09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
For two full days, while his family vacationed on a houseboat on Arizona's Lake Powell and he hit the campaign trail for George W. Bush, former presidential hopeful John McCain managed to keep the news to himself. But on the night of Aug. 12, after rejoining his wife, Cindy, at their Page Springs, Ariz., home, the third-term senator and former Vietnam POW finally gave her the word. "We have a problem," he told his wife of 20 years. "The biopsy's not so good."
Two weeks before, McCain, 64, had abruptly left Philadelphia in the middle of the Republican National Convention, fueling speculation of a rift with Bush, whom he had battled during the GOP presidential primaries. In fact, on the advice of doctors, McCain had flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where biopsies were taken of two small lesions, one on his temple and the other on his upper arm. Now the test results were in. Seven years after a similar lesion was excised from his left shoulder, McCain had again been diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer. "He was trying not to worry me," recalls Cindy, 46. "But I couldn't help but be upset. I didn't sleep at all that night. He was restless. He dozed on and off."
The McCains told their four children, Meghan, 15, Jack, 14, Jimmy, 12, and Bridget, 9. But four days later, before they reached McCain's three grown children from his first marriage, the news broke on CNN. "I was gasping, because I could not believe [it] had come out," says Cindy. "I was in my bedroom and my 14-year-old put his arms around me and held me."
Her distress was understandable. This year 47,700 Americans will be diagnosed with, and 7,700 will die of, melanoma, an increasingly common form of skin cancer linked to sun exposure. Once the disease has spread deep into the skin, it often resists chemotherapy and radiation and can kill up to 80 percent of its victims within five years. Such organizations as the American Academy of Dermatology list melanoma's "ABCD" early warning signs as any moles which are asymmetrical, have an irregular border, uneven coloration or a diameter more than six millimeters, about the size of a pencil eraser. In McCain's case, on July 27 he had run into the congressional attending physician on Capitol Hill, who noticed the spot on his temple and advised him to have it examined.
In the days following his diagnosis, McCain reported for preoperative tests and a consultation at a branch of the Mayo Clinic in nearby Scottsdale but also did his best to keep up a normal routine, dining with close friends on Chinese takeout and slipping into daughter Meghan's VW bug for a trip with her to the local cineplex. "If anything will take your mind off [cancer], it's to go riding with your daughter when she's learning to drive," McCain said with a smile.
On Aug. 18, in a 5½-hour surgery at Phoenix's Mayo Clinic Hospital, doctors removed the lesions and nearby lymph nodes and performed necessary reconstruction. Though some tests had yet to be performed, "the physicians said everything came back just fine," says family friend Sharon Harper, 53. "There were tears of true joy and great relief."
For their part, those who know him have little doubt that McCain will not only recover fully, but will continue his campaign as a vocal advocate of sunscreen and regular checkups with a dermatologist. The senator, says a former staffer, "sees cancer as just another obstacle. The words 'no' and 'failure' don't exist in his vocabulary."
Steve Hubbard in Phoenix, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Giovanna Breu in Chicago