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John McCain Diagnosed With Skin Cancer on His Arm and Temple

Aired August 16, 2000 - 4:31 p.m. ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of the Democratic National Convention here in Los Angeles.

We want to continue discussing in the meantime a breaking story: word just getting to CNN that Senator John McCain of Arizona has now been diagnosed with what's described as a severe form of skin cancer, a malignant melanoma on his arm and on his temple. We are checking with our medical unit to get some perspective on what this means, although we do know that are various forms of malignant melanoma, some more dangerous, some more serious than other forms.

The 63-year-old former presidential candidate did undergo tests at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona to assess how extensively this cancer has spread. He's consulting with his doctors and his family right now to determine a course of treatment. One possible treatment, of course, is surgery.

Senator McCain did receive the diagnosis last Thursday morning, shortly after -- shortly before leaving on a campaign swing with the GOP presidential nominee, George W. Bush. He's been to Washington. He's undergone several biopsies on the two growths on his arm and on his temple, and he is awaiting word from his doctors on possible courses of treatment.

We're going to get some perspective from our medical unit shortly, but I want to bring in Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst.

If -- assuming he has to undergo some serious treatment, this is going to take him out of the political campaign season, at least for some time.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It will, and that could be a serious problem for Republicans, because, you know, the biggest story of this entire campaign was John McCain. I mean, back in February he was a national sensation because of his campaign based on Straight Talk. That bus was a symbol of what he had to offer Americans. And after seven years of Clinton, a lot of voters said we want straight talk, and they weren't just Republicans. In fact, a lot of them were independents and Democrats.

He appeals across party lines, and that's why he is in tremendous demand by Republican candidates to campaign for them. George Bush is seen very conspicuously with John McCain. He spent some time recently in Sedona, Arizona with McCain, made him a prominent partner in his campaign. And Republican candidates for the House and Senate have almost all invited John McCain into their districts to campaign for them.

If he's not available to do that, I think this is going to be a problem for a lot of Republicans.

BLITZER: And just to give you some background, Senator McCain did suffer a melanoma on his shoulder in 1993, that according to medical records that he released during his presidential campaign. At the time, his doctor, Dr. John Eckstein (ph) of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, said, "We think he is cured," because there had been no recurrence for five years. Obviously, that has now changed with the diagnosis.

Once again, John McCain being diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, form of skin cancer, on his arm and on his temple.

John McCain is one of the most popular politicians right now out there.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. And it is -- he is above party. He's popular with Democrats because he often takes positions that defy the wishes of his party leadership, on issues like campaign finance reform. And what we're seeing in this campaign is both Bush and Gore trying to compete for the McCain vote, because that vote was so big. They're both taking -- talking about campaign finance reform. Gore endorsed the position very strongly. They're both trying to present themselves as straight-talkers.

McCain hit a very important public nerve, and so, that vote has been up-for-grabs.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by. We're standing by also to talk to our medical unit to get some perspective on what this means, John McCain being diagnosed with a severe form of skin cancer on his temple and on his arm. We're also standing to speak to our own Jonathan Karl, who is in Arizona. But we're going to take a quick break. We'll be more -- we'll have more from the Democratic National Convention in just a moment.


BLITZER: We're at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, but we're following a story involving a Republican senator from Arizona: Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, has now been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma -- that's the most severe form of skin cancer -- on his arm and on his temple. The 63-year-old former presidential candidate is undergoing further tests Thursday and Friday at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He is consulting with his doctors and his families about possible treatment.

One source -- one possible source of treatment, of course, is surgery. There are various forms of melanoma, and if melanoma is caught early, it is -- it is definitely curable. The questions is how early has this been diagnosed. Of course, we're standing by to get some more perspective from our medical unit. In the meantime, our own Jonathan Karl is in Phoenix, Arizona. He's been covering John McCain for some time.

Jonathan Karl, if you can hear me, tell us what you know about this -- this developing story.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the basics we know is that last Thursday McCain got this news, found out that he does have malignant melanoma, as you pointed out, the most serious form of skin cancer, that he had it in two separate places: one on the left temple and the other on his arm.

The fact that it occurred twice in two separate places led doctors to believe this is very serious. They don't know yet how serious. That's why McCain will go to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona tomorrow and on Friday for a series of test to diagnose just how serious the situation is or what form of treatment should happen.

As you know, as you pointed out, surgery is usually the first step in treating a condition like that, and they believe he may, depending on what happens at these tests, go into surgery as early as next week.

McCain has known about this, you know, while he was campaigning with George Bush and kept this, you know, very close, because he didn't want to alarm his friends and families until he found out just how serious it is.

One person we know who he did tell, though, is George W. Bush. He told him when they were together in Arizona.

That's basically what we know right now. McCain again, you know, consulting with his family. Some of his top and closest aides are en route to Arizona as we speak to be with the senator during this very difficult time.

BLITZER: John, we did see pictures of Senator McCain when he was with Governor Bush in recent days, and he had a bandage on the side of his face. I assume that was a bandage covering up the melanoma that has been discovered?

KARL: Well, that is exactly right, Wolf. Here's the timeline. Here's how this has unfolded. McCain, of course, gave his speech before the Republican National Convention on day two of the convention. That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday, he went to Washington, saw his doctor. That's where they removed this so they could conduct -- so they could, you know, have a biopsy to find out if it was indeed malignant.

Then if remember, McCain was called by to Philadelphia, requested by the Bush campaign to be on the stage with George W. Bush in his moment of triumph at the convention on Thursday after his acceptance speech. That's when we first saw McCain with the band aid on the side of his head -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, Jonathan Karl in Phoenix. Thanks. Standby.

I want to go to Elizabeth Cohen, our CNN medical correspondent. She is in Atlanta. She can offer some perspective now on this form of skin cancer -- Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as Jon said, this is the most severe form of skin cancer. Sometimes we hear, for example, about cell carcinomas, which are much less serious. Unfortunately, melanoma is one of the more serious ones. There are about 7,700 deaths each year in the United States due to melanomas. Whether -- the survival rate is very dependent upon how early on it is caught.

For example, if it is caught in the earliest stage, and if you look at those people five years later, 95 percent of them are still alive. And that's because it was caught so early. So it is really is dependent on what stage the cancer is at.

BLITZER: And I take it, Elizabeth, the major treatment has to be begin with surgery to try to cut out that melanoma.

COHEN: Right, like many cancers, you start with surgery and then you go on from there, depending upon the kind of cancer, how severe it is, how successful the surgery was. There's even, with melanomas, some experimental vaccinations, experimental vaccine therapies for people who have it. So it really is dependent upon the stage of the cancer and how successful the surgery is.

BLITZER: If he did have a melanoma on his shoulder in 1993 -- which according to his medical records, he did have -- and he was treated at the time and there was no recurrence since then -- at least until we know right now -- what does that suggest, that he had did have a previous melanoma, now diagnosed with an additional melanoma?

COHEN: Well, one would hope that that means that was it diagnosed at an earlier stage rather than a later stage. Someone who has a history of a disease, they keep careful track of them so that they can catch it an earlier stage. If he had never any kind of skin cancer at all, it would be more likely that they would be catching it later on, because they wouldn't know to look for it. So that may mean, possibly, that they caught it at an earlier stage because he was receiving very careful follow up.

BLITZER: And when most people, Elizabeth, hear about skin cancer, they think about a basil cell type of cancer, which is not very serious, not considered very serious. Although, of course, it must be treated right away before it could spread. This is something totally different.

COHEN: That's right. It's completely different, as I said: 7700 deaths a year from melanoma. There's only 1900 death a year -- comparatively, far fewer -- from other kinds of skin cancer besides melanoma. So they really are completely different and it's very easy to confuse them. But they're completely different.

BLITZER: All right, Elizabeth, standby. I want to bring in Dr. Pat Wexler, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Dr. Wexler, you're hearing this information as we are hearing at CNN, as our viewers are hearing it, that John McCain, the senator from Arizona, the former Republican presidential candidate, has been diagnosed with malignant melanoma on his arm and on his temple. Help us understand perhaps what this means.

DR. TRICIA WEXLER, DERMATOLOGIST: Well, very frequently, melanoma is diagnosed at an early stage, especially if someone has been diagnosed with a skin cancer in a prior examination. When melanoma is diagnosed early, it has an extremely high cure rate. It's when melanoma is diagnosed at later stages, when it has either penetrated deeper into the skin or has spread to the local lymph nodes. That is a more cancer to treat, because it's not very responsive to traditional radiation or chemotherapy.

BLITZER: I know you have not had access to Senator McCain's medical records. Although, as we have been reporting, in 1993, he did have a form of melanoma on his shoulder. He was treated at the time. His doctor in 1999 of the Mayo Clinic said: We think he is cured. What does that mean, the fact that he had it in '93, and now he's been diagnosed once again. Is there a relationship there necessarily?

WEXLER: Of course, if you look at Senator McCain, he's very fair-skinned. I believe he has light eyes. And these are people who usually have sunburn during their childhood. And blistering sunburns can lead to a much greater incidence of melanoma. Having had one melanoma, it would be likely that he would be diagnosed with more melanomas throughout his lifetime. And the goal would be to detect them really and treat them early.

So it's not surprising that someone who has had a melanoma would be diagnosed with a second or third melanoma during their life.

BLITZER: Dr. Wexler, what is the normal treatment for a melanoma on the temple and on the arm? What would the process be through a traditional form of treatment?

WEXLER: Well, traditionally, one would just do a wide excision. And a wide excision is taking a margin of normal tissue surround the biopsy site that would assure that all of the local disease was removed. Also, checks would be done. Very frequently, they would test for any lymph node involvement by injecting a dye into the skin and seeing if the dye drains into any lymph nodes locally that appear enlarged. And if any lymph nodes are enlarged, they're tested to see if the melanoma has spread. That's called a sentinel node biopsy.

So I'm sure that's something that will be discussed and performed. If lymph nodes are positive, then they would then look further to see if there was any distant spread to any organs, such as the liver or any other organ. But that's a much more advanced disease. And I would that somebody with a history of melanoma would be aware of the early detection signs. And it wouldn't be detected at that latest stage.

BLITZER: Dr. Wexler, I just want to just update our viewers who may just be joining right now. We want to report once again that Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with malignant melanoma. That's a form of skin cancer, believed to be the most serious form of skin cancer, on both his arm and on his temple. He's undergoing additional tests at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

We did speak, Dr. Wexler, about the traditional forms of treatment. Are there some untraditional or new treatments that might be used in this kind of situation?

WEXLER: Well, certainly, there are institutes that have developed vaccines against melanoma cells. And it is possible they would treat him with a vaccine to try to protect him in the future and treat any distant spread he could have as they diagnosed it. There are also certain chemicals now, chemotherapies that boost the immunities, such as Interferon, and could help fight the disease, again, if it had spread. But this would only be done if the disease has spread distant from the site on the skin.

BLITZER: All right, Dr. Wexler, I want to thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Tricia Wexler from the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, a dermatologist. Thanks for joining us.

We are going to continue following this breaking story. But we want to take a quick break. We'll be right back from the Democratic National Convention.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are committed to a strong...


BLITZER: Welcome back to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. We're following a story not involving any Democrats, but the Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, who's been diagnosed with malignant melanoma that's a form of skin cancer, a serious form of skin cancer on both his arm and on his temple. He underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic, will undergo treatment there as well. He's consulting with his family and friends now about possible sources of treatment.

Joining me of course is Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst. It's interesting, that on this day when the Democrats will be honoring Vietnam War veterans, we get word of this information about John McCain.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years, there's no indication, no reason to believe that this particular problem has anything to do with his years in captivity, but he is a genuine war hero, decorated, and tried to rally veterans to his cause.

My guess is when they were honor war veterans -- Bob Kerrey, who was wounded, Max Cleland, who was disabled in Vietnam, we are very likely to hear some mention of John McCain's problem here at the Democratic convention tonight. BLITZER: And they will be honoring Vietnam veterans here this evening at this Democratic convention. I want to also report that our congressional correspondent Chris Black, who's covered Senator McCain for many years is now telling me that only within recent days Senator McCain was telling reporters to be careful when they go out in the sun, to make sure they use sunblock, also that he says that he did come down with his skin cancer, earlier bouts of skin cancer, as a young kid, because he spent so much time in the sun. Of course, we'll be following the story. The John McCain voters are among those that delegates here are going be looking to.

The party faithful at this convention very interested in the so- called swing voters, many of them, of course, John McCain supporters. They are people with no strong allegiance to either party, who base their vote on the candidate and their message.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve talked swing voters in key electoral state of Ohio.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Not so long ago, Democrats had the senior vote in their pocket. No longer, seniors are now swing voters, very much up for grabs. At the Whitehall Senior Citizens Club outside Columbus, Ohio, not everyone has decided how to play their hand.

AUTORINE LAUSCH: I've got my ears wide open trying to listen how they present themselves. I'm looking for somebody that will make me proud of the United States again.

GEOFF GARIN, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: The Democratic vote with seniors has been going down throughout the '90s, and the fact of the matter is, Democrats can't win unless they start doing better with seniors.

MESERVE: Al Gore has not been subtle in his effort to woo the senior vote, emphasizing prescription drug coverage, Medicare and saving Social Security. George Bush has been courting them, too. Sue Watkins, aged 68, isn't impressed by either one.

SUE WATKINS: They're doing it because they have to. I mean, this is how they are going to win the election, and I don't trust them to really follow through.

MESERVE: Watkins, who owns a small medical records business outside Columbus, is informed and opinionated about many issues, but says her first priority is to put an honest, upright man in the White House.

WATKINS: I guess I'm looking for Abe Lincoln to come down a country road, all honest and willing to work hard.

MESERVE: Women voters are another group considered strongly Democratic in recent years. But Gore has struggled to hold onto women voters, despite talking up their top issues: education, gun control, tolerance and morality.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe we have a national obligation to insist upon responsible fatherhood everywhere and from everyone.

MESERVE: Moral issues are also key to many Catholics, another huge and important swing constituency, particularly in the industrial Midwest battleground states. Gore loses points with some Catholics because of support for abortion rights.

ANN BOWNAS: The moral thread of our country as how we value lives has been affected by abortion being legal, so I am very pro-Bush on that.

MESERVE: Though most of the big labor unions have come out in support of Gore, many non-union, blue-collar workers, like some of those here at Worthington Industries, are not aligned with either party. Economic issues drive these voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Taxes. That's really all I worry about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the main issue is going to be, of course, the economy. It's been going on the right track the last, you know, four, five, six years.

GARIN: This is another group of voters that neither party has done a stellar job of communicating with. As a result, a lot of them are sort of receding out of the electorate, but the ones who stay in the electorate are very much up for grabs.

MESERVE: Gore has been working hard to cement his ties with another swing group: Latinos.

Democrats are even promoting Gore on Spanish-language television in some markets. Polls show gore struggling with almost every key swing constituency, and analysts agree that unless he plays his cards right and wins them over, he cannot win this election.


MESERVE: Reflective of Gore's problems with swing voters, seniors of the state of Pennsylvania. This is the state with the second highest percentage of seniors. They were recently polled, and 64 percent of them said they didn't like George W. Bush's plan to allow people to invest part of their payroll taxes and apply them to retirement accounts.

But only 29 percent said they'd plan to vote for Al Gore. He'll be working hard to change that second number here at this convention, talking about health care, Medicare and Social Security and prescription drug prices. Now back to Wolf in the booth.

BLITZER: Thank you, Gene. And those swing voters, of course many of them John McCain supporters. Want to recap our breaking story at this hour, Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with a form of malignant melanoma. That's skin cancer, a serious form of skin cancer on both his arm and on his temple.

Our senior White House correspondent, John King, has been on the phone with a senior McCain adviser, who tells John that the senator will be releasing a statement soon, as well as a statement from his doctor, explaining precisely what's going on. The expected clinic for this form of skin cancer, this adviser tells our John King, is surgery. The extent of the cancer is still undetermined. More tests are undergoing at this time.

The adviser also tells John King that Senator McCain is planning on going forward this Sunday in Ohio with a campaign appearance for Senator Mike DeWine, who's running for re-election, a Republican candidate with the incumbent senator in Ohio. But after that, there is a tentative hold to determine he form of surgery, the form of treatment that will be required. One quote from this senior McCain adviser to our John McCain -- quote -- "He's in good spirits, referring to Senator McCain, always a trooper, and jokes he's been through a hell of a lot worse than this.

We will continue following this story, as well as other developments here at the Democratic convention.

Up next, more of INSIDE POLITICS, with my colleagues, Bernard Shaw, Judy Woodruff, Jeff Greenfield and Bill Schneider. I'll be back in hour with "THE WORLD TODAY."



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