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I Have a Mission

When I heard the diagnosis was melanoma, I firmly believed that I was going to die - and in a short period of time. There was no maybe about it. I was certain. The cancer specialist I consulted shocked me by saying that I could have a long, healthy life. My immediate reaction was to tell him flatly that I did not believe him.

 Fifteen months after that, I signed a four-year contract with ABC to continue as co-anchor with Diane Sawyer of "PrimeTime Live" and to take on the position of co-anchor with Cokie Roberts on "This Week." The new assignment means a great deal, because it shows that the ABC network management is betting on me. I concealed nothing; they knew all about my melanoma and did not consider it an issue.

Today, my attitude is positive, and for days on end, I don't think about cancer.

The Start of It

The first indication that something was wrong occurred one evening in the shower in August of 1995. I was soaping myself and felt a large, hard lump in my groin. Perhaps it had been growing there earlier; if so, I didn't notice it. My first thought was cancer. I kept it to myself that night, went to bed without telling Jan, my wife. The next morning I realized that I would have to see a physician, and so I told my wife what I had found. She cried a little, but for the most part, held her feelings so as not to upset me further.

The next day was spent going from doctor to doctor. The first one I saw, a general practitioner, noticed the scar on my ankle. That was when I remembered the large, odd-looking mole that had been removed seven-and-a-half years previously and diagnosed as benign. Nonetheless, this physician and the specialists I subsequently visited thought it was the source of the lump.

Biopsies were taken and the results left no doubt: I had a melanoma. Following a CAT scan, it was classified as being in Stage III, which means that there has been a spread or metastasis to the lymph system, in my case to a lymph node in the groin.

Not Like Vietnam

When I first heard the diagnosis, a feeling of great sadness came over me. While every life has its ups and downs, I have been blessed and fortunate. I wanted to go on living.

But I wasn't frightened. I associate fright with a kind of thrill, and I've known that a number of times. For instance, when I was covering the war in Vietnam, I thought I was going to die, and I was also close to death when the light plane I was piloting was running out of fuel. I remember the terror in my mind on both those occasions. The feeling about melanoma was nothing like that.

I attribute the difference to being 61, when I found the lump, rather than in my 30s. As a young man, the thought of not being was frightening. I accept it now.

My wife was concerned that I would suffer, but pain was not a major worry for me. My physician assured me that if it did occur, there are effective ways to block pain so it won't be awful.

A Public Person

I'm a public person, so I knew there was no way to hide the fact that I had cancer. I called the Washington staff of "PrimeTime Live" into my office and explained the situation to them as clearly as I possibly could.

Word got out very quickly, and by next day reporters were calling for information.

I went to the National Institutes of Health to have the lymph nodes in the groin removed surgically. While I was in the hospital, I got telephone calls from former presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush and an eight-page letter from Nancy Reagan. President Bill Clinton, who was at the NIH visiting Oklahoma Representative Mike Synar, came to my room and talked with me. I was particularly touched by his attention, because I haven't been one of his greatest fans on television. Barbara Walters sent me pajamas as a gift, and so I tell people, "I've never slept with Barbara Walters, but I've slept in her pajamas."

The Show Went On

The operation took place on a Monday. Wednesday evening, I lay in bed watching myself present the news on "PrimeTime Live." I had taped just the one program. The following Wednesday I was back in my chair.

A few days later, I had a setback when I developed an embolism (blood clot) in my lung and had to go back into the hospital for treatment with a blood thinner.

The melanoma did not interrupt my career. Three weeks after the lymph nodes were removed, I went to cover the big story of the FBI shootout in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. I was limping, but I still tramped all over the place.

Though I never cut down on traveling and news coverage, it took about three months for the effects of the surgery to wear off.

A Personal Decision

The day the results of the biopsy came in, I told my wife and my four grown children what I had and what was likely to happen. I was fortunate in that only one lymph node contained cancer cells, because that gives the best chance of recovery to Stage III patients. While I described the possible treatments, the decisions were mine alone.

From the time I got the diagnosis, my family has encouraged and helped me all the way.

I learned whatever I could about melanoma and found that there are a number of experimental treatments that work by boosting the immune system so it will fight off the cancer more effectively. I wrestled for two months with the decision on whether to have this kind of treatment, aware that every day slipping by could be significant. I consulted seven, eight, maybe more specialists at the major cancer centers to get a sense of the trade-offs between the possible benefits of the treatments and the side-effects. Then I made the decision not to go into one of the experimental programs. Once I had done so, it was as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders and I have been free of apprehension and upset. I won't blame the doctors later if it turns out I've made the wrong choice.

Had the melanoma struck when I was 30, my reaction might have been far different. Now I'm willing to trade off the possible improvement in return for avoiding side effects that might make it hard for me to continue my work as a newscaster during the course of the treatment.

The thing that concerns me most is that other people may follow my example. For instance, I recently got a letter from a woman whose son has an advanced melanoma and says he'll do "what Sam Donaldson did" and refuse experimental treatment. I urged this young man, as I do anyone who writes me - pay no attention to what I have done. Consult your doctor, and get at least one second opinion, and decide what you should do for yourself at your age and in your personal and work situation.


In terms of follow-up, I am checked at the NIH every three months and have an MRI every six months. I know what the charts say and the statistics are in my favor. The chance of recurrence, which were 50:50 following the surgery, are getting better. Once I pass the two-year mark, I'll be 80 percent home free, and I'll have reached that point this coming August.

How I Feel Now

All the nerves are gone from my upper right thigh and it feels like a piece of wood. There is also a slight swelling on that side, and I wear a tight elastic stocking. I wish I didn't have any of that, but it's really not much considering everything.

Before the melanoma, I never experienced any physical disability and I was afraid of hospitals and felt uncomfortable and I was afraid of hospitals and felt uncomfortable being around sick people. When my friend, Ted Koppel, was in the hospital, I couldn't bring myself to visit him. Since being ill, I've broken through that barrier. That's a big change in me.

It's Not Hopeless

Since it's become generally known that I've had melanoma, I receive letters and phone calls as if I were "cancer central." I welcome people who call me when they have a melanoma. I don't practice medicine or tell them what to do. I remember that Connie Mack, the Florida Senator, was the first melanoma survivor to telephone me and say, "Sam, I had nodes removed, and I'm fine."

I found it encouraging to hear those words, and I say to people who call me now: It's not hopeless, you're not going to die. And I give examples of people who are surviving metastatic melanoma. One woman is still alive twelve years after diagnosis and treatment, and a young man who appeared on the program about cancer on "PrimeTime Live" a year ago is doing well today, despite a melanoma that had spread to the brain.

I advise people who contact me to call the National Cancer Institute's hot line. They'll talk to a person, not an electronic recording, and hear about the latest advances in the field.

My Mission

I feel I have a mission to make people aware of this cancer. Melanoma patients should come out of the closet, break the taboo and relieve the dread that is associated with the disease.

I told the story of my melanoma on "PrimeTime Live," and I'm planning a second hour on cancer, telling what happened to the patients who appeared on the first program, and exposing cancer frauds and fakes.

Everyone should know the signs of a possible cancer, and watch for them. If a long-standing mole begins to change, it is essential to go immediately for an examination by a dermatologist. When melanoma is caught early and treated, the cure rate is close to 100%.

I also urge everyone to practice sun protection. When I was growing up, no one knew about the danger of sun exposure. We'd put on a bit of oil, which did no good at all. I wasn't a beach bum, but I had several bad sunburns when I was young. Now I use a heavy sunblock, and encourage others to do the same, and also to wear protective clothing and avoid the sun at its peak.

Having melanoma opened my eyes to the need to mobilize public opinion for cancer research. Cancer sufferers should be working for that.

I really believe that we will lick cancer. We're close to finding effective treatments. It's as if we've been climbing a mountain and are now near the summit.

A Good Life

I never stopped looking forward both personally and in my work. I've raised four children, been around the world, visited every continent except Antarctica. I love my wife and my family; in my work, there's not another rung on the ladder I want to climb. I realize I'm where many people would like to be.

My attitude is positive. I want to beat the actuarial tables. I have a good life and I would like to continue it.

Sam Donaldson, a melanoma survivor, is co-anchor of the ABC News programs, "PrimeTime Live," and "This Week." He covered the Gulf War and anchored live broadcasts from San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake and from Los Angeles after the 1992 riots. Recently, he investigated a neo-Nazi subculture in the Army and the rape of a teenage girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen. He was Chief White House Correspondent from 1977 to 1989, and has interviewed most major figures of our time, including George Bush, Colin Powell, and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto

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