Salute to Cancer Warriors

The connection between cancer and the founding fathers may seem odd at first, but read on, and you might be surprised.

Just in time for any patriotic holiday, this tribute is offered to our founding fathers, presidents throughout history, and individuals today who have never held office or formed a nation, but who are battling malignancy.

Cancer and The Presidency

Before focusing on John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the late 1700s, it’s worth noting that several presidents who held office more recently were affected by cancer, and we, the people of the United States, did not always know about it.

Grover Cleveland

In the summer of 1893, President Grover Cleveland underwent surgery to remove cancer in his jaw. The mass that was removed was larger than a golf ball. It was just a few months after winning his second term as president. That procedure was not publicly known for almost a quarter of a century.

Lyndon Johnson

Skin cancer was removed from his ankle. His diagnosis and procedure were not publicly known until 10 years later.

Ronald Reagan

According to the History Channel, President Ronald Reagan was the first commander in chief having a diagnosis of cancer that was not kept a secret – information about his health was provided to the public in 1985, which helped raise awareness about colon cancer. First, he had surgery to remove polyps that turned out to be colon cancer, and then just a few months later, he had skin cancer removed from his nose.

The Bush Family

According to Washington Post Staff Writers George Lardner Jr.

and Lois Romano, Pauline Robinson Bush, or Robin, died of leukemia, just two months shy of her fourth birthday. Daughter of George Bush Senior and sister of George W. Bush, she had been treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering back in 1953, and survival rates were not what they are now. Such a young death of Robin Bush created a strong tie between George W.

Bush and Barbara Bush, noted Lardner and Romano.

July 4, 1826 – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Died on Same Day

It is true. John Adams-- the second president of the United States -- and Thomas Jefferson -- the third president -- died on the same day: July 4th, 1826. This day was exactly 50 years, to the day, after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Though the Washington Post has been challenged to find a source to confirm it, tradition holds that Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” timed uncannily for the Virginian and brother revolutionary whose body was giving up its soul.

And the Cause of Death?

The way doctors talked about medicine in 1826 is quite a bit different from how it’s done today. And, 200 years from now, God willing, the world’s doctors will pour over our “modern” accounts of illness and disease from 2015… and laugh riotous fits of laughter. They weren’t there yet. Neither are we.

Educated guesses have been made, and John Adams may have had heart failure while Thomas Jefferson probably had some serious bacterial infection in his blood and lungs, not to mention problems with his kidneys.

But either or both of these men might have had a predisposing or underlying malignancy—and that is something that nobody at the time would have known about, unless it announced itself to them.

Thomas Jefferson:

Here is what we know from Jefferson’s writings in January of 1826:

"As to the state of my is now weeks since a re-ascerbation of my painful complaint [a severe attack of diarrhea and difficulty urinating] has confined me to the house and indeed my couch. Required to be constantly recumbent I write slowly and with difficulty. Yesterday for the first time I was able to leave the house and to resume a posture which enables me to begin to answer letters which have been accumulating."

Physicians have speculated about what may have been the cause of death, but no one knows for sure. Malignancy was certainly among the possibilities -- potentially a late prostate cancer, according coverage at -- or maybe some combination of malignancy and infection involving obstructed urine flow. In the end it was intense diarrhea, blood poisoning -- from both infection and kidney damage --and finally pneumonia that took its course. What launched this series of steps toward failing health could very well have been a malignancy, but we don’t know.

John Adams:

John Adams' cause of death was recorded as debility at the age of 90 years and has since been thought likely due to heart failure related to arteriosclerosis. He died during the second year of his oldest son's presidency, living just long enough to see John Quincy Adams triumph in the 1824 election.

Again, they did not have CT scanners or biomarkers back then. Could Adams have had a malignancy that tipped the balance, pushing his existing heart failure too far? It is certainly possible, but it is all speculation.

Thomas Jefferson – A Modern Cancer Connection

There is a namesake hospital in Philadelphia, PA, that is doing great things today for cancer patients. The Jefferson Cutaneous Lymphoma Center provides state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary care for Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware's underserved patients with cutaneous lymphoma.

According to Jefferson Cutaneous Lymphoma center, "Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) is the most common type of cutaneous lymphoma that typically presents with red, scaly patches or thickened plaques of skin. This condition can often be misdiagnosed or commonly mistaken for inflammatory, chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. Cutaneous B-cell lymphoma (CBCL) is a less common type."

John Adams – A Modern Cancer Connection

While there is no evidence of a family relationship -- at least not one that is known to this author -- there is someone today by the name of John Adams who is helping to raise awareness for non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

John Adams offers his personal story as a part of a campaign by the U.K.’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Research organization.

He writes:

“It all started in July 2010 when I was literally brought to my knees by a blinding abdominal pain and rushed to hospital. Here it was discovered that I had a ruptured bowel, and needed immediate surgery.”

“Further investigation revealed, unknown to me at the time, that there was a large tumour growing on my liver. I was then diagnosed with a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, called peripheral T cell lymphoma.”


The National Archives. Patriotic Holidays.

The History Channel. This Day in History: July 4, 1826: Death of the founding fathers.

The History Channel. This Day in History: July 13, 1985: Reagan’s doctors discover possibly cancerous colon polyp.

CNN. Cancer and the Presidency.

The Washington Post. Tragedy Created Bush Mother-Son Bond. Jefferson's Cause of Death. Accessed July 3, 2015.

John Adams; Andrew Santella.

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