Thursday, January 18, 2001

Clinton's type of cancer is common

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When doctors removed a basal cell carcinoma Friday from PresidentClinton's back, it reminded many Americans how common skin cancer can be.

        An estimated half-million cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed nationwide each year. It is among the most common and most curable types of cancer — so common that the American Cancer Society does not keep detailed statistics.

        “The average dermatologist sees many cases per week,” said Dr. Brian Adams, a dermatologist with UC Physicians, and chief of dermatology at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.

        Basal cell lesions are caused primarily by overexposure to the sun. People with fair skin, those who had severe sunburns as children, and those who work with coal tar, creosote, radium or arsenic compounds are most at risk, according to the American Cancer Society.

        Basal cell carcinomas appear mostly on the head, neck or trunk in two common forms: nodules that look pearly or translucent, or flat sores that can be scaly and irregularly shaped. Mr. Clinton had a superficial lesion, according to doctors at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

        The lesions are typically removed by minor surgery performed at the dermatologist's office, Dr. Adams said.

        While this type of skin cancer is fairly simple to treat, people with unusual skin sores should not delay having them checked by their primary care physician or a dermatologist, Dr. Adams said.

        That's because many people would be unlikely to know the difference between a basal cell lesion and a melanoma, a less common but much more dangerous type of skin cancer.

        Melanomas often start as irregularly shaped, mole-like growths that bleed, change color or grow rapidly. Untreated, they can spread quickly and cause death. Sen. John McCain, who lost a primary challenge to President-elect George W. Bush, was recently treated for melanoma.

        Melanoma can be successfully treated, but quick diagnosis makes a big difference in survival rates.

        About 96 percent of people survive five years with localized melanoma, compared with 59 percent who have tumors that have spread regionally and 13 percent for distant tumors.

       The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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