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Managing Your Health

What This Emmy Award-Winning Voice Actor Learned From His Battle With Oral Cancer

oral cancer-rob paulsen-voice actor
oral cancer-rob paulsen-voice actor
Rob Paulsen | Photos By Leslie Bohm

Rob Paulsen has made a career giving voices to some of the most iconic cartoon characters of multiple generations, including Yakko (of “Animaniacs”), Pinky (“Pinky and the Brain”), Donatello (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), and many more. He opened up about his life since being diagnosed with oral cancer and why he’s advocating for all to stay on top of their health.

How did you get your start as a voice actor? 

Initially, I was a singer who became an actor. My career with respect to voice acting was preceded by a lot of live theater, typical background, traveling around the country doing live music and live theater for several years when I was quite young. And then I moved to LA in 1978 to do live action TV, movies, commercials, music, all of which I was doing. 

So in the mid-80s, my agents called and said, “Look, we know you’re predisposed to doing characters and dialects and singing and characters, ever thought about doing animation?” I said, “Well, sure.” Because in those days, there was no internet, no cable TV, no Cartoon Network, no DVDs, nothing like that. It was just Saturday morning cartoons. 

So, I was sent to audition for two shows, which ended up being “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” both of which I scored parts on. And it took me about five minutes to think, “Man, it’s just a gig.” Nobody cares what I look like — I’m literally limited only by my talent, my creativity, and the kindness of people to hire me. 

This is the purest form of acting I’ve ever seen. Because if I want to be a monster, I can be a monster. If I’m going to be a hero, I’m a hero. Nobody cares how tall I am, or short, or white, or brown or orange — doesn’t matter. 

And so it took me about two, three years. And then I call my agent and said, “Look, I’m really not interested in on-camera jobs anymore. Fortunately, my ego is such that I’m always flattered and humbled when someone recognizes me or enjoys my work, but it’s not what drives me. 

And so now all these years later, I’m old enough to be a grandfather. And people still don’t care what I look like, as long as I can be Yakko, or Pinky, or Carl [Wheezer, on Nickelodeon’s “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”] or Raphael or Donatello. It doesn’t matter. 

When did you discover you had oral cancer?

Probably the summer of 2015, I felt a small lump on the left side of my neck. I didn’t think much about it, it didn’t hurt, it didn’t affect my work, it wasn’t getting bigger as far as I could tell. 

And so I read a little bit online and found that it could have been cancer, could have been a low-grade infection, could have been a fatty deposit. I just assumed it was more likely one of the latter two. Especially because it wasn’t hurting. And unless I need stitches or a limb is moving the opposite direction, I don’t go to a doctor except for my yearly physical. So I did that. 

And in early 2016, I visited my doctor and I said, “Hey, Doc, put your hand on this. What do you think about that?” Five seconds. I promise you, he just said “No, this is no good, Rob.” And I thought he was messing with me. But he said, “No, seriously, you need to see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doc yesterday.”

There will be times when you cannot laugh. But you have to laugh. You have to push yourself through it.

Rob Paulsen

My ENT doctor called me a few weeks later and told me I had metastatic squamous cell carcinoma with occult primary. Metastatic meant that the area to which the cancer had already spread was this lump in my neck. A primary tumor was in the base of my tongue. 

And it still had no effect on my work. Not a bit, for which I was very grateful. But then when I was told about the treatment, that’s when my concern really started to peak. I was told pretty quickly, that “Here’s the deal, Rob, we’re virtually sure we can cure you. We’re not talking about remission, we’re talking about a cure. But before we do, we almost have to kill you.” And I say that not to frighten people from the treatment, because it works like a charm. 

Do you have any advice to others who are currently living with oral cancer?

The first piece of advice I can give is if you’re fortunate enough to have someone who’s with you, your wife, your husband, your partner, children, whomever, allow them to help you. I probably should have stopped driving myself to my treatments. I should have let my wife and my son and my daughter-in-law help me more. They were kind, constantly offering to help — I could not have been more supported. 

The second thing is to take advantage of all the things that will be offered to you. Mind you, I’m assuming that people are as lucky as I was to have health insurance and great medical care. Take advantage of everything they offer you; pain medication, therapy, whatever it takes, they know what they’re doing. Take advantage of it. 

Also, it sounds trite, but it’s absolutely true: laughter is the best medicine. And I’m telling you that is the absolute God’s-honest truth. There will be times when you cannot laugh. But you have to laugh. You have to push yourself through it. You know if that’s your coping skill, your coping mechanism, do it. If you can find a way to chuckle watching TV, watching YouTube, do it. 

Take the opportunities that nice people offer you, and share your story with other people. If it’s a little bit uncomfortable, you don’t have to do it like me and share it with (hopefully) millions of people. But tell your doctor, your oncologist, your dentist, that if you have any patients who are who have just been diagnosed and are going through or fixing to go through what I’ve been through, please, Doc, let me talk to him. Let me share my experience with them if they’re interested. That is very helpful. It was to me, one of my fellow actors, went through throat cancer experience, and speaking to him for half an hour, 45 minutes was really helpful. So, I have to say that I’ve gotten way more out of it than the person whom I was counseling did. 

That is the platinum lining of this whole experience. So give yourself the privilege of helping others. Even if it’s one person, it really validates your whole experience and gives you a completely different perspective that is really important for us, the survivors, and those others are things I would suggest people do or help them with their experience.

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