In an interview with Healthline, CBS news correspondent Norah O’Donnell discussed her experience with melanoma and the importance of preventive medicine.
O’Donnell is the anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News,” delivering essential medical and political coverage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 election cycle.
It’s been more than 4 years since O’Donnell received an urgent call from her dermatologist while admiring the sheets and towels in a department store.
When her doctor told her that she had melanoma and would need surgery to remove it as soon as possible, she felt an instant dread.
Since the surgery, O’Donnell has been diligent about getting checked for skin cancer every 4 to 6 months but fears this may not be the case for others.
She’s concerned that people are falling behind on their preventive doctors’ visits due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Although some people are nervous to enter a medical setting for a checkup given the pandemic-related physical distancing recommendations, it may be safer than many realize.
“One of my own doctors actually said a hospital is one of the safest places to be because there is universal mask and glove wearing,” O’Donnell recalled.
She hopes learning about her story will inspire others to take a proactive approach to their health during these challenging times.
O’Donnell said that although her doctor detected the melanoma very early and the surgery was relatively minor compared with other skin cancer surgeries, she now understands the uncertainty of cancer in a more personal way.
She describes the scar on her back as “a reminder that regular checkups can save lives,” adding that when it was healing, “my kids helped me put lotion on it, and now when I tell them to put on sunscreen, they understand the seriousness.”
O’Donnell’s “brush with mortality” has affected how she reports on health stories. “It’s made me incredibly empathetic and emotional,” she said.
Since her diagnosis, O’Donnell regularly uses her platform to speak about the dangers of tanning and sun exposure. She has a drawer by her front door filled with sunscreen, and her children know not to come home with a pink face or neck.
After learning more about melanoma, she was especially struck by the dangers of indoor tanning beds, which can increase the risk for melanoma by
“I think there’s an educational disconnect in terms of teaching young people about the dangers of tanning.”
“We were certainly vain like teenagers can be. [It’s important to] leave the vanity behind and care more about saving your life,” O’Donnell said.
When O’Donnell first spoke publicly about her experience with melanoma in 2017, people reached out to her saying she inspired them to get screened. Several whose screenings led to a discovery of skin cancer thanked her.
“That was the payoff in sharing my story,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Donnell has watched news media turn into a public health service, disseminating new information on the virus, effects of transmission, and vaccine development.
She hopes to continue this service by making the news a place for information on other illnesses, like melanoma.
“[Over the past year], there’s been a heightened sense of awareness about things like a cough or a runny nose,” O’Donnell said. “I hope in some ways there is a heightened sense of awareness about the rest of our health, too.”
Over the course of the pandemic, doctors’ visits have dropped dramatically. In April 2020, the number of visits declined nearly 60 percent below the pre-pandemic standard. With this decline, O’Donnell admits she also hasn’t been making all her regular visits this year.
“Last week was the first week we didn’t have an election, an impeachment, or an insurrection, you know? So I actually had several doctors’ appointments of my own,” O’Donnell said in February. “It isn’t easy to do your job at work, take care of your family, and then schedule appointments.”
She said her long-term goal in life as a reporter and a mother is to change the relationship many people have with personal health.
“Visiting a doctor isn’t just for when you’re sick. We should be visiting doctors when we’re healthy, so we don’t get sick,” O’Donnell said. “We have to be going more regularly to get skin cancer checks, mammograms, and Pap smears. We need more regular visits with therapists and mental health experts.”
As many people are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, O’Donnell hopes there will be many returning to dermatologists’ and other doctors’ offices for preventive medicine visits, because “catching conditions early can save lives, and you just can’t repeat that enough.”
In addition to now understanding the uncertainty of skin cancer, O’Donnell said because of her experience with melanoma, she also better understands hope.
- There’s hope in the fact that melanoma is preventable and treatable when it’s caught early.
- There’s hope in that by getting checked and taking precautions to stay safe in the sun, people can protect themselves from melanoma. As we begin to emerge from pandemic lockdown, now is an important time to think about getting screened.
- There’s hope in the ongoing science that’s furthering melanoma diagnosis and treatment. “Let’s put all our eggs in the science basket,” O’Donnell said.
She recommends being part of a community that uplifts one another to get regular checkups and take care of themselves.
“Certainly if you’re a woman, you go to the OB-GYN, dentist, and eye doctor, but I don’t know how many people are going and getting a separate skin cancer check at the dermatologist,” O’Donnell said, “and that should really be at the top of the list.”