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President Has Cancerous Skin Growth Removed

WebMD Health News

Jan. 16, 2001 (Washington) -- The man known to many as "The Comeback Kid" and described as "lucky in his choice of enemies" has shown that both of these phrases apply to his health, too.

The White House confirmed that a lesion, or sore, was discovered Friday during a regular physical examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Test results have since confirmed that it was basal cell carcinoma, White House press secretary Jake Siewert said Tuesday.

"The lesion was removed," Siewert added. So while it is true to say that the president had skin cancer, "he no longer has it."

Basal cell carcinoma is a common form of skin cancer that affects nearly a million Americans each year. The usually slow-growing cancer starts as a small raised bump on the skin that develops to have a waxy or shiny appearance. It invades areas under the skin but rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

President Clinton might now suffer from additional basal lesions, Darrell Rigel, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University, tells WebMD. But the fact that it was removed in essence means that the president no longer has skin cancer, he agrees.

"Most [basal cell lesions] are caught early, and this sounds like it was caught early," Rigel says.

If left untreated, basal skin cancer can have serious consequences, Rigel says. For example, he tells WebMD, "it could grow through an artery, and you could bleed to death."

Still, "If you had to have skin cancer, this is the best one to have," says Debra Jaliman, MD, a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. The possible consequences primarily depend upon where the lesion is located, she explains.

But Jaliman adds that Americans can learn a valuable lesson from Clinton's experience.

People with a fair skin complexion, blue or green eyes, and blond or red hair are at greater risk of getting skin cancer, Jaliman points out. The fact that Clinton got basal skin cancer may be an indication that the president spent too much time in the sun 20-40 years ago without taking the proper precautions, she says.

To avoid getting basal skin cancer, Jaliman recommends using a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection. She also recommends getting a yearly skin check. Even people with more serious forms of skin cancer can benefit from catching it at its earlier stages, she points out.

"The key is to check anything that is growing, changing, bleeding, or crusting," Rigel says.

Clinton will have a follow-up visit with his dermatologists in six months, and doctors usually follow patients with these cancers for about five years to make sure they do not recur. However, his doctors do not believe that the cancer will come back. The lesion found on Clinton's back was treated using a "scraping and burning" technique, which his doctors say removed the entire lesion.

Clinton's doctors could have surgically removed the lesion. But the scraping and burning technique is a tried-and-true method that is extremely effective, Rigel says. "It's the simplest thing you can do," he tells WebMD.

Besides the skin cancer and slightly elevated cholesterol level, Clinton otherwise received a clean bill of health.

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