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Photo by: Laurence Faure | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Eddie Van Halen, founder of the rock group Van Halen, died after a years-long battle with cancer. He was 65.

J. Trad Wadsworth, MD, MBA, vice chair and chief surgeon in Moffitt’s Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology Department

J. Trad Wadsworth, MD, MBA, vice chair and chief surgeon in Moffitt’s Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology Department

The legendary guitarist was first diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2000. He had one third of his tongue removed, even though the cancer had already started to spread to the esophagus and throat.

While Van Halen admitted to heavy cigarette, drug and alcohol use, he had another theory behind his cancer. “I used metal picks -- they’re brass and copper -- which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer,” he said in a 2015 interview with Billboard. “Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that’s filled with electromagnetic energy.”

Dr. J. Trad Wadsworth, vice chair and chief surgeon in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology Department says it is highly unlikely that caused his cancer. “There is no good evidence to support this notion.”

It is far more likely Van Halen’s cancer was caused by decades of bad habits. 

“There are some patients who do not smoke or drink that develop oral cancer and we do not know why. However, it is vastly more common that smoking and heavy alcohol use cause this disease in patients with these habits,” said Dr. Caitlin McMullen, a surgeon in Moffitt’s Head and Neck Oncology Program.  

Caitlin McMullen, MD, head and neck surgeon

Caitlin McMullen, MD, head and neck surgeon

Van Halen also battled throat cancer and travelled between the United States and Germany for treatment until his death.

In addition to the tobacco and alcohol, an increasingly recognized cause of throat cancer is the human papillomavirus, or HPV. More than 70% of oropharyngeal cancers—which include cancer of the tonsils, base of the tongue and throat—are related to HPV. It is unclear if Van Halen’s cancer was HPV-related.

“The number one way to reduce your risk of throat or oral cancer is to avoid smoking, chewing tobacco and excessive alcohol use,” said McMullen. “HPV vaccination is very important to reduce the risk of certain types of throat cancer, but unfortunately is not proven to help prevent oral cancers.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely recommend HPV vaccination for boys and girls ages nine to 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the age range to age 45 in 2018.

This summer, the FDA granted accelerated approval of the HPV vaccine for the prevention of certain head and neck cancers. Moffitt’s Center for Immunization and Infection Research in Cancer will be opening a trial to investigate the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine in men ages 20 to 45.