The President’s Secret Cancer

While presidential lies today seem shocking, it’s actually rather tame in comparison to 1893. In June of President Grover Cleveland second term, the country was in a financial depression. An avid cigar-smoker, Cleveland noticed a quarter-sized bump on the roof of his mouth. He asked his doctor, Major Robert O’Reilly, to take a look. O’Reilly sent anonymous samples to two separate medical organizations. Both came back with a diagnosis of cancer.

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Fearful of panicking the nation and Wall Street with news of a terminal illness and a surgery that could kill him, Cleveland decided to keep it a secret. He told the press he was going fishing on his friend Commodore Elias Benedict’s yacht. Instead, six doctors set up an operating room in the yacht’s saloon for the surgery, which took place on July 1st.. Describing the 90-minute operation, one doctor who was there later said, “The entire left upper jaw was removed from the first bicuspid to just beyond the last molar and nearly up to the middle line. A small portion of the soft palate was removed. . . The entire operation was done within the mouth, without any external incision.. .the absence of any external scar greatly aided in keeping the operation an entire secret.”

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Casts of Cleveland’s palate in 1893 and 1897

Four days later Cleveland returned from his trip, vacationing at his house in Cape Cod. His trademark bushy mustache and a rubber insert in the roof of his mouth made healing less noticeable. In early August, he addressed Congress, none the wiser, and he lived another 15 years. The public didn’t find out the truth until 9 years after his death.

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