Monday, April 16, 2007
Cancer and the Presidency
Cancer is playing a surprisingly big role in the 2008 presidential election. Rudy Giuliani underwent radiation therapy for prostate cancer in 2000. John McCain has been treated for malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, several times. Of course, there is Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards, who has had a recurrence of breast cancer. Possible candidate Fred Thompson recently revealed details of his slow-growing lymphoma, now in remission.

The first presidential candidate to publicly acknowledge having cancer was Paul Tsongas. In his 1992 White House bid, he and his doctors told the public that he had been cancer free since his treatment for aggressive lymphoma in 1986. After Tsongas lost the Democratic nomination, he admitted that he and his doctors had lied about a recurrence of cancer in 1987. Tsongas died from complications of cancer treatment in 1997 on the next-to-last day of what could have been his first term.

Given how forthcoming today's candidates have been, it's hard to believe that past presidents have gone to extreme lengths to conceal their cancer treatment. In the summer of 1893, President Grover Cleveland had secret surgery to remove cancer in his jaw. The tumor was larger than a golf ball. It was just a few months after winning his second term as president. That procedure was concealed from the public for almost a quarter of a century.

More recently in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson had a secret operation to remove skin cancer form his ankle. His condition and treatment were kept under wraps for 10 years.

President Ronald Reagan was the first commander in chief to admit to having had cancer. He broke the presidential seal of secrecy in 1985. First, he had surgery to remove polyps that turned out to be colon cancer, and then just months later, he had skin cancer removed from his nose.

Cancer was once considered not only a political liability, but a death sentence. Today it's a very different disease.

"Thirty years ago if you were told you had cancer, your odds were about 50-50 that you were going to survive five years. Now the odds are closer to about two out of three people living to five years," says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society.

Cancer prevalence rates have gone up, but so have survival rates. While there is definitely room for greater progress, new therapies and better screening have made cancer a more manageable disease.

"As a doctor, I'm aware of the fact that many folks who get to be the age that presidents would be, have other illnesses as well," adds Dr. Lichtenfeld. "They have hypertension, problems with cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes. Is cancer really all that different?"

Does it matter to you whether or not a presidential candidate has cancer? Does the public have a right to know if a sitting president has cancer? Do you think there are major differences between being a cancer survivor and having a history of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol or heart disease? Do you think cancer survivors have any limits to their ability?
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