How did you discover you had skin cancer?
It was 1996, I had just left the Congress and starting working as a healthcare consultant, when I finally decided to have a full-fledged physical. During the exam my doctor saw an irregular looking mole on my back and sent me to a dermatologist to have it examined further. The dermatologist did a biopsy and based on that they found irregularity in the cells. Then he cut the mole out and made sure he had gotten all the irregular cells out at the margins.
My melanoma was classified as in situ (on the site)—it hadn't penetrated below the surface of the skin before it had progressed to a Stage 1 melanoma. So I didn't need to have chemotherapy after the mole was removed. About half of the melanoma cases diagnosed every year fall into this category.
Did you have a history of lots of sun exposure?
I had been a lifeguard when I was a teenager and, like a lot of people, had never used much sunscreen. But I had no family history of skin cancer. I had no idea I had a problem before I had the physical. If I hadn't gotten that physical the cancer wouldn't have been discovered until it was too late. I was very fortunate it was discovered early.
What were your first thoughts upon learning you had skin cancer?
I remember lying there on the chair and I asked "when will this become cancerous?" And the doctor said, "You don't understand, it is cancerous. But we caught it early."
My first thought was disbelief. I didn't think I could get cancer. And the next thought was, "I have cancer," and I had a profound sense of my own mortality. I recognized that I could die from this. That was shocking and very humbling.
How did your diagnosis and treatment change your lifestyle and health habits?
Ever since then I go to the dermatologist every 4 to 6 months to get a full body check, and anything that looks strange is removed. I also began not only wearing sunscreen but protective clothing—hats, long-sleeved shirts. Also, as a father of two boys, I have really tried to make sure they wear sunscreen and long sleeve shirts whenever possible.
How have you become involved in advocating for the fight against melanoma?
I have tried to translate my knowledge of how government works and my personal experience to work with organizations to improve melanoma screening, prevention, and research. I have tried to raise awareness about the importance of screening, particularly for men over 50 and young women under 29. There has been almost an 8-fold increase in melanoma since the '70s among young women, a dramatic rise that is in large part the result of increased use of tanning beds. I have also been working to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration's regulation of tanning beds. And I have been helping to advance research supported by the National Cancer Institute and private organizations like the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Another important effort is to raise awareness about this problem among our military. With so many men and women having served long tours in the deserts of Iraq and high elevation regions like Afghanistan, we can expect growing rates of skin cancer from all that sun exposure as the warfighters of today become the veterans of tomorrow.