By Jeb Wright
Rikki Rockett will, it appears, be reuniting with the band Poison for a major tour with Def Leppard in 2017… at least that’s what Poison singer Bret Michaels says. It looks promising!
A reunion tour -or even a side gig- was something that Rockett was not concerned about just a few short months ago as he battled tongue cancer. Now, thanks to a treatment called ‘immunotherapy’, Rockett, at the present time, is cancer free. He will continue with his clinical trial, however.
In the interview that follows, Rockett opens up about his type of cancer, which can be spread sexually, and the rough rode he has taken to recovery. He is more than willing to help spread the word about his treatment and help others facing the same fate.
This is an uplifting interview with the real man behind the rock star image.
Jeb: What’s up rock star?
Rikki: Hey Jeb. Not a lot. I just got off the phone with my attorney. That is not very rock-star like.
Jeb: Oh no… I hate having to interview someone right after they talk to their lawyer. I’m going to have to be on my game!
Rikki: That’s right. I’ve been preparing myself for this all day—just kidding [laughter].
Jeb: I grew up with Poison. I saw the press release about the cancer being in remission. Congratulations.
Rikki: Thank you so much.
Jeb: My dad had tongue cancer, but unlike you he had to have major surgery and it was pretty rough there for a while. He survived! So that is great. I am glad to hear so far your news is better.
Rikki: How long has it been?
Jeb: Three years. His attitude is great. He has really impressed me with how he faced this adversity and how he has moved ahead in his life and overcame it. I have mega respect for him. He is much tougher than I ever imagined. Back to you, I was worried last year when I heard what you were going through. Rumor was you were at death’s door.
Rikki: I know what he went through as I studied it. It was getting weird there for a while. I thought I was out of it, and I thought I was good… and then it turned out that it wasn’t gone. My doctors were like, “We don’t see any red flags and everything looks good.” We did a scan and it wasn’t okay. It was still on the primary and it was on the top part of the tongue now. It was on both sides of the lymph nodes. It sucked, dude. The standard care is to do chemo and get it as small as they can and then do surgery. Sometimes they can’t do that. Sometimes they have to just go in and do surgery and they can’t fuck around and they’ve got to get it done. That was my case at that point. To do the chemo would beat me up so much. I’d done radiation, so I couldn’t do more. I got a second chance… I really, really did.
Jeb: At this point everything looks perfect?
Rikki: The scan showed nothing. We did a circulating scan which shows if there is any cancer circulating in your body and the number was zero.
Jeb: Both of my parents are cancer survivors. I love to hear of people beating this disease.
Rikki: The interesting thing is that immunotherapy, it is not completely new, but it is new in the western medicine world, as far as ‘standard of care’ sort of treatment. They never did it as a standard of care. Mine is still a clinical trial. I am still on the clinical trial and I will be on it for quite a while.
Jeb: What is it?
Rikki: Immunotherapy, in my case, is two things. It is an intravenous drip for thirty minutes every three weeks. It is kind of like getting chemo but I have virtually no side effects. The side effects are so minimal… I’ve had diarrhea a couple of times and that is it. It makes me tired, but my body was fighting cancer anyway so I was already tired. I also take two pills a day. That’s it. I don’t have to do anything else. What it does is it gets the bodies immune systems to drop its defenses. The cells in your body look the same as the cancer cells so your body does not see it as an invader. This drug turns the body’s defenses on against that so it understands to go after the cancer. That is what it does.
Jeb: It makes the body recognize there is something wrong.
Rikki: Exactly. It doesn’t work for everybody. They are figuring it out more and more every day. What I’m on is what Jimmy Carter was on. The difference is that I’m on a second agent that we think helps turn it on even faster and makes it recognize it faster. This drug was initially for blood type cancers. This particular one… mine is for solid tumors. They were having trouble to get it to recognize tumors at first but they are starting to get it to do it now. I had a one hundred percent recognition. I don’t know how many people with head and neck cancer that get on this have a complete remission. I will hear about those numbers soon. At this point, I’m just happy that I’m one of the, you know.
Jeb: How does what you’ve been through change you?
Rikki: A lot of things have changed with me. Of course, I want to help people. I’m not a particularly religious guy. You start thinking about all sorts of things when you get cancer. I really did sort of reach out and my prayers really did get answered.
The minute I was cleared by the doctor of this cancer I literally walked down the hallway to get another infusion—they do the scans on your infusion day. I walked down the hall and a guy came up to me and said, “We heard about your story. My brother and I just drove here from Maryland and we want to try it. We are meeting with the doctor. Can you say hello to my brother as he is so scared.” I said, “Absolutely.” It was almost as if God said, “You’re free of cancer so now it is time to get to work. Go help someone.” I went over and met him and I gave that guy my cell phone number. I’m going to do my best to try to see him through this. He’s scared to death. I was right there on March 1st. I was freaked out of my mind. I hope so much for this guy. I’m going to follow his case.
Jeb: Does helping others appeal to you?
Rikki: Absolutely, I will help people. People are scared. In a more broad way I want to get the word for immunotherapy out there. I honestly think it is the way to go. For instance, maybe if your dad had done immunotherapy right from the beginning he might not have lost his tongue or had any surgery. It is the same with me.
I’m going to have radiation problems probably for life. It is tough to swallow and I have to watch what kind of foods I eat. I can eat everything, but sometime my body goes, ‘Whoa… hold on.’ I just keep on keeping on. I had three slices of pizza the other day. Three months ago I couldn’t have even considered that. I could not have even had a nibble of it. My salivary glands don’t work very well. The muscles don’t quite work the way they did. I am working those up. There is a divot on my tongue right where the tumor used to be. There is a big gap there. It is going to take some time for that tissue to fill back in. Food gets caught in there and I cough and it is a thing. But I am alive and I don’t need a feeding tube. I am here to tell about it and talk about it. I can sing—well I never was a good singer. But I can pretend that I’m singing. I just thank God that I am here and absolutely want to help.
Jeb: I can hear the gratitude in your voice.
Rikki: Shit, yeah.
Jeb: You said you thought your cancer can be spread by people?
Rikki: Mine is from the HPV virus. They can tell what kind it is by dissecting the tumor. When they did my biopsy they dissected the tumor and they found out it was HPV positive. When someone is HPV positive and they have had head or neck cancer it is actually a better outcome most of the time. It is better than someone who smokes or someone like that. It is kind of a good diagnosis some of the time. It seems the immunotherapy does not seem to matter if you’re HPV positive or not. At least from the material I’ve read that is what I believe. In general it seems to respond better.
I think there is something called PD- Pathway which enables this drug to work so well. It is working sometimes in spite of it. This gets into medical science which is the point it gets too deep for me. I am doing my best to learn about it and I am going to go down to the center and take a tour. There are some new things they are doing there that are just incredible. Since not everyone responds because their body is so beat up from other treatments they have this new type of T cell injection. They take your T Cells out and they figure out how to get those T cells to attack your cancer. They multiply those T cells and put them back in your body and let them get to work on the cancer. It seems to be working.
The good thing about immunotherapy is that it is durable. It seems to last. They have people ten years out doing well. Five years is considered a cure so ten years… They don’t want to use the word cured but you’re cured at that point. With head and neck it is pretty much three years that they look at. They keep an eye on you for five. How long for your dad?
Jeb: He’s been clean for over three years.
Rikki: He’s probably good.
Jeb: Did you know anything about cancer before this or was it out of the blue?
Rikki: It was totally out of the blue for me. My life changed drastically. My mom had breast cancer but it was encapsulated. There was no other cancer history in my family on either side, so I never really worried about it. When I got this… I went in because I had a sore throat and lymph node popping out. I couldn’t seem to get rid of this cold. I had a cold for a month. I was used to getting sinus infections that would last a month. The doctor said he wanted to scope me and make sure there was not a secondary infection going on down there. When he scoped me that’s when he saw the tumor. My day went from going to the doctor and walking out of there with some antibiotics to getting out of there with a prescription to go get a biopsy. That day my life changed.
Jeb: What’s up with music?
Rikki: I want to play and I would love to tour. Hopefully that will happen. I’ve stopped telling anybody that Poison is going to tour because every time we say we will something comes along and screws it up. I would like to do that. I’m good enough to do it. I’m fine. I am absolutely fine.
I train Jujitsu two hours a day. I am good to go. I have strength. Am I as strong as I was? Is my timing as good as it was? Not yet, but I am getting there and I will get there soon. Playing a show would be a walk in the park compared to what I do on the mats.
Jeb: What about Devil City Angels?
Rikki: It really sucked that I had to just let that go when I got cancer. The record was starting to do well and things were happening. I’m really proud of that record. It is what it is. What was I going to do? Everybody else has found their little niche? Brandon and I still work together. We are happy with everything, but I couldn’t hold those guys down. What was I going to do? Tell them, “Hey I’ve got to go beat cancer. You guys wait for me.” I couldn’t do that.
Jeb: Is that just over?
Rikki: We are just inactive at the moment. Traci Gunns has some things going on right now. There is nothing saying we couldn’t put something together one day and go do some shows.
Jeb: We need happy good time rock music in this world. And that is the kind of music you played.
Rikki: It is a good record. We did not overthink those songs. We just shot from the hip on that record and it came out the way we wanted it to. You always go back and think you wish you would have done this or that, but generally speaking I really like that record a lot. It rocked hard in some spots and in other spots it was very melodic. It doesn’t really sound like LA Guns, or Cinderella or Poison. It sounds like almost soulful bluesy ‘70s rock. Do you know what I mean? We were not trying to rehash the ‘80s stuff and smash it all together. We didn’t want to just do a bunch of cover songs. We wanted to be a band and we went for it. A super group isn’t a super group unless you write songs together. You are just a cover band if you play other songs. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but there is a difference.
Jeb: You are doing something in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a bunch of ‘80s bands.
Rikki: Brandon [Gibbs] and I slated to do an acoustic thing. I have to find out what’s going on with that. I had not even stuck my head in to see what is up with that, honestly. I will most likely do that gig. I love going there, to be honest. Oklahoma fucking rocks. They are ‘dyed in the wool’ rock people. You can’t shake it out of them. No way at all. They are in it to win it. Playing in Oklahoma I love. The girls are beautiful girls there. It is all good.
Jeb: All there was to do growing up was chase girls, party and rock.
Rikki: [laugher] that’s right. You figured it out.
Jeb: Any last words of wisdom you want to share on what you’ve been through?
Rikki: Most of the time, by the time you find out about cancer it has already spread to a lymph node. If you have a swollen lymph node or you have a sore throat and a swollen lymph node make sure you go in and get checked out. Do it.
Anybody that is a little bit out there having sex or even making out a lot or anything like that… it is all over the place. Girls are getting this in their cervix. Guys are getting it in their throat. We’ve got to stop it. There is a vaccine for young girls and I think some teenage boys can get it now and I think they should. You can’t get it checked if you’re male. There is a way for woman as they can get a pap smear.
There is something like 48 strains of HPV. I think it is number 16 and 18 that can cause cancer. If I am wrong on the numbers someone in the medical community can correct me. It is invisible. You don’t see the wart. You can have a wart and get rid of it and be fine but that is not the kind that can cause cancer. All warts are HPV, actually. You can see how highly that spreads and how rapidly.
It is one of those things where you can’t say, “Hey you got that from some dirty chick.” You can get it from a clean chick. I have a friend who had been married for 14 years and they never cheated on each other at all. Could they be lying? Well, I suppose, but knowing them… no I don’t believe that. Typically it takes like ten years to manifest. That is why people in their forties and fifties are getting it because they were screwing around at twenty and thirty and now they are getting it. That is pretty much the mean age, right there.
Jeb: I had no idea.
Rikki: You don’t want this to get bigger. The smaller it is the better off you are. There are immunotherapy trials. It is not the standard of care. If you get this they are going to do chemo and radiation at your local hospital… that is what they’re going to do. You have to really seek out immunotherapy or you won’t get it. I am here and I am living proof that it works.
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