Your Health

Morning Rounds: Celebrity Deaths as Teaching Moments

Even before his cause of death was confirmed last night, pop icon Michael Jackson had become yet another poster boy — this time for the risks of cardiac arrest.

Interestingly, there were fewer medical sidebars to stories of actor Farrah Fawcett's death yesterday, though the form of cancer that killed her may be largely preventable — with condoms and/or the HPV vaccine — and is often curable with prompt treatment.

First, Jackson: The Huffington Post suggests the legendary performer might have had a better chance of surviving if he'd collapsed onstage — in a casino. Automated external defibrillators (foolproof heart zappers designed to be used by a novice in an emergency) are now standard issue in slots caves, and becoming more common in malls, gyms, and sports arenas.

USA Today has an explainer, too, on why the electrical short known as "sudden cardiac arrest" is even more dangerous than a heart attack. "When you look at the heart in ventricular fibrillation, it looks like a bag of squiggly worms," Indiana cardiologist Douglas Zipes told the paper. "The contractions are totally ineffective...Therefore, no blood is pumped to the brain, causing him to black out."

Dr. Zipes even had a musical metaphor befitting the King of Pop:

The heart's pacemaker is the sinus node," Zipes says. "It's the conductor of the orchestra, coordinating the heart's electrical rhythm. When all the instruments are playing in a coordinated manner, the result is music. In ventricular fibrillation, it's as if the orchestra is warming up and what you hear is cacophony.

Fawcett died of metastatic anal cancer, an illness that is often diagnosed too late because people are reluctant to report rectal bleeding, itching or other symptoms to their doctor. Station WYFF in Greenville, S.C. was one of few outlets to tell its viewers what to look for, and to explain that early chemotherapy and surgery of the relatively rare cancer are often curative.

The American Cancer Society notes that some people with anal cancer have no know risk factors — so there is no surefire way to prevent the illness. But the cancer has been linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV), so measures that help protect against that virus presumably will help prevent anal cancer, too.

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