Melanoma Mystery: Did President Roosevelt Die from Skin Cancer?

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It is not uncommon in history for presidents to have kept their illnesses hidden from the general public. For example, President Woodrow Wilson had a paralyzing stroke during his second term as president which was unknown to the public at the time. In fact, Wilson lay in his bed paralyzed and near death for 17 months while his wife and doctor withheld this information from all others. During these months it was Mrs. Wilson who secretly took over running the country, calling this period of time her "stewardship." President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also a leader who kept his medical issues out of the public spotlight. Although the public knew he had developed polio, FDR had his aides and any photographers disguise the fact that he could not walk. He was not photographed using his wheelchair but would pose as though he were standing using heavy metal braces to prop him upright. Now some authors speculate that FDR's deception continued with concealing that he had a deadly melanoma   which eventually killed him.

It was 1945 when a stunned nation learned that their president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had died. FDR's physician reported that the cause of death was uncontrolled hypertension resulting in a cerebral hemorrhage. Records confirm that moments before his death his blood pressure rose to an astronomical high of 300/190. It seemed clear as to what killed FDR. Yet years later, doctors who examined photos of FDR would notice a peculiar skin abnormality, a dark spot or mole over his left eyebrow. The size of it appears to grow according to photos but then in 1940 the dark spot is gone and a small scar remains. Some questions arise as to the possible malignancy of this skin growth and if it was removed later for cosmetic or health reasons.

Two people who believe that the mole was a deadly melanoma include Dr. Steven Lomazow, a neurologist, and Eric Fettmann, a journalist. Lomazow and Fettmann teamed up to co-author a book, F.D.R.'s Deadly Secret, to share their theory.

The authors of this book assert that:

""an intrepid physician-journalist team reveals that Roosevelt at his death suffered from melanoma, a skin cancer that had spread to his brain and abdomen. Roosevelt's condition was not only physically disabling, but also could have affected substantially his mental function and his ability to make decisions in the days when the nation was imperiled by World War II."

Lomazow and Fettman also have a blog to supplement their book, showing photos of FDR's earliest signs of what they identify to be melanoma. Although this melanoma theory sounds plausible there are many others who dispute this claim. The New York Times ran a story pointing out a lack of proof that FDR actually had melanoma as there was no report of any biopsy. There are assumptions which cannot be proven such as reporting that FDR's doctors knew that the skin growth was malignant and had metastasized. Or that the president's stomach pain during his last year of life was due to cancer which had metastasized to his bowel. The New York Times maintains that these leaps of logic are speculative at best.

In 2009, Dr. Harry S. Goldsmith published a report in the Archives of Dermatology), concluding that FDR's pigmented lesion was probably not melanoma.

Yet an earlier study conducted by Dr. A Bernard Ackerman, director of the Ackerman Academy of Dermatopathology in New York City, suggests that President Roosevelt may have died from melanoma. Ackerman contests that most dermatologists would look at the photos of FDR's skin growth and identify it as melanoma but that without a biopsy there cannot be indisputable proof of this. An alternate explanation is that the dark pigmentation was simply an age spot. Ackerman presents his conclusions in the April 2008 issue of the Archives of Dermatology.

Did President Roosevelt die of melanoma or from a stroke? Maybe we will never know. But one thing is for certain, in this day and age, the health of the president could not easily be covered up. For example Senator John McCain's history of malignant melanoma was front page news when he decided to run for president. Although melanoma can still be deadly, there is a high cure rate if it is caught and treated early. If you have any suspicious lesions or skin growths, don't hide. Get them checked out by a dermatologist right away.

For more information about melanoma prevention, treatment, and diagnosis please refer to our Skin Cancer Resources page.