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Kemp, Mack high on Dole's list // CANCER ISSUES

If Bob Dole chooses Florida Sen. Connie Mack as his running mate this weekend, it would be the first major party ticket pairing two known cancer survivors.

In searching for a perfect 10, Dole has repeatedly said he wants a vice president who is fit _ in every conceivable way. "They have to be in good health," the 73-year-old Republican nominee said recently.

Choosing Mack would be a strong statement by Dole that he does not view a bout with cancer as a disqualifier.

Both Dole and Mack have suffered fairly common, generally treatable forms of cancer. Dole had prostate surgery in 1991, and Mack had a cancerous mole removed from his hip in 1989. Both men say that there has been no recurrence of the cancer and that they are feeling fit today.

"I happen to be one of those individuals that represents the success in the fight against cancer," Mack said this week at a Florida cancer center.

The age and health of the No. 2 Republican have taken on significance in this race largely because Dole himself would be the oldest first-term president inaugurated. In addition, the disabled World War II veteran has a lengthy medical history that includes the loss of a kidney, hernia surgery, colon polyps and high cholesterol.

Public opinion polls indicate about one-third of voters believe Dole's age is a hindrance to serving in the White House.

To help assuage those concerns, Dole poses on treadmills, releases medical records and has promised to choose a running mate who is younger and at least as fit as he is. He also has offered to submit his medical documents to an independent review board if elected.

At age 55, the telegenic, upbeat Mack could offer a pleasant contrast to Dole's seemingly dour persona. And just as Dole has used his battle with prostate cancer as a way to pitch early testing, Mack has become an advocate for cancer screening and research.

"Sen. Mack has been very open about being a cancer patient," said Kerrie Wilson, a vice president with the American Cancer Society. "He has been firmly committed to cancer and health research funding."

Mack's health experiences have not only shaped his politics, they are what got him into politics in the first place.

In 1979, as his 35-year-old brother Michael McGillicuddy lay in an Atlanta hospital room dying of skin cancer, Mack, a Cape Coral banker at the time, reflected on his own mortality.

"What that forced me to do was answer the question: "What's life all about? How are you really spending those precious days? Are you doing what you should be doing?'

" he has recalled. "And in the search I realized that the thing I get the greatest sense of political satisfaction from is the sense of helping someone else."

Soon after, he switched parties to join the Florida GOP, and in 1982, he won a House seat in his coastal district around Fort Myers.

Sadly for the Mack family, their first-hand experiences with cancer did not stop with Michael's death.

Mack's mother, Susan McGillicuddy, had a mastectomy in 1980 and today, at age 82, has kidney cancer. Earlier this year, his father, Connie Mack Jr., died at age 83 of cancer of the esophagus.

In 1989, Mack himself was diagnosed with melanoma, the least common and most serious form of skin cancer. It was the same disease that killed his younger brother.

As Mack recalls, he was traveling in Florida when his doctor summoned him.

"On my flight back to Washington, my thoughts were of my younger brother and what he had gone through," Mack said in a floor speech. "I knew that something had to be done."

In two operations, plastic surgeons at Bethesda Naval Hospital removed the mole and tissue underneath.

Although unfamiliar with the details of Mack's case, several cancer experts said early detection of melanoma usually means a complete cure.

"When it's early it's a snap to deal with," said Dr. John DiGiovanna, a dermatologist at the National Institutes of Health.

They were not surprised the Macks, a family of light-skinned, fair-haired children raised in Florida, were stricken with skin cancer.

"The number of childhood sunburns is directly related to prospects for melanoma," said Dr. Douglas Reintgen, program leader for the skin cancer unit at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa.

Nationally, 1 in 75 people develop melanoma, Reintgen said. But in Florida, the odds jump to 1 in 60, and for Florida natives the chances are 1 in 50.

The central question on melanoma is how deep the cancer is embedded. The deeper the cancer the more serious the threat that it has spread to internal organs.

Dr. John Eisold, the attending physician in Congress, reviewed Mack's medical records this summer and pronounced him healthy.

"Statistically, you have a greater than 96 percent chance for no recurrence," he wrote in a letter to Mack. "This excellent prognosis is based on the shallow depth of the lesion."

Mack was unavailable to discuss his medical situation.

In 1990, Mack's daughter, Debra Caldwell, was treated for cervical cancer, and five years ago his wife, Priscilla, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"When she told me she had discovered a lump in her breast through self-examination, the first thought that went through my mind was, "I am going to lose her,' " he said.

So many family members with cancer is unusual and unfortunate, the experts say. But it is difficult to say whether the family illnesses are related.

Dr. Alan Houghton, a cancer specialist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said there is mounting evidence to suggest the presence of a gene in families prone to skin cancer. Still, he stressed, "cancer's a common disease."

Today, both Macks and their two children are cancer free. And the couple have devoted much of their time to crusading for increased spending on early detection and treatment.

"My wife, my daughter and I are proof that cancer can be beat and that its victims can go on to enjoy productive careers and full, happy lives," Mack said in a statement Thursday.

Mack is not the only Republican vice presidential prospect with a mixed medical background. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma was treated for bladder cancer in 1988, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona had a melanoma removed from his shoulder two years ago.

Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, suffered a series of mild heart attacks from 1978 to 1988 when he underwent bypass surgery. Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar underwent quadruple bypass surgery two years ago, a gallbladder operation in 1993 and angioplasty in 1992.