Skin cancer survivor and ABC News veteran Sam Donaldson: ‘I’m still kicking’
For decades, Sam Donaldson reported the news as a correspondent for ABC. In 1995, however, he made news: The veteran journalist underwent surgery to treat melanoma, more commonly known as skin cancer.
In 2012 alone, more than 76,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma, according to projections from the National Cancer Institute, and nearly 9,200 Americans who have the disease will die. Patients, health insurance companies and others spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to treat skin cancer.
The 78-year-old Donaldson long ago recovered from melanoma. These days, he’s shedding light on the disease as an honorary member of the Melamona Research Center Advisory Board at Philadelphia’s The Wistar Institute.
Donaldson spoke with InsuranceQuotes.com about his bout with cancer and his support of melanoma research and funding.
InsuranceQuotes.com: When you learned you had cancer, you thought you were going to die and had three months to live. What would you tell people who have the same reaction when they learn they have skin cancer?
Sam Donaldson: Well, I’d say I didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m still kicking and had no recurrence. What I would say to people who have a bout of melanoma, whether it’s lesions or whether it’s lymph nodes involved, is it’s not a death sentence. You’re probably going to be all right.
InsuranceQuotes.com: How did your aggressive reporting style affect how you researched skin cancer and your medical options?
Donaldson: Once I discovered from a competent medical authority that I wasn’t going to necessarily die, the next day I delved into it. For instance, there’s a huge two-volume book (“Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology”) that oncologists use. I immediately went to that book at the time and I started reading the charts. I began to look into, “What are the possibilities, what are the treatments?”
InsuranceQuotes.com: What were some of your options?
Donaldson: When I was diagnosed, one of the big problems was “What do you do after they removed the lymph nodes and looked at the tissue, and pronounced the rest of it clean, and basically you went home?”
Now, in those days, there was one FDA-approved therapy. Dr. John Kirkwood was using interferon. I called him up. He was very honest. He said it’s a yearlong treatment, so for the first month, you will feel like you had a bad flu, and for the rest of the time, you have less energy than you normally have and you won’t quite feel up to par. I said, ‘Well, what does that do for me?” He said, “According to our tests and our studies and our field trials that the FDA has looked at, we give you about a 26 percent chance … of a one-year delay in the return of the disease and, therefore, a year of immortality.” So I’m thinking, “Spend the year under the weather, not working so hard… get an extra year.” I don’t know if that’s a great tradeoff, so I didn’t do anything” (in terms of choosing treatment after the surgery, which removed the cancerous lymph nodes and tumor from his right groin).
InsuranceQuotes.com: Why is more funding needed for cancer treatment research and ultimately finding a cure?
Donaldson: At the moment, the National Institutes of Health can only fund 11 percent of peer-reviewed proposals. If one of those funded is the right one and can show that what worked in the rats works on us, then it’s great, but that’s not very good odds. What about the (remaining) 89 percent? Maybe one of them has the one that works on the rats, but we don’t know if it works on us because we don’t have enough money. To cut cancer research is stupid, but they’re trying to do it.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What are promising strides that you see?
Donaldson: There are new drugs that clearly are beneficial to cancer patients in many respects. However, immunotherapy — the people who believe in that, and I happen to be one of them — is seeing great strides already. Patients are responding. They’re getting up to a 70 percent response to melanoma tumors with new therapies. … No one is yelling cure yet, but it is very, very promising.