of treating ear infections with radiation.  The cancers eventually killed him in 2013.

Early Life
Ebert was born in Urbana, IL in 1942.  As a senior at Urbana High School, he was class president and editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper.  He won the Illinois High School Association state speech championship in "radio speaking. "  He went to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a sports reporter for The News-Gazette in Champaign, a reporter and editor for his college newspaper, the Daily Illini, and was president of the U.S. Student Press Association.  In October 1961, he wrote his first movie review.  

Siskel and Ebert
In 1966, he was hired as a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Sun-Times and ended up writing about the movies.  He also wrote books and screen plays and was a guest lecturer on films at the University of Chicago.  In 1978, he and Gene Siskel, the movie critic at the rival Chicago Tribune, became co-hosts on national Public Television.  They had the most powerful thumbs since the days when the Roman spectators in the coliseum decided whether a gladiator lived or died just by pointing their thumbs up or down: "Thumbs up" for a good movie, "thumbs down" for a bad one, and "two thumbs up" for a real winner.   When Roger Ebert pointed his big thumb down, movie producers died.

In 1982, they syndicated their own program and in 1986, they worked for Disney companies.  In 1999, Gene Siskel died at age 53 from a brain tumor.  When Roger Ebert died 14 years later, he still had pictures of Siskel all over his brownstone with a huge picture facing his easy chair.  Most of the pictures show both of them with two thumbs up.  In 2000, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper joined Ebert on the television show. 

Personal Life
Ebert was an alcoholic.  Soon after starting the Siskel and Ebert television show, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and gave up alcohol.   He was very personable and had many close lifetime friends. He dated Oprah Winfrey and remained friends with her throughout his lifetime.  In 1992, at age 50, Ebert married trial attorney Charlie "Chaz" Hammelsmith and it was a truly loving and supporting marriage. She remained at his side through the years that he suffered from the ravages of metastasized thyroid cancer and its multiple treatments. 

The Ravages of Cancer
In 1987 at age 45, he had a salivary gland cancer removed.  Fifteen years later he was diagnosed with papillary cancer of the thyroid and had his thyroid gland and affected lymph nodes removed through two simple incisions.  This cancer has a greater than 90 percent cure rate because you can kill thyroid cells without killing healthy cells. Since any iodine you take in ends up only in the thyroid gland, when poisoned radioactive iodine is given it destroys only the thyroid cells and does not damage surrounding tissues.  He was treated with radioactive iodine and was told that he was probably cured. 

In 2003 at age 61, his salivary gland cancer returned.  This was treated with more radiation.  In 2006, the cancer spread to his jaw, so surgeons had to remove part of his lower jaw.  As he was about to leave the hospital, his carotid artery burst and blood spewed through his mouth.  He was immediately taken back to the operating room.  He had his jaw bone removed and a hole placed in the front of his neck. He was now unable to eat, drink, or talk and could get food only through a tube placed down his nose and into his stomach.   He learned to use a computerized voice system that used his own voice synthesized from the many hours of his recorded shows.  

He had several more surgeries, including an effort to restore his ability to speak, which failed completely.  In 2011 he had an artificial chin created. In December 2012, he was hospitalized for a broken hip which was caused by the thyroid cancer spreading to his hip bone. He had three more failed surgeries to take bone and skin from his back, arm, and legs to reconstruct his jaw.  He fell and broke his hip again. He was unable to sit or climb stairs.  On April 4, 2013, he died at age 70. 

Head and Neck Cancers 
The first signs of cancer in the head or neck are:
• a mass in the mouth
• a sore on the tongue that doesn’t heal
• changes in voice
• a lump in the neck
• hoarseness or difficulty speaking
• swollen lymph nodes
• difficulty swallowing or breathing
• throat or neck pain.

Each year, more than 20,000 thyroid cancers are diagnosed in North America and up to 1500 people will die from it.  It is common in people over 40 with a history of radiation to the thyroid gland. It is highly likely that Ebert's papillary thyroid cancer was caused by radiation treatment of ear infections in his childhood.  In the 1930s and 1940s doctors used radiation to treat acne, and chronic problems in the ears, mouth, tonsils, nose and throat.  Shoe stores had fluoroscopes to check how your shoes fit. Exposure to any form of radiation increases cancer risk. Risk factors for head and neck cancers include:
• smoking
• drinking alcohol
• being infected with HPV viruses
• radiation from being treated for other cancers, from work exposure or any other source
• having a previous squamous skin cancer

My Recommendations
• Try to avoid unnecessary radiation. For example, a CT scan X ray is equal to more than 150 chest X rays.
• Do not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke.  Smoke in any form is a carcinogen. 
• Try to avoid multiple sexual partners as every exposure could mean acquiring HPV, viruses that cause cancers.
• Avoid drinking alcohol. Recent research suggests that any amount of alcohol may increase risk for cancer.
• Avoid excessive sun exposure and apply sun screens before exposing yourself to sunlight.

Roger Joseph Ebert
June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013 

January 31st, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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