I vote against John McCain because he is a risk to people with melanoma, not because of his risk of melanoma.
Before I go any farther, let me just say that this post is the one time I'll say anything sympathetic about John McCain who I desperately hope loses this election and loses big. But this isn't about him, really.
It seems like during most election seasons, the New York Times' Lawrence Altman MD seems to get worked up about whether he has had enough access to political candidates' health records. Altman was a medical resident about 40 years ago and has never been much of a clinician as far as I can tell besides that--he did preventive health, public health work, and journalism. But, he seems to feel that reporters--and especially, he, being a doctor/reporter--have a right to go over presidential candidates' health records.
This is an appalling idea if we take away John McCain and our hope to see him lose, and think about this in the abstract. And I'm frustrated that a bunch of doctors who support Obama have apparently signed some kind of letter asking that McCain release all his medical records, and that some of them are saying a bunch of stuff in public about his melanoma risk. First of all, I don't know anything more about John McCain's melanoma risk than Bill Frist knew about Terri Schiavo's neurological function, which is to say, I know better than to pronounce my opinion about it.
Second of all, if I was able to look at all of John McCain's medical records, do a physical exam and history, and then quickly become a melanoma expert, does risk for a serious health condition mean that you're supposed to bow out of public life? If you think so, how far down does this argument apply? Governor? Mayor? City Council? Why would it stop at any particular level of office? If the argument is reasonable at the top, why shouldn't the voters of any given town know whether their mayor had guaiac-positive stool? Is it relevant to know whether your congressional candidate might have a brain aneurysm? Is it your right--no, your duty as a citizen--to demand full body CT scans and head MRIs for every person entering any political race at all? As a doctor, shouldn't I reserve my vote only for the candidate who puts his colonoscopy report up on the web so I can look inside his ass and judge for myself whether his polyps are sufficiently presidential?
John McCain's health plans mean his risk to people with melanoma is much more significant than his own risk of melanoma.
Finally, epidemiologically, the melanoma argument opens the door to a truly terrible line of logic, because underneath the medical argument must always be an epidemiological argument. By far the most common cause of death among US presidents in office is assassination. And deaths from cholera or bacterial pneumonia are unlikely for current US presidents. For all of Lawrence Altman's piety about presidents concealing their medical conditions, JFK hiding his Addison's disease was obviously irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. If we're so concerned about a president's chances of death, should we ask Lawrence Altman to be joined by security experts who can analyze the candidates' risk for being assassinated before we vote, which in presidential epidemiology is more likely than death from cancer? Does the public have a right to read all the death threats sent to presidential candidates so we can judge for ourselves whether they are serious? Shouldn't the Secret Service be granting the public complete access to suspected or potential assassins-in-the-making to assess whether they are serious threats or just rifle-toting equivalents of negative lymph nodes? In this election, I don't even want to think about such a thing.
So presidential epidemiology be damned; I am casting my vote for a black man with a significant smoking history and a bunch of racists who want him dead. I'm voting for him because of who he is while he is alive, not because of my morbid guesses about when he might die.
(If you want to be a doctor for Obama, here's a more reasonable way to do it.)