CBS This Morning’s Norah O’Donnell: How I Survived Skin Cancer
‘If I can help or encourage someone to go get their yearly skin check, then that’s what I wanted to do,’ O’Donnell says of going public with her diagnosis and treatment.
“I think it’s fair to say it scared the hell out of me,” Norah O’Donnell told The Daily Beast.
The CBS This Morning cohost was talking about her recent bout with cancer, not expressing alarm about the strange and unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump’s White House, although O’Donnell was deeply troubled by an incident last Wednesday.
The day after Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey as the law-enforcement agency continued to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian operatives, the White House barred American journalists from a presidential photo op with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while permitting a photographer from the Russian propaganda agency TASS to snap away and publish the photos.
“I’ve covered three White Houses,” O’Donnell declared. “Most White Houses are so concerned about message discipline. They’re fixated on message discipline. That extends to photographs… because of what message that sends around the world. So, the fact that they allowed a Russian state agency to control that was surprising. I think it’s concerning that the president and the White House trusted TASS over the White House press pool.”
When it comes to having the hell scared out of her, however, O’Donnell was recalling her reaction last November to her own diagnosis of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer—basically a tumor of the cells that make melanin—that kills one victim every hour in the United States.
“I come from a family of doctors who talk about skin cancer and prevention all the time,” said the 43-year-old O’Donnell, who, like the rest of her family, is fair-skinned and freckled, as befits their Irish heritage. “I like to keep my personal life private, but if I can help or encourage someone to go get their yearly skin check, then that’s what I wanted to do.”
The network anchor is the daughter and sibling of Army doctors: internist and tropical-disease specialist Francis O’Donnell, a retired colonel who was drafted during the Vietnam War era, and surgeon Mary O’Donnell, Norah’s younger sister and best friend.
O’Donnell’s mother, also named Norah, was pre-med at New York’s Fordham University when she met and later married Francis, then at the medical school, and didn’t finish her degree.
But she has recently returned to college at age 70 to study microbiology and organic chemistry at the University of Maryland where, her daughter brags, she’s maintaining a 4.0 grade average.
“Getting a skin check is easy to do, but I let it lapse and didn’t go to the dermatologist for two years,” said the younger Norah, noting that while growing up with her sister and two brothers in San Antonio, where their dad was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, she spent endless hours by the pool and out of doors, without using sunscreen or other protection.
“Skin cancer is the No. 1 diagnosed cancer, and although melanoma is less than 1 percent of those diagnoses, it accounts for a majority of deaths,” she said—an estimated 9,730 expected this year alone.
As she spoke by phone Saturday from the nation’s capital, where she shares an embassy-worthy home with her husband, Washington restaurateur Geoff Tracy, and their three young children, O’Donnell was getting ready for an on-air discussion of her medical ordeal with the doctor who cut the malignancy out of her upper back last December, and closed the three-inch-long wound with 25 stitches.
Manhattan dermatologist Elizabeth K. Hale’s appearance on Monday’s installment of CBS This Morning is timed to the release of O’Donnell’s bylined story in Good Housekeeping magazine.
“I felt my anxiety building,” O’Donnell writes, recounting her emotional state after receiving a “we need to talk” email from Hale. It was the day after last Thanksgiving and O’Donnell was in the bedding section of Bloomingdale’s, taking a break from relatives for some me-time and retail therapy.
“Why couldn’t this wait at least until Monday?” she writes. “Tears welled up in my eyes. I sat on one of the store’s display beds, took a deep breath and called [Hale]. There wasn’t much small talk. ‘Your biopsy came back. It’s melanoma,’ she said. I was stunned. Atop a mountain of high-thread-count linens and fluffy pillows, I suddenly wanted to crawl under the covers and hide.”
O’Donnell describes telling her three children as “the worst part of this whole ordeal”—never more painful than when her 9-year-old son Henry asked her if she was going to die.
“I’m absolutely not going to die,” she promised. “I mean, eventually, I will. But not from this surgery.”
“Telling the kids was a decision I struggled with,” O’Donnell writes. “My husband, Geoff, and I try to be as open with our children as possible, so it seemed like the right thing to do. But as I left my daughters’ bedroom that night, I was flooded with guilt. I felt horrible for worrying them. What had I been thinking? But I was scared and, perhaps selfishly, I appreciated their deep concern.”
Six months later, O’Donnell reports that her skin is beginning to resemble the cratered surface of the moon from repeated follow-up biopsies—although, as her dad rightly pointed out, “Better craters than cancer.”
O’Donnell, who must visit her dermatologist for checkups every few months to confirm that she’s cancer-free, realizes she’s lucky, not only because her melanoma was caught early before it metastasized, but also—unlike some 24 million Americans who stand to lose their health-care insurance under the Trump administration’s proposed Obamacare replacement passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives—she has access to the best doctors and medicine that money can buy.
“There is a health-care crisis in this country,” O’Donnell said, noting that she and her family are covered not under CBS’s health plan but under the insurance provided by Geoff Tracy’s 300-worker restaurant chain.
“My husband owns a small business, and our insurance premiums have gone up 30 percent in the past year. Who can afford that?” said O’Donnell, who acknowledges that she can. “I have a good job and we are a relatively healthy family. But the system is so broken. The premiums have gone up so much on our personal plan that we just decided to have a higher deductible. We spend $5,000 out of pocket before the insurance kicks in. And often the drugs aren’t even covered.”
Especially disadvantaged, O’Donnell said, are patients suffering from chronic illnesses and retired military personnel who must brave long waiting periods at Veterans Administration hospitals before receiving needed treatment.
“You do not have access to good doctors unless you’re wealthy,” O’Donnell said.
It goes without saying, of course, that the people likely to be hurt most by the latest iteration of Trumpcare are millions of middle- and working-class folks in the red states—many of them fair-skinned, and thus susceptible to skin cancer—who voted last November for the president.
Speaking of Trump, O’Donnell said that his fledgling presidency, on the positive side, “has engaged more people in what happens in Washington and how it affects our lives… I have learned more in the last six months about surveillance and how it works, and I’ve learned a lot more about ‘unmasking,’ and how that works, and how that intelligence was shared’”—that is, when a spy agency reveals the identities of U.S. citizens whose communications with foreigners (as with fired Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s chats about sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak) have been intercepted during routine intelligence collections.
What about “taping,” as the president hinted that he’d done in a tweet that was widely interpreted as a threat to dismissed FBI Director Comey, should he dare to contradict Trump’s public claim that Comey reassured him three times that he wasn’t personally under investigation?
“I wasn’t around during Watergate—I’m 43,” O’Donnell said. “It’s exposed and generated so much interest because it’s the most powerful position in the world. The fascination and interest in what President Trump is doing is helping a lot of people learn what goes on and how much power resides in the White House.”
O’Donnell added: “I will say this: Verbal attacks on individual journalists are not as important as an attack on the free press. By not allowing the White House pool into the Oval Office when the Russian foreign minister is there with others—that’s serious.”
Regarding Trump’s frequent assaults on the Fourth Estate, O’Donnell said, “President Trump is the same as candidate Trump in terms of his actions and ad hominem attacks. That’s his rhetorical skill set. It’s to attack the person or journalist who disagrees with him.”
A recent example was the president’s April 30 interview with Face the Nation host John Dickerson, during which Trump childishly insulted the venerable Washington public-affairs program, calling it “Deface the Nation,” and ended up essentially kicking Dickerson out of the Oval Office when the latter pressed him to justify his unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, is a “bad, sick guy” who had “wiretapped” Trump Tower.
Yet, whatever bad blood, if any, existed between Trump and Dickerson didn’t top CBS This Morning from broadcasting the next day from the White House East Room, and getting friendly interviews with press secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and even a spur-of-the moment sit-down with Ivanka Trump.
A few minutes after the broadcast ended, the president himself came down to say hello.
“We talked to him for a fair amount,” O’Donnell said, referring to her cohosts Gayle King and Charlie Rose. “We had a conversation with him about health care, about foreign policy—it was all off the record. He’s interesting to talk to. He’s not threatening in person when you talk to him. But he does plenty of the push-back off the record that he does publicly. He’s always kind of working people over. ‘Hey, I saw you reported this, it should be this way.’ He’s fighting one hundred percent of the time for his reputation and his message. He really is relentless.”