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Sam Donaldson: Tips From a Cancer Survivor

Dr. Bernadine Healy

Photo courtesy of ABC News

For 40 years, Sam Donaldson has worked for ABC News, reporting from virtually every corner of the earth. Winner of many journalism and television awards, the Texas-born Donaldson is also a 10-year survivor of deadly melanoma skin cancer. His own experience with cancer and what he has learned since then, have helped to shape his view that cancer patients can work actively to fight their disease and that there is hope.

Recently, magazine coordinator Chris Klose sat down with Donaldson to get his personal experiences with skin cancer.

Klose: What went through your mind when you were told you had cancer?

Sam Donaldson: I thought I was going to die. I told my wife, "I think we have about three months." My mother died of it at 93 and my brother of liver cancer at 49, so I understood what it was like. I had read that melanoma was a bad actor; that it was unpredictable and often could not be charted, from the standpoint of the course it might take.

Klose: At that point, did you try to educate yourself about cancer and what you should be doing to increase your odds?

Sam Donaldson: I didn't do a lot of studying at first because, fortunately, my treatment began practically immediately. Now, of course, I have studied cancer for years, and boned up on my own specialty of the "Cancer Club, Melanoma Division." Although I am not an oncologist, I think I know a little bit about the disease now and the survivability of various forms and stages.

Klose: Do you believe that more information helps emotionally?

Sam Donaldson: Well, I suppose it does. I tell people several things when talking about the survivors club and what we can do. First, we all want optimistic doctors. For example, Dr. Steve Rosenberg, at the National Cancer Institute, examined me, looked at the CAT scan I had had and said, "You know, I think you have a good chance to live a long, normal, healthy life."

I blurted out, "I don't believe you." In looking back, I realize that he hadn't said a "perfect chance." He said a "good chance." But I look at the statistics for melanoma and they have moved some, and I think it is thanks to Steve and the research he has done on Interleukin 2, trying to find the right combination. Before 1984, the melanoma cure rate was zero percent. Today it is about 17 percent.

I thought I was going to die. I told my wife,
"I think we have about three months."

Klose: What would be your top three tips for people who have cancer?

Sam Donaldson: First is the emotional tip: Cancer is not an automatic death sentence. Yes, half-a-million or more Americans a year die from all forms of cancer. But the survivors club is growing.

The second point is obvious: Get a second opinion, maybe a third. Someone once said to me, "You may not get to play this hand more than once, so you want the best cards." No offense to the experts, but we've all heard stories of people who have been misdiagnosed or about other doctors who had a little bit better idea of what to do. So my strong advice is to get a second opinion or even a third, so that you can make certain.

And my third tip, I guess, goes back to the first. And that is to have an optimistic view. Let me stress that, although I don't have a medical background, I do believe that, on the margins, such things as one's attitude may play a part in recovery versus non-recovery. I don't think an optimistic attitude cures cancer, but I do believe that if you can concentrate on the fact that you're going to live — not die — it helps.

These are the three tips that have helped me and could help others, too. (Read more about skin cancer research and treatment on page 12.)

Read More "Understanding Cancer" Articles
Understanding Cancer / Cancer Today / Survivability and Hope / Sam Donaldson: Tips From a Cancer Survivor

Spring 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 2 Page 7