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.
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.
“Being uneducated in medical science, I’d heard that melanoma was a very bad actor, so I told my then wife that I thought I had about three months to live,” he recalls.
The real prognosis was a lot more promising, Donaldson learned after being referred to Rosenberg. After removing the tumor, Rosenberg assured Donaldson that his cancer had spread to only one lymph node, and that the surgical margins around it were clean. After his wide excision, Donaldson wouldn’t need any further treatment besides frequent CAT scans to check for recurrence.
“It couldn’t be better,” Rosenberg told him. “I think you have a good chance of living a long, healthy life.” While Rosenberg estimated Donaldson’s recurrence risk at 55 percent, he told the newscaster that, “With each day that goes by, your chances improve.”
Donaldson didn’t believe him, but he does now. Rosenberg recently announced that the two no longer need to see each other, except at cocktail parties.
Ultimately, Donaldson thinks his doctor’s optimism helped, even though he had trouble embracing it at the time.
That’s why he likes to encourage caregivers, “to the extent that you can honestly give people some reassurance and even some hope, do it” — even when patients are nearing the end of their journey.
“My friend Katie Couric lost her husband to colorectal cancer in 1998,” he recalls. “They had two small children, and when he was being treated, the children were alarmed. She said to them, ‘Great doctors are doing everything they can to make your daddy well.’ She reassured them, but she didn’t lie to them. I want caregivers – not just oncologists, but nurses and administrators who take data – to not say things like, ‘OK, where do you want to be buried?’ but to be aware of the fact that patients want reassurance and, if it can be given, they want hope.”
Of course, doctors aren’t solely responsible for cultivating that hope.
“Be optimistic,” Donaldson advises fellow patients. “I do not believe that the mind, the personality or an optimistic versus a pessimistic attitude can cure cancer, but at the margins I do believe that the better we feel about ourselves and the world around us, the more energy we seem to be able to generate. As a result, we may feel better.”
Don’t Applaud, Just Throw Money
Since his experience with cancer, Donaldson has set out to learn more about melanoma, and to help others affected by that cancer and others.
“The cancer club into which I was inducted in 1995 is not a club you ask to join. It’s not like a swanky committee looks over your application. Once in, everyone wants to do their part to keep other people out,” he says. “I don’t think I was a coldhearted person who didn’t care about other people’s health miseries before, but I’m much more aware now that I’ve had my own experience with a dread disease. You want to do what little you can to make things better in the future.”
Donaldson has done that as chair emeritus of the F. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center Board of Advisors and of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Foundation’s Board of Directors. He is an honorary member of the Wistar Institute’s Melanoma Research Center Advisory Board, and an emeritus director of Research!America, a group that promotes prioritizing research that is focused on improving health.
Donaldson remembers exactly why he wanted to work with Moffitt. The decision came out of a meeting with immunotherapy expert Jeffrey Weber, a senior member of the center, and his colleagues.
“I asked, ‘What do you see as your goal here from a research standpoint?’ They said, ‘To cure cancer.’ I said, ‘You’re my people.’ ”
In addition to donating some of his personal funds to cancer research, Donaldson is dedicated to attracting additional money to the cause.
“I used to cover Congress in the ’60s when I first came to Washington, and I remember, in the House, somebody got up and said, ‘You can’t help this by throwing money at it.’ I tell people, ‘Yes, you can.’”
That’s why Donaldson was incensed when the federal government allowed budget cuts to occur by sequester in 2013, meaning that slashes of 5.1 percent were made across the board to most programs and agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and its programs for cancer research. As a result, he says, the percentage of promising peer-reviewed cancer research grant proposals that actually receive NIH funding remains quite limited.
“I know Republicans and Democrats hate each other, but life is about making a deal and going forward even though neither side gets what it wants,” Donaldson continues. “These days, the idea seems to be, ‘It’s my way or the highway, and if you disagree you’re not a good American — and can I see your birth certificate?’”
Contributing to Progress
Nonetheless, there’s been progress in the treatment of melanoma since Donaldson was diagnosed, including the maturation of the use of interleukin 2 and of other immunotherapies, including tumor- infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), as well as exploration into the use of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, or lab-engineered cancer-killing immune cells.
Donaldson is proud to have helped drive those improvements.
“Sam has been incredibly generous in giving his time whenever asked to give talks to advocacy or funding groups,” Rosenberg says. “With the kind of audience and respect that he has, Sam has made a big difference in people’s understanding of what it takes to make progress and the resources that are needed.”
Among his other efforts, Donaldson has helped to support Rosenberg’s research, both by participating in one of the doctor’s clinical trials and by donating his own money.
As part of the trial in 1995, Donaldson’s tissue was cryopreserved in case it was needed later to create a personalized immunotherapy to treat a recurrence. The treatment would have involved the mass multiplication, in a lab, of naturally occurring, cancer-attacking TILs taken from Donaldson’s body. If needed, this army of T cells would have been given to Donaldson intravenously. The technique is now sparking complete durable regressions in 20 percent of those with metastatic melanoma who try it, and it’s routine practice to save tissue from all such patients, Rosenberg says, just in case.
“In our last trial, 93 patients were followed for more than five years,” Rosenberg says. “Twenty had complete regressions from the beginning and, of those, 19 remained completely disease-free. We believe immunotherapy can cure patients with metastatic melanoma, and we are trying now to extend that to other cancers.”
Donaldson is grateful for that research, knowing it will help many who feel as he did when he was diagnosed: not at all done with life.
In 53 years as a Washington, D.C. reporter, Donaldson – who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M. and owns a 27,000-acre ranch in the state – was always where the action was. He was 5 feet away when John Hinckley Jr., shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He watched President Jimmy Carter put together a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt; covered Vietnam, the first Gulf War and Watergate; and saw the Voting and Civil Rights bills passed.
“Was it boring? Are you kidding? It was exciting all the time,” he says. “I would have paid them, if I could have afforded it, to be able to do what I was able to do.”
When Donaldson was diagnosed, it was those experiences that came to mind.
“I wasn’t afraid,” he says, “but I was very sad if I was going to have to check out. I was enjoying life and was happy and felt pretty healthy—if you don’t count the melanoma.”
A Survivor’s Advice
When Sam Donaldson was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma, he temporarily lost sight of his optimism. But positivity is central to his advice to fellow patients with cancer:
Keep your spirits up; it certainly can’t hurt the way you feel, and it just might help.
Get two or three opinions from different experts in the field, and then follow what you determine to be the best medical advice.
Talk about it. “Public discourse about cancer says, ‘Hey, you’re not alone. There are millions of us who are cancer survivors; why don’t you join us?’ It takes away the dread shroud that covers this. Ignorance always comes when people don’t want to, or can’t, learn the facts.”
Shepherd someone else through the journey. “My cancer was diagnosed on a Friday, and it got in the papers. My assemblyman at the time, Connie Mack — I’d never covered him, and we weren’t friends — called me and told me he’d survived melanoma. ‘I’m alive and healthy,’ he told me, ‘and you’re going to be fine.’ You can’t imagine what that did for my spirits. I say to people, if a friend or stranger has melanoma, call them up and tell them, ‘Here I am!’ It gives them a real lift.”
Excellent piece, Beth. There is no doubt in my mind that the careful presentation of information by one's oncologist is crucial to successful treatment and must be considered by anyone in such a powerful position. We patients start out doe-eyed and afraid. How we progress can be largely influenced by everyone on our medical teams, from the receptionists to the MDs.
Thank you for this inspiring story.
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