WASHINGTON – White House Press Secretary Tony Snow declared the official start of the slow year-end news cycle after reporters repeatedly pressed him Tuesday to explain why it had not been disclosed that first lady Laura Bush had a skin cancer tumor removed from her right shin in early November.
"You guys are really stretching it. I mean, it is now officially a really slow news day," Snow told reporters after being peppered with questions about whether the first lady deliberately attempted to hide that she had a malignant tumor removed from her shin or whether she had done enough to stress the importance of regular medical check-ups.
"Let me repeat to you exactly what she said. She said, 'It's no big deal. We knew it wasn't a big deal at the time.' Apparently — apparently she's wrong about this," Snow said.
Susan Whitson, the first lady's spokeswoman, said doctors performed a biopsy in October and found a patch of cancer about the size of a nickel and removed it under local anesthetic. She said Mrs. Bush never had to adjust her schedule and right afterward went to Singapore and Vietnam with the president. Since then, she has hosted 23 holiday receptions without incident.
Whitson said the first lady was still wearing a bandage more than five weeks after the incision because the skin on that part of the leg is thin and "it takes a little while to heal." Asked if plastic surgery might be required, Whitson said, "No further procedures are needed at this point."
Details of the surgery may never have been revealed if Mrs. Bush hadn't gotten tired of wearing pantsuits. At a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Monday night, the first lady wore a knee-length skirt, which allowed spectators to spot the large bandage above her angle. Reporters began asking what was behind the patch.
She said the squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. It falls behind basal cell cancer, but is the more likely to spread than basal cell so regular follow-ups are recommended.
Snow likened her skin cancer to colds, the flu, stomach aches and other non-life threatening conditions, and said as far as he knows it's something that is not regularly tested for as is colon cancer, which Snow survived a few years ago.
Snow added that the first lady is not an elected official and does not have the obligation to disclose her medical records. But he did acknowledge that past first ladies have gone public with medical problems. Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan both revealed their breast cancers. Ford also checked herself into a treatment facility for drug and alcohol addiction after leaving the White House and later wrote about her dependence.
In 2001, President Bush had four lesions removed from his face, including two caused by a common skin ailment that can lead to cancer if left untreated. None of the four were cancerous, the White House said.
People with fair skin and prolonged sun exposure are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and it is more common in the southern latitudes of the northern hemisphere. Mrs. Bush is from Texas.
Squamous cell carcinoma shouldn't be confused with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Together, basal and squamous cell carcinoma are responsible for less than 0.1 percent of cancer deaths, while the American Cancer Society estimates almost 8,000 Americans will die from melanoma this year.
Monday's revelation was the second case this year of a belated White House announcement. In February, the White House waited almost a day before disclosing that Cheney had shot a fellow hunter during a quail-hunting trip.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.