Drumming Back Oral Cancer: Rikki Rockett's Immunotherapy Story
Rikki Rockett's Oral Cancer Journey
In 2015, Rikki Rockett, best known as the drummer for Poison, was diagnosed with oral cancer.
Irritated by a persistent sore throat, Rikki visited an ear, nose, and throat clinic and learned he needed a biopsy. Upon further consultation, his medical team discovered a small tumor at the base of his tongue and diagnosed him with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oral squamous cell carcinoma.
After nine rounds of chemotherapy and 37 rounds of radiation therapy, as well aswaiting three agonizing months to hear good news, the cancer spread into his lymph nodes. Rikki faced a difficult decision on what treatment to pursue next when his chance of surviving was less than 10 percent.
“So the options that I was given were chemo—buy me time—, surgery—which would render me speechless, literally—, or this new thing called immunotherapy,” recalled Rikki.
Rikki chose to participate in a clinical trial of the immunotherapy pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health, led by medical oncologist Ezra Cohen, M.D., FRCPSC, FASCO. His tumor responded quickly, and just two months into the trial, he received news that his tumor shrunk over 90 percent. After just eighteen weeks of treatment, his cancer was completely gone.
How Rikki Rockett’s Treatment Worked
Immunotherapy is a new form of cancer treatment that uses the power of the body's immune system to facilitate attacks on cancer cells.
“I said to him ‘This is the way to go. Let’s try to train our immune system to fight this disease,’” encouraged Rikki’s girlfriend (and now fiancé) T.C.
In his clinical trial, Rikki received a combination of pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), a PD-1 checkpoint immunotherapy, and epacadostat, an IDO1 selective inhibitor.
Tumors frequently manipulate immune checkpoints—the “brakes” of the immune system—to shut down immune responses and protect themselves. Checkpoint inhibitors block those pathways and are thus able to unleash new immune and enhance existing responses against cancer.
One common immune checkpoint that cancer uses to trick the immune system is the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway. Several checkpoint inhibitors, such as pembrolizumab, block the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway and therefore enable T cells to eliminate cancer cells.
Fortunately, Rikki responded well to immunotherapy and is now cancer-free.
Rikki Rockett and the Future of Immunotherapy
Thanks to his successful experience, Rikki supports both immunotherapy and clinical trials.
“I hope that anybody who does a clinical trial has the same experience because I felt like I had the best care that I’ve ever had in my life,” Rikki said.
Rikki vows to spread the message to other cancer patients in the community. He hopes that by sharing his story, more patients know about these options sooner and can avoid painful and less effective treatments.
Today, Rikki is enjoying his cancer-free life by playing with his band, updating his YouTube channel, spending time with his children, and practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Learn more about how the Cancer Research Institute is helping to advance research that is leading to treatments like the one Rikki received. You can make a difference in the lives of patients like Rikki by supporting cancer immunotherapy research efforts today.
Originally published July 2021.