When oral cancer threatened to leave Rikki Rockett speechless, the drummer for POISON found an immunotherapy clinical trial.
In June 2015, Rikki visited his primary care doctor with a sore throat. His doctor found a small tumor at the base of his tongue, and Rikki learned he had human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oral cancer. He endured nine rounds of chemotherapy and 37 sessions of radiation therapy. The tumor initially responded, but returned three months later, spreading to his lymph nodes. Rikki then saw Dr. Ezra Cohen at UCSD Moores Cancer Center, who helped him enroll in a clinical trial of pembrolizumab (Keytruda). Rikki's tumor responded immediately. Just over two months into the trial, a scan revealed that his tumor had shrunk over 90%. Today Rikki is cancer-free, enjoys playing with his band, POISON, caring for his two children, and practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The video below is part of the 7th Annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month in June 2019, hosted by the Cancer Research Institute.
Immunotherapy patient stories are part of the Cancer Research Institute's Answer to Cancer Patient Education Program. Established in 1953, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing our immune system's power to control and potentially cure all cancers. The mission: Save more lives by fueling the discovery and development of powerful immunotherapies for all types of cancer. To accomplish this, Cancer Research Institute relies on donor support and collaborative partnerships to fund and carry out the most innovative clinical and laboratory research around the world, support the next generation of the field's leaders, and serve as the trusted source of information on immunotherapy for cancer patients and their caregivers.
Rockett first revealed that his tongue cancer diagnosis was caused by HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection — in a 2015 interview. He said: "It is the number one leading cause of oral cancer these days. There's less and less of the truck drivers that chew tobacco for thirty years getting it, because people are more aware that that kind of stuff isn't good. So we are getting marathon runners and all these elite athletes with this. I have a friend that's a therapist, and five years ago, it was five percent of the people she treated, and now it's close to ninety percent."
He continued: "It can be spread sexually, but now they're saying that it can spread [through] deep-kissing and actually hand to mouth. I mean, if you see the Olympic swimmers, they swim and they smack their hand on the side of the pool for each lap, and their hands are full of warts and stuff from HPV. Now the wart kind of HPV is not the same as the strain that causes cancer, but it is spread almost identically. For men, you can't tell if you have it. For women, you can get a papsmear. But the doctor estimated probably it was fifteen [or] twenty years ago [when I contracted it], and my body probably got rid of it, but it mutated itself and my body would probably see that again and get rid of it. But there's no way to tell who got it. I mean, I know a couple that's been married for fifteen years and they've never cheated on each other, and they're pointing their finger at each other [after one of them was diagnosed with oral cancer], and it turned into a thing until the doctor sat 'em down and went, 'Look, you can get this so many ways.'"