Laura Bush’s Skin Cancer

Laura Bush is no Betty Ford or Nancy Reagan! The White House just admitted that the First Lady had a squamous cell carcinoma of her skin removed in early November of this year. Believing this was a private matter, the Bushes kept this information from the public.

Well, it was a private matter until the press figured it out. Now Laura Bush has joined the list of first ladies who have revealed that they had cancer. Ford eagerly told the public of her breast cancer diagnosis and radical mastectomy in 1974, in an era when breast cancer was still hush-hush. Reagan developed breast cancer in 1987 and made headlines for vocally choosing a mastectomy over a lumpectomy. Thanks to Laura Bush, newspapers, television programs and Internet blogs will now be filled with discussions of the medical significance of skin cancer.

The First Lady was under no obligation to tell anyone anything. She herself is not an elected official. But these days, if you are a public figure, disclosure of just about any illness is fair game.

Editor’s note: Laura Bush says she first mistook her skin cancer for a bug bite and didn’t make it public at first because she considered it to be a minor issue. She told Bob Shieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation:

“Actually it never occurred to me to make it public. It was very minor. I thought it was an insect bite, actually, when I first got it, and then it just didn’t get well.”

She also said, “I never did a lot of sun bathing like some my friends did, because I didn’t tan, really,” she said. “But of course I played outside for my whole childhood (and) spent afternoons at the swimming pool and did those things that we all did growing up in Texas, and so I was out in the sun a lot.”

Barron H. Lerner

Barron H. Lerner is the Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Heath at Columbia University. He is the author of When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine (Johns Hopkins, 2006).