Why We Better Ask Some Hard Questions About Presidents and Their Health

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Dr. Lomazow, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is working on a book about FDR's health problems. Click here for his blog.

In this election year, the issue of Presidential health will surely come to the forefront. One of the major party candidates, John McCain, will not only be the oldest nominee of a major party, but also has a past medical history, diagnosed in 2000, of stage 2a melanoma, a skin cancer that could potentially recur during his term.

While the beliefs and preaching of a close advisor to a prominent candidate is garnering a firestorm of media attention, a history of a potentially fatal disease is a far more important matter. To this point, it has yet to receive the appropriate degree of consideration. To quote an article by Lawrence Altman in The New York Times on March 9th “for patients with a melanoma like Mr. McCain’s who remained free of the disease for the first five years after the diagnosis, the probability of recurrence was 14 percent during the next five years and death in 9 percent, a study in 1992 found.”

History is replete with Presidential disabilities, some minor and open, others disabling and surreptitious. Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919 may be the best example of the latter. His neurological disability was massive, one that surely would have forced him to resign had he been President today. Franklin Roosevelt made a science of hiding his inability to stand without braces. His polio had virtually no effect on his ability to lead American through its economic travails, though there remain serious and legitimate questions about his physical and mental condition prior to running for his fourth term as well as his competence to negotiate the future of the world at Yalta in February 1945. In fact, there is very credible evidence that FDR may have himself suffered the effects of melanoma, in conjunction with his well-documented cardiovascular problems.

Roosevelt’s physicians were actively complicit in protecting the secret’s of his health problems. John Kennedy was treated during his presidency with narcotics for chronic severe back pain and hormone replacement for adrenal insufficiency, unbeknownst to the American public until long after his death. The cancer of another sitting President, Grover Cleveland, which involved a series of radical surgical procedures, was not revealed until shorly after his death in a book by his treating surgeon.

On the other hand, some presidents have been more candid about their illnesses. Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson are probably the best examples. Eisenhower’s series of ailments, including heart attacks and crohn’s disease were reported fully by the press, though his temporarily disabling speech problems from a stroke were not. Johnson went so far as to publicly show his surgical scars to reporters.

Generally, it was the President himself who controlled what would or would not be made public. While succession has been clarified to some degree by the 25th amendment, the control of release of medical information is still the call of the man at the top. In FDR’s case, the notion perpetrated by his treating physician that he didn’t care about or consider his medical problems is difficult to believe, especially since, in this case, they were treating their commander-in-chief.

The lessons of history dictate that the impact of actual or potential illness need to be weighed by the American public in order to make a more intelligent decision about voting for the most powerful man on earth. The effects of Presidential illness have had a major effect on the way the business of America has been conducted in the past, untoward events can and need to be avoided in the future.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 5/16/2008

You raise some good points. They make clear that that while knowing a president's and major candidates' current health should be public knowledge, attempts to predict their future health from their present physical conditions are far more problematic.

James Draper - 5/15/2008

For more information on JFK's health problems, read Robert Dalleck's recent bio. It's amazing how many drugs they pumped into JFK just to keep him alive on a daily basis. Dalleck contends that it did not affect JFK's decision-making capabilities, but one has to wonder. All the pain killers, amphetamines, steriods, and hallucinogens must have made a potent cocktail.

Nancy REYES - 5/14/2008

the best argument for McCain is that his mother is still alive.
The ten percent chance of recurrent melanoma is not a big problem...as a doctor, I wasn't aware that it was that high, but never mind.There are new treatments all the time and of course he could develop a different cancer...his father had a heart attack from smoking and stress...what's his cholesterol?

However, no one has bothered to check Obamas health record...his mom died of cancer...does cancer run in his family? How about high blood pressure? chronic hepatitis B or C from living in Indonesia? etc.

FYI: I'm democrat and pro Clinton