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Doctors Say McCain's Skin Cancer Unlikely to Return


Today, Senator John McCain released his health records, covering the last eight years. The senator has a history of melanoma. That form of skin cancer can be serious if it's caught late. And there's been much talk about McCain's age - 71. If he wins, he would be the oldest U.S. president to start a first term.

NPR's Joanne Silberner is in Scottsdale, Arizona for the release of these records - more than a thousand pages. She's one of the handful of reporters who got to see them.

Welcome, Joanne.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Welcome to you, too, Noah.

ADAMS: Earlier this month, Senator McCain told reporters there would be no surprises in those medical records - more than a thousand pages. Were there any - were you able to see something that looked a little bit brand new to you?

SILBERNER: Well, there were things that haven't been talked about much, if at all, that he has diverticulosis, that he has a prostate problem common to aging and he has a history kidney stones, he's got bladder stones and cysts. All these things, you know, happen and they can be dealt with. He had a recent colonoscopy with six polyps removed. He's basically been getting very attentive medical care. He's almost a poster child for finding things early when they can be treated.

ADAMS: Now, to talk about the melanoma for a minute, could that cause him problems in the future? How serious has it been?

SILBERNER: Well, each of the four melanomas that have been removed surgically were (unintelligible) they were new. There weren't ones that had spread to another. Because once melanoma starts to spread, you're in pretty big trouble. And that's the message dermatologists are trying to get out, that if you've got a new skin growth that looks a little odd, get it taken care of. You can get it taken care of, it's gone, and you're okay. He hasn't had one since 2002. His doctors were asked about his prognosis for another one. Said it's in the single digits, percentage-wise. It's pretty much unlikely.

ADAMS: The surgery back then seemed pretty invasive though; it was quite serious.

SILBERNER: You know, one of them was, the one, and that's when you see pictures of him, when you see him, the left side of his face is puffy. They had to remove some of the tissue outside of the muscle that keeps the muscle from bulging out. That bulge you see on the left side, he's got a scar down the back of his neck. What they did is they removed 34 lymph nodes. They were actually fairly aggressive about it. They where worried that that melanoma has spread. They looked - the first place it spreads is to the lymph nodes. So they looked in the nearby lymph nodes and found nothing.

ADAMS: So after this news conference with the doctors, a summary on the Web site for John McCain and the material you've got to see so far, do you think all the records indeed are out there now?

SILBERNER: Well, (unintelligible) president. No. There's just been enormous amount of obfuscation in political health histories. FDA, FDR rather, had polio and nobody knew it. I mean, he was never seen in a wheelchair. John Kennedy had a whole slew of problems that didn't come out until after he died.

When Paul Tsongas ran for president, his doctors were asked if he - he had had a history of cancer and if there were any problems, they said no. And he died January of the month he would be inaugurated if he had run and win. So there's a lot of things that don't get told.

On the other hand, the extensiveness of these records argue in favor of everything or almost everything being out there. The doctors were asked about this today; they said everything is out there, after saying that the senator had asked them to put it out.

The campaign said everything is out there, so unless something else comes up, we're going to have to assume that everything is out there.

ADAMS: Now, we haven't seen a course any medical records from Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama on the Democratic side. They're younger than McCain. But still, why is McCain releasing these records on his own, do you think?

SILBERNER: Yeah, this is a precedent, to release this amount of medical data. He did it back in 1999, when he was first running for president. There was a whisper campaign back then. Because you know, as a prisoner of war for five and a half years he had a lot of things happen to him, physically and also mentally. And they were - there was this whisper campaign that he had left over problems, you know, psychological problem.

And most of the 1999 information, or a lot of it, was about his mental health and back then, the people who had seen him (unintelligible) said that he was fine. And this time around the campaign says he, you know, basically he wants to prove that he's able to serve.

ADAMS: Now, this release comes the Friday before Memorial Day. Only a few reporters are there getting to see all the records, his campaign trying to keep this relatively subdued, this release of the information, do you think?

SILBERNER: Well, you know, there's a lot of grumbling among the reporters there because everyone feels that the public doesn't pay much attention to news over a holiday weekend, and everybody is working hard to go through these 1200 pages of records in three hours, and thinking, well, who's going to see this. The record has been promised for a long time, and last year they were promised in April, and now they're coming out right now.

But both the campaign and his doctors at the Mayo Clinic say it was a matter of they knew he was going to be having appointments in May, they wanted to get that information out. They needed to get the doctors and the campaign together, so that's was it.

ADAMS: NPR's Joanne Silberner talking with us from Scottsdale, Arizona. Thank you, Joanne.

SILBERNER: Thank you, Noah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.