Bob Marley’s Death: Could this have been prevented?

The following article posted on Repeating Islands explores the controversy surrounding the untimely death of Bob Marley and raises some serious questions about the medical advice given to the music icon before his death.

Dr Cleland Gooding MD., F.A.A.D., a physician with a specialty in Skin Diseases employed by the Bahamas Government, has penned this intriguing article about Bob Marley’s failed treatment for skin cancer, which eventually progressed to the brain cancer responsible for his death at 36. Here are excerpts, with a link to the original article below.

Bob Marley the charismatic beloved Jamaican singer, who introduced reggae infused with Rastafarian themes died from a cancerous brain Tumour on May 11, 1981 in Miami. Florida. He was only 36 years old.

It’s been 30 years since his death; and there have many rumours and speculation about the cause of death. Did he really die from a brain tumour? Or other nefarious causes? Like the CIA? Poison in his boots etc? Bob Marley’s medical records were never made public. However from several sources I managed to piece together the story of his illness and death from Metastatic Skin Cancer (Melanoma). This account I hope is fair, balanced and enlightening.

Bob Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music and is credited with spreading Jamaican and the Rastafarian movement worldwide.

. . .

When was the first indication that something was amiss with Bob Marley’s health? According to sources this first happened in the summer of 1977. He injured his right great toe during a Soccer game on tour in Paris, France. The toe nail became partially detached and painful. He admitted to his manager that the toe had been injured before and a wound was “on and off” for years! If that was true, could a malignant melanoma (skin cancer) been growing there earlier? A wound or sore that refuses to heal is a classic sign of skin cancer.

The hotel doctor was consulted and the right great toe nail was removed and the toe bandaged. No biopsy was done. The European tour continued and the Right great toe appeared to heal. However, later that summer he hurt the toe again playing soccer. It was painful and a new wound opened up and refused to heal. As Bob Marley went to London for a meeting, late that summer (1977), his manager advised him to see a doctor. According to reports the appearance of his toe shocked the Doctor. It was said to be “eating away”. A skin biopsy was done (removal of skin tissue for examination under the microscope).

The shocking diagnosis of a malignant melanoma (Skin Cancer) was given to Bob Marley. He was advised that treatment would be to amputate the toe, to stop the cancer from spreading.

In Miami still in the summer 1977, the British diagnosis of malignant melanoma was confirmed to Bob Marley again. He was advised to get the toe amputated and possibly the right foot. Again he refused.

Why didn’t Bob Marley have the amputation? He cited religious beliefs about “not cutting the flesh”. However he allowed the famous orthopaedic surgeon Dr William Bacon to do a surgical excision to “cut away” cancerous tissue on the toe and do a skin graft at Cedar’s of Lebanon Hospital (now University of Miami Hospital). He remained in Hospital one week and spent about three months recuperating in Miami. The procedure was deemed “a success”. But sadly it was not. The cancer in it virulent form began to spread through his body (metastasized).

This brings the question, why would Bob Marley get skin cancer on his toe? First we must remember that Bob was diagnosed with an Acral Melanoma. This type accounts for 70 per cent of melanoma in darkly pigmented individual or Asians. It typically occurs on non-sun exposed areas as the palm, the sole and mucosa and under the nails. It is characterised by a dark mole or spot that can turn cancerous.

This can happen by repeated trauma to the area or for no reason at all. Studies have shown that darker skin people are more likely to present with advanced disease stage III -IV than whites who typically appear with stage I. This is exactly what happened in Mr Marley’s case. He presented with a skin cancer stage 3-4 on his toe.

He also was fair-skinned of a white father. Being fair-skinned is a risk factor for skin cancer. Melanoma can take years to spread. Most likely he had a pigmented dark mole under his right great toe nail, the continued playing of soccer traumatized the dark mole, which turned cancerous then into a sore. When his cancer was discovered (summer of 1977) the recommendation to amputate his toe would most certainly have saved his life. The surgical excision done and the skin graft (July 1977) was ineffective or simply too late.

As the years went by, his health was deteriorating. He continued to be immersed in his music. In 1976 there was an attempt on his life in Jamaica, Mr Marley narrowly escaped death, He, his wife and manager Don Taylor were shot.

Among the Doctors attending, them was a prominent Bahamian doctor Dr Philip Thompson who was attending U.W.I. at the time.

In 1979, Bob Marley visited Nassau, The trip was opposed by some religious ministers.

It does not appear that he followed up on his doctor’s visits.

All appeared well until 1980. He released his last album “Uprising” and the band, the Wailers were planning an American tour with Stevie Wonder for the winter of 1980. However by the summer of 1980 the cancer was metastasizing through his body. According to sources, he did not feel well and saw a doctor who give him clearance to go on tour!

The tour started in Boston followed by New York in September 1980. During the show in New York in Madison Square Gardens Bob looked sick and almost fainted. The very next morning September 21 while jogging through Central Park Bob Marley collapsed and was brought to a hospital. Tests showed a brain tumour, which most likely had spread from the primary cancer on his right great toe. The cancer was now spreading to his vital organs.

How does a malignant melanoma spread? It is generally agreed that melanoma cells spread via the lymphatic, the blood stream or both. Then it can affect the liver, the lungs, the brain or the bones.

A neurologist gave him one month to live. Rita Marley is said to have wanted the remaining tour cancelled, but Bob wanted to continue. He played his last show in Pittsburgh, but was too ill to continue and the tour was finally cancelled. That show proved to be his last.

Convinced at last to seek medical treatment, Bob was admitted to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in Manhattan NY. This centre is one of the world’s leading cancer treatment centre. Tests then revealed the malignant melanoma cancer had spread to his lungs and liver. He received a few radiation treatments, but checked out when some New York papers let on that he was seriously ill. He went to Miami, then back to Sloan-Kettering, then Jamaica. Why the back and forth? Some said he hadn’t much faith in “Western Medicine”.

He was advised to seek further help in Germany. Bob and his entourage then travelled to Germany to the Bavarian Clinic of Dr Josef Issels. He was a specialist in Holistics, or Toxic cancer

treatment. Why leave a world renowned cancer treatment centre like Sloan-Kettering to go to a holistic centre? That is a mystery to me.

While in Germany Bob Marley celebrated his 36th, and final birthday. While at the centre in Germany Bob received such treatments as exercise, ozone injections, vitamins and trace elements. However, as the months went by, he realised that these treatments were not working and his cancer was terminal.


What is the treatment for Advanced Malignant Melanoma ?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology 2010 “No effective therapy exists at this time for metastatic disease to the internal organs”. Until effective therapy is developed the focus must remain on early detection and removal of the primary tumour or mole.

As his metastatic disease progressed, Bob Marley decided to die at home in Jamaica. The group chartered a flight for the trip home. While flying home to Jamaica his vital functions worsened, and the plane was directed to Florida. He was immediately admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital and died May 11, 1981. His wife and mother were by his side. He was said to weigh a shocking 82lbs on the day he died.

He received a state funeral in Jamaica May 21 1981, which combined Ethiopian Orthodoxy and Rastafarian tradition. He was buried with his guitar, a soccer ball, a marijuana bud, a ring and a Bible.

. . .

Some questions still remain about the Bob Marley story.

Why was he given clearance to go “on tour” with an advance malignant melanoma? Did the Doctor really know his condition? Were any medical tests done? Blood, x-rays etc? Was he was a medical specialist?

Also how did he manage to survive so long with an advanced cancer? Was it his marijuana use? This is highly unlikely. According to studies it is difficult to predict outcomes for individual patients with melanoma. We know he was a man of incredible stamina and drive.

Would the FDA approved drug Interferon have helped him? This is the only one approved for Adjuvant treatment of malignant melanoma. Definitely, the amputation would have prolonged his life.

The article appeared originally at


5 thoughts on “Bob Marley’s Death: Could this have been prevented?

  1. Joel Edmond Robinson

    WOW, it’s almost 30 years since his passing and there’s still issues and speculation over his death…

    Great article!!!!!

  2. Bob Marley died May 11th 1981, officially due to malignant melanoma (is a kind of lentiginous skin cancer ), a dangerous type of cancer that was found on his toe. It is not quite as simple as it sounds, though. In July 1977, Marley was found to have a type of malignant melanoma under the nail of one of his toes. You have probably heard that How did bob marley diewas caused by an injury during a football match in that year.

  3. Preventable? Absolutely. The amputation would’ve certainly saved his life, but he chose not to have it done, stating that “Jah will either heal me wit’ de meditations of me ganja chalice or tek me into his kingdom.”

    However, I have a strong sense that he did an about-face once the disease’s painful symptoms set in near the end & he was faced with his own mortality. He opted for chemo & other traditional therapies immediately after collapsing in Central Park. This is not unlike what Steve Jobs did after his alternative treatments failed to cure his treatable pancreatic cancer.

    That’s the insidious thing about cancer–it doesn’t cause any symptoms until near the very end in most cases, misleading sufferers into believing they aren’t really as sick as they are. Since chemo/radiation DO make you so ill, it’s easy to scare yourself out of enduring them if you’re not already extremely sick. But make no mistake–wasting away from cancer is far more painful than any cancer treatment. And knowing it could’ve been prevented had you acted sooner makes it all the more painful for both you and your loved ones.

    Shame on Bob’s doctors if they mislead him into thinking a skin graft was adequate to treat this deadly cancer. I sincerely hope they pulled no punches when explaining the consequences of his decision.

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