Melanoma Skin Cancer of U.S. Senator John McCain

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Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

In August of 2000, U.S. senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain was found to have a dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma, for the second time. The senator had a superficial (meaning less dangerous because it has not invaded deeply into the tissues) melanoma diagnosed in 1993. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and is frequently associated with prolonged exposure of the skin to sunlight.

The cancer identified in 2000, located on the left side of his face, had penetrated the skin more deeply than the superficial cancer removed in 1993. The cancer diagnosed in 2000 was removed by a surgical procedure that also included removal and examination of multiple lymph nodes to determine the extent of the spread of the cancer. His staff reported at the time that there was no evidence of spread of the cancer. According to press reports, McCain has also had two more superficial melanomas removed since his surgery in 2000.

Melanoma can occur on any skin surface. In men, it is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, melanoma often develops on the lower legs or the trunk. Melanoma is rare in people with deeply pigmented skin. When it does develop in dark-skinned people, it tends to occur under the fingernails or toenails, or on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Melanoma affects people of all age groups, but the chance of developing this disease increases with age.

In July 2008, McCain underwent a skin biopsy during a routine visit to his dermatologist. He stated that the biopsy was a precautionary measure to "make sure that everything is fine." The presidential candidate also issued a statement in which he encouraged everyone to wear sunscreen and have checkups by a dermatologist to evaluate skin discolorations.

It is important that melanoma be detected as early as possible. The disease can be cured if it is diagnosed and treated when the tumor is thin and has not deeply invaded the skin. However, if a melanoma is not removed early, cancer cells can grow downward from the skin's surface, invading healthy tissue. When a melanoma becomes thick and deep, the disease often spreads to other parts of the body and is difficult to control.