With his usual directness and humility, former Kansas senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, 97, announced in February that he is suffering from lung cancer.
It was the second time he had announced a cancer diagnosis, but less exceptional than the first time. In 1991, his office released the news that he had undergone surgery to remove his prostate gland after it was found to have a slow-growing cancer.
In a 1992 article in the Saturday Evening Post, Dr. Cory SerVass, M.D., wrote that for six years the search had been on for a man to have the courage to go public about prostate cancer.
“We have found our prostate pin-up man…,” SerVass wrote of Dole.
Dole told SerVaas that there was a difference of opinion among his staff about whether he should go public, “but it seemed to me that you ought to tell people right up front you’ve got a problem and if it’s resolved, then they don’t have any doubts about it.”
Dole made a full recovery and began urging other men to get regular checkups.
Two years later, in 1994, encouraged by Men’s Health Network, a national non-profit devoted to men’s health, he worked with U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-NM, to pass legislation creating a national Men’s Health Week to heighten awareness of preventable health problems among men and boys. Men’s Health Week has since become Men’s Health Month, celebrated during June.
The need to bring greater awareness to men’s health issues is incontrovertible. Men die, on average, five years younger than women. They become ill at a younger age and suffer more illnesses during their lifetime. They have a higher suicide rate and account for 92 percent of workplace injuries. Biological, social and behavioral factors all contribute to this discrepancy, but men’s reluctance to seek medical care plays a major role.
“Senator Dole is, as most of his colleagues know, a joy to work with and rarely without a smile,” Richardson, who served as governor of New Mexico from 2003 until 2011, said in a recent email. “The senator and I, despite being from different political parties, worked together on many issues, in addition to men’s health, that we both cared about. Both of us worked with families of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. … I miss the days when politicians from different parties could put their partisan rhetoric aside to work together to improve the lives of Americans.”
Dole was known for his willingness to work across party lines to get things done. His commitment to veterans grew out of his World War II service, which earned him two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. During an attack on a German machine-gun nest in 1945 in the Po Valley in northern Italy, he was severely wounded attempting to rescue an Army radioman. His injuries included a shattered right shoulder, fractured vertebrae in his neck and spine, metal shrapnel throughout his body and a damaged kidney.
The medics who examined him on the battlefield thought him unlikely to survive, but he not only lived, he made a better recovery than anyone expected. He was left with a paralyzed right arm and hand. He became an advocate for the disabled and played a pivotal role in the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Dole laid out his plans to go into politics while recuperating from his wounds at a veterans’ hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. He told the future U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, another young soldier recovering from wounds in the same hospital, that he planned to run for local office and then for the first Congressional seat that opened up. And he did. After serving three terms in the U.S. House, Dole was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 and represented Kansas until his failed 1996 presidential bid.
Though legislation creating National Men’s Health Week won’t likely top his list of achievements, it may be one of the most impactful laws he championed.
Hundreds of states and municipalities recognize Men’s Health Month as a way of focusing awareness on the issues related to men’s health. Every man who has a better health outcome thanks to that awareness and every family that benefits, as a result, will be part of Sen. Bob Dole’s legacy.