Stanley Tucci Almost Missed This Early Sign of Cancer
It took doctors years to correctly diagnose—and treat—his condition.
Beloved actor Stanley Tucci endured a nagging—and painful—symptom for years before doctors correctly diagnosed it as tongue cancer in 2017. Weeks of radiation and chemotherapy followed, and he was eventually pronounced cancer-free. But his experience being initially misdiagnosed was, unfortunately, far from rare: The BMJ Quality and Safety journal estimates that 28 percent of cancers are misdiagnosed.
Tongue cancer is more common among adults over 40, and Tucci—who lost his first wife, Kate, to breast cancer in 2009—was three years away from his 60th birthday when he was finally diagnosed. Read on to find out what specific ailment Tucci's doctors failed to recognized as cancer—and what got him through the harrowing treatment.
Tucci says it was "a miracle" his cancer didn't spread.
Known for his myriad achievements as an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter, Tucci is also the author of a memoir and two cookbooks. In 2020, he went viral when he posted a video to Instagram, showing how he expertly whips up the perfect cocktail for his wife, Felicity Blunt (the older sister of actress Emily Blunt).
In 2021, however, he revealed he'd been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier, after living with intense pain in his jaw for years.
"The pain was… in my jaw, at the back of my jaw, so they thought it was a tooth," Tucci told NPR's Fresh Air. "They thought it was trigeminal neuralgia. They thought it was a million different things, except for what it was, which was cancer. And so I was misdiagnosed for two years," he told guest host Dave Davies.
"I did acupuncture. I tried a whole bunch of different things, and nothing worked," he continued. "And finally, the tumor became so large that it was quite visible to this one doctor who happened to be a salivary-gland guy. … I was horrified. I was terrified."
Tucci, it turned out, had a three-centimeter tumor on his tongue: "They couldn't do surgery because the tumor was so big. It's a miracle that it didn't metastasize," he explained. "It had been in me so long."
Tucci kept his illness a secret for three years.
Tucci kept his illness a secret from the public while he went through treatment: "[The doctors] had to do high-dose radiation and chemo," he said. "I'd vowed I'd never do anything like that," he told Vera magazine. "Because my first wife died of cancer, and to watch her go through those treatments for years was horrible."
Tucci did, however, go through with the treatment—and it was harrowing. He lost the ability to taste and smell, and was forced to eat through a feeding tube because of ulcers in his mouth. "I was basically bedridden," he told Fresh Air. "I couldn't even drink water because it burned my mouth so much."
Tucci eventually recovered his senses (even calling them "heightened") and is now cancer-free.
Certain people may be at higher risk for tongue cancer.
Having one or more risk factors for tongue cancer does not necessarily mean that a person will be afflicted with the disease, The American Cancer Society emphasizes. And further, people who get the disease may not have had any risk factors. However, there are certain things that can increase your risk.
"Tobacco use is one of the strongest risk factors for head and neck cancers, including oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer," they explain.
Other things that can up your chances of getting oral cancer include drinking alcohol (and particularly the combined use of alcohol and tobacco), human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16, and certain genetic syndromes, as well as age (older adults are more likely to have head and neck cancers) and gender (these cancers are "twice as common in men than in women").
Cancers like Tucci's can be difficult to diagnose.
Tucci's cancer was eventually discovered after he sought treatment for extreme jaw pain, but there are other symptoms of tongue cancer, some of which depend upon its location. The tongue consists of two parts, the experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center explain. The oral part is visible when the tongue sticks out of the mouth, and the back third part of the tongue is known as the base of the tongue.
The Mayo Clinic says tumors located in the base of the tongue, like Tucci's, "may develop with few signs and symptoms and is "usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the tumor is larger and the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes in the neck." Oral tongue cancer may have more obvious symptoms and is therefore more frequently diagnosed earlier, their experts say.
Besides jaw pain, other symptoms of tongue cancer may include pain, numbness, a persistent sore throat, and unexplained bleeding.
Tucci credits his wife with helping him through his ordeal.
Tucci says his wife's support was invaluable during his diagnosis and treatment. "Felicity's undying attention, affection, and encouragement got me through it," he told People magazine in 2021.
As for what he learned from the experience, he says, "[Cancer] makes you more afraid and less afraid at the same time. I feel much older than I did before I was sick. But you still want to get ahead and get things done."