McCain’s Aches and Pains

BY Terry J. Allen

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In a parody of openness, McCain allowed a few hand-picked news outlets three hours -- an average nine seconds a page -- to review 1,173 pages of medical records covering eight years

Like jokes about President Bush being stupid, cheap shots at Sen. John McCain’s age are largely unfunny. More importantly, they deflect crucial concerns about the men.

Bush’s alleged stupidity camouflaged his administration’s brilliance in implementing radical economic, ideological, legal and social policies that advanced its agenda. Ridicule of McCain’s age (along with paeans to his war record) distracts from hard critiques of his record and policies. McCain’s age is irrelevant unless it affects his ability to function in a world that has radically changed since his formative years. McCain’s computer illiteracy, for example, is not the result of advanced years. Rather it suggests someone who is coddled, out-of-touch and loath to learn new things.

Nor is McCain’s history of cancer tied to age. But some things are, such as the less-publicized array of his potentially compromising conditions, ailments and medications.

Everyone knows about the cancer. In the last 15 years, McCain has had “every kind of skin cancer you can get, basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer and, of course, malignant melanoma …[and] quite a few precancerous lesions,” said Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who reviewed McCain’s medical records. “He’s going to get another skin cancer,” the NBC News chief medical editor predicted.

The melanoma on his temple, discovered in 2000, is the most worrying. His current doctors described a single site. But buried in the medical reports released on May 23, was previously undisclosed information. Two pathologists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology who examined the melanoma specimen in 2000 noted both a primary and satellite cancer, meaning the original site had metastasized and a recurrence was more likely than with a single site.

It is amazing that reporters unearthed this fact. In a parody of openness, McCain allowed a few hand-picked news outlets three hours – an average nine seconds a page – to review 1,173 pages of medical records covering eight years. The campaign cloistered about 20 reporters in a room and barred cell phones, Internet access and leaving the room except for bathroom breaks. The New York Times, which had pushed hard for disclosure, was not invited. A follow-up conference call, scheduled for 90 minutes, was stopped after 45.

That the supine media agreed to these conditions rather than boycott the “release” is a travesty. That McCain – who has pledged to “set a new standard for transparency and accountability” – drew little criticism is a triumph of manipulation.

In fact, McCain had pulled the same one-time-only, beat-the-clock trick in 1999 when he released a 1,500-page batch of medical records that included mental health assessments relevant to his imprisonment in Vietnam. They remain sealed.

The recent document dump revealed an aging man on numerous drugs for a panoply of age-appropriate ailments: Hydrochlorothiazide for kidneys, Simvastatin for high cholesterol, occasional Ambien CR for sleeplessness, aspirin to prevent blood clots, and Zyrtec and Claritin for allergies. The amiloride he takes to preserve potassium in the blood also lowers blood pressure, which is still at the high end of normal (134 over 84). Possible side effects include kidney damage, impotence, fast or uneven heartbeat, acting awake (driving, eating, talking) while in drug-induced sleep, confusion, and dizziness.

Occasional dizziness is one of the ailments McCain has suffered, along with degenerative arthritis; signs of diverticulitis, an inflammation of the colon; kidney and bladder stones; and benign cysts in both kidneys. Before quitting, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 25 years. He was not tested for memory function.

McCain has undergone at least a half dozen surgeries for skin cancer, a prostate procedure called “transurethral resection,” removal of kidney and bladder stones and of potentially cancerous colon polyps. He’s had a lens implanted in one eye and mild-moderate high-frequency hearing loss. On the up side, the doctors remarked on “unremarkable” buttocks.

But McCain can still spin with the best. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, boasted that the medical records would show that “he defies all the rules of aging.” The campaign also trots out McCain’s nonagenarian mother as evidence of good genes, omitting that his father died of a heart attack at 70. A grandfather died at 61.

McCain’s age is an issue, but not the issue. While his medical records raise questions, his political record of reactionary policies, poor judgment and a dated worldview are more unhealthy – for the nation and the world.

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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