Accentuate the Positive

Optimism helps when cancer is diagnosed, advises TV newsman and melanoma survivor Sam Donaldson.
Sam Donaldson likes to look on the bright side of things.

At age 81, the veteran television newscaster, a survivor of melanoma, quips that he feels great, with all the energy of a 79-year-old.

All joking aside, that positivity has not only helped Donaldson through his experience with melanoma, but has also driven his involvement in efforts to help others affected by cancer. Over the years, he’s used his celebrity to help raise research funds, donated his own money and spent time encouraging doctors to temper honesty with the rosiest possible view when speaking with patients.

“We want optimistic doctors, but we want honest doctors,” says Donaldson, who addressed the topic with melanoma specialists in Miami, Fla., on March 7 as the keynote speaker for the 11th Annual International Symposium on Melanoma and Other Cutaneous Malignancies, sponsored by Physicians’ Education Resource — a sister company of CURE.

“Put the best face on the situation,” he says. “If a doctor tells someone they have a 26 percent chance of living, they’re devastated. But if the doctor says, ‘I know people who’ve had exactly what you have who are walking around today,’ they’ll say, ‘Thank you, doctor,’ and go on.”

Donaldson’s doctor, Steven Rosenberg – chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and renowned as the father of immunotherapy – agrees.

Photo by Dave Lam

SAM DONALDSON was the keynote speaker for the 11th Annual International Symposium on Melanoma and Other Cutaneous Malignancies, sponsored by Physicians’ Education Resource ®. [Photo by Dave Lam]

“It’s very important for any oncologist to always be honest with patients – to answer their questions in a straightforward, direct way, to not force information on them, but to provide them with any information that they request and need,” Rosenberg says. “How one does that is the difference between a good doctor and a doctor who needs improvement.”

A Challenge to Positivity

Donaldson — who twice served as chief White House correspondent and was co-host of the shows “This Week” and “PrimeTime Live” during his 44 years with ABC — knows what it’s like to hear frightening news from a doctor. And he knows what it’s like to fear the worst.

The newsman discovered his cancer in the shower one day in 1995 — an egg-sized lump in his groin. It turned out to be stage 3 melanoma, which had spread from a suspicious mole removed from his right ankle 7½ years earlier. When removed at the time, Donaldson recalls, the mole had tested negative for melanoma in three different labs.

Upon finding the lump more than half a decade later, Donaldson kept quiet about the situation overnight, not wanting to scare his family. “What was I going to say to my wife: ‘Good night dear, I love you and, by the way, I have cancer?’”

Instead, he got the name of an oncologist from a friend and had himself checked out. When he learned he had melanoma, his characteristic optimism slipped away.

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