Beastie Boys singer's death puts spotlight on rare cancer

Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, died Friday after a long battle with salivary gland cancer, according to multiple reports.  He was 47 years old.

Yauch announced in 2009 that he had been diagnosed and was being treated for cancer of the parotid glands and lymph nodes.  There are three major pairs of salivary glands – sublingual, submandibular and parotid, the biggest of the glands.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, salivary gland cancer is very rare, only affecting two out of 100,000 adults each year in the U.S.

“Most of the salivary gland tumors that people get are benign tumors, but rarely they can become malignant,” Dr. Eric Genden, the chief of head and neck surgery at Mount Sanai Hospital in New York City, told  “And [Yauch] is a particularly rare case because this guy was so young.”

While the causes of this kind of cancer remain unknown, suspected risk factors include old age, receiving radiation therapy to the head or neck and being exposed to certain substances in the work place.

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But none of these factors help to explain Yauch’s diagnosis.

“Usually, if you’ve been treated with radiation for another disease, that can be a factor,” said Genden.  “But he was never treated with radiation for anything else, to my knowledge.  The other potential cause is environmental exposure, but that’s typically for wood workers or people who work with nickel – which also doesn’t apply to him.”

According to Genden, the development of malignant salivary gland cancer is more a result of bad genes than bad habit.

“Salivary gland cancer usually occurs as a result of a sporadic genetic defect,” said Genden.  “So in other words, something in the genes goes wrong and the cancer develops.”

The most common treatment for salivary gland cancer is surgery, sometimes followed by radiation treatments to stop the cancer from spreading.  Yauch underwent both the surgery and radiation therapy after his diagnosis in 2009.

However, radiation has many negative side effects, especially for musicians, because the treatments severely affect saliva production and speech.  Yauch’s illness caused the Beastie Boys to delay their most recent album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two and kept the group from touring.  The singer was also absent for the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple weeks ago.

Yauch’s cancer had also spread to his lymph nodes, which, according to Genden, diminishes the chances for survival by 50 percent in most cases.

Genden said that while Yauch’s case is tragic, it is still very uncommon.  However, he hopes for people to be aware of potential symptoms of salivary gland cancer, which include trouble swallowing, pain or numbness in the face, and most notably, a large lump in the neck.

“It’s not that it’s preventable, but this is the kind of thing that with careful screening and good examinations, you should be fine. The sooner you seek medical attention, the better chance for survival.”