Bruce Dickinson, frontman for the legendary British metal band Iron Maiden, is in the news this week, not just for Maiden’s newly released 16th album, The Book of Souls, but for his battle with head and neck cancer – and the fact he says he may have caught the disease via the sexually transmitted virus HPV.
“I think that when I discovered the hard lump, I sort of knew what I might be up against,” Dickinson tells Yahoo Music. “But the reality of it is there’s an epidemic of this stuff in men over 40 who never smoked and are reasonably healthy. Every now and again I see that somebody else has got tongue cancer or tonsil cancer or, effectively, the same thing I had. And most of it is Human Papillomavirus-related. It’s something guys need to know about. If you’re over 40 and you get a lump in the side of your neck, go and see the doctor. Get it checked out. Keep in mind that 80 percent of the population will have been exposed to HPV some time in their life, and they get rid of it. But it can persist in a certain portion of the people and nobody knows why. And that’s when the virus can do its nasty stuff.”
When Dickinson felt that rock-solid lump in his neck, he knew that swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of cancer, so of course he was alarmed. But since he didn’t feel sick or especially fatigued, he convinced himself that the bump was probably a benign cyst or, at worst, an indication of a minor infection for which he might need to take antibiotics. So he shrugged off his fear and made a mental note that he should see a doctor after the band finished The Book of Souls.
“I self-diagnosed when I first felt the lump and I was spot-on, but then I chose to ignore it so I didn’t have to interrupt making the album,” Dickinson says the week of The Book of Souls’ release. “As soon as we were done, I saw the doctor and right away I was on the slab getting a CAT scan, an MRI, and biopsies. And a week later, I was in front of the oncologist who said, ‘Here’s your treatment plan. You start getting chemotherapy on Jan. 5, and the same day you start radiation for 33 sessions.’”
Dickinson was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, a condition that affects more than 50,000 people in the U.S. every year and accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the country, according to the National Cancer Institute. Even though six weeks passed between the time Dickinson first noticed the lump in his neck and the moment he became a cancer patient, doctors caught the disease at an early stage and were able to effectively remove a golf-ball-sized tumor from Dickinson’s tongue, and the aforementioned walnut-sized growth in his neck, before the cancer spread throughout his body.
“I have no idea how long the tumor on my tongue had been there,” Dickinson says. “Clearly, it was there when I was singing on The Book of Souls and I was singing just fine. I do have a big lump that’s obviously missing that was previously present, so I think one or two of the muscles in my throat are a little bit confused as to where it has gone.”
Dickinson says enduring a regimen of chemotherapy “wasn’t great” but that he “tolerated it,” and adds “the radiation was quite unpleasant for the last three or four weeks.” Despite the discomfort, Dickinson’s recovery has been remarkable, and at his last checkup doctors said all signs of the cancer were gone. Dickinson’s doctor will continue to monitor his health on a monthly basis. “All in all, I did quite well,” he says. “A lot of guys lose the ability to swallow and they have to be fed by a tube inserted in their stomach. I was determined that was not going to happen. It was an interesting and very illuminating experience – not one I would wish to repeat.”
While he was being treated, Dickinson was concerned the procedures to his neck and tongue might impair his ability to sing. Even when surgery is successful, any incisions made in the mouth or neck can have drastic effects on a performer’s vocals.
“That was an outcome which I was prepared for, although not one which I desired,” he says. “But if it was a choice between, ‘Yeah, we’ve gotten rid of the cancer, but you can’t sing’ or ‘Sorry, mate, there’s nothing we can do,’ I’d have to take the former as an acceptable alternative. I take the ‘I choose life’ position.”