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William Shatner Discusses Stage 4 Melanoma Diagnosis, Treatment | AAD 2024


The 92-year-old "Star Trek" star said the skin cancer was treated surgically and with immunotherapy. It was apparently the first time he had discussed his melanoma in public.

William Shatner talked poignantly, with flashes of his trademark humor, about being diagnosed and treated for stage 4 melanoma at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) meeting in San Diego this weekend.

It is apparently the first time that Shatner has discussed the skin cancer episode in public. He did not say when it occurred.

Shatner, who is 92, is famous for having played the role of Captain James T. Kirk in the 1960s “Star Trek” television series and subsequent movies. He has gone on to write books, star in commercials and make many public appearances like this one at the AAD meeting, which set an attendance record of nearly 20,000 dermatologists. A documentary about him titled “You Can Call Me Bill” is scheduled to be released on March 20, two days before he turns 93. While trading on a celebrity status derived from “Star Trek,” Shatner has become almost as well known for his sense of fun, down-to-earth candor and lighthearted self-deprecation as for the Kirk role and the phrase , “Beam me up, Scotty,” a line from the television series that the Kirk character never actually said, although there are several lines that approximate it.

"Star Trek" star William Shatner (left) speaks with Terrence A. Cronin Jr., president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

"Star Trek" star William Shatner (left) speaks with Terrence A. Cronin Jr., president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

In a chatty, interview format with the academy president’s, Terrence A. Cronin Jr., M.D., at the meeting’s plenary session Sunday morning, Shatner joked about his short-term memory, sources of vigor and appearance.

When Cronin asked him how he keeps going so strong, Shatner deadpanned, “I have no idea.”

As part of the same exchange, Shatner showed that comic timing and a keen sense of his audience. “Why do I look so good?” he asked rhetorically and paused. “It’s ointment!”

But the conversation took a more serious turn when Cronin asked about his recent cancer. Shatner said he was “breezing along, really looking good and feeling good” when he felt a lump near his right ear. Shatner said his family physician told him that it was caused by a blockage in the parotid gland that would go away if he massaged it.

“So I spent a month massaging and the movie “Alien” comes to mind, because I don't think people who have never had cancer, know how some cancers can grow so quickly,” he said.

Shatner said he went to another doctor. “He did what is so beautiful about being a doctor. He had artistic hands and put them on my cheek and he said, ‘We better get this out.’ It was said with such kindness and there was such gentility above the touch of this doctor on my jaw that I saw the care and love that the doctor can give the patient in that moment.”

“So,” said Shatner, his voice changing to a brisker tone, “I went and I had this thing taken out. It was a melanoma, stage 4.”

After surgery, Shatner said he was treated with immunotherapy, which had him fighting fatigue. “But here I am,” he said, before listing a number of projects he is working on. “I am really the best that I can, minus the lump in my right cheek.”

“This was an inspiring story because dermatologists recognize melanoma on a daily basis,” Cronin said in an interview after the plenary session. “The idea of early detection and treatment of melanoma and saving lives resonates with this audience. Mr. Shatner was willing to share this information with us in the hope that others would be able to recognize that early detection would save lives.”

“We worry that if you don't see a dermatologist that you may have a misdiagnosis,” continued Cronin, adding that “it's not always easy or readily apparent to lay people and people who are not in dermatology, what looks like a melanoma. There can be confusion.”

Seemal R. Desai, M.D., who will take over as president of the academy at the conclusion of this meeting, noted the academy’s effort to educate the public about prevention and early detection of skin cancer, including photo protection, self-skin checks and appointments with a board-certified dermatologist.

Shatner did not make any references to DeForest Kelley or the "Star Trek" character he played, the often-frustrated Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy. But he said he has been surprised about what he called the “politics of medicine” and the differing opinions among doctors. “There are as any opinions about what to do about whatever ails you as there are doctors,” Shatner said.

Shatner also expressed dismay at decision-making that shifts choices to patients. “You, the ignorant patient, have got to make a decision. They would say it’s a guided decision. That’s not guided.”

Cronin told Shatner that had be been diagnosed 10 years ago, he might not be doing because immunotherapy was now the standard of care and “that innovation has changed everything" about melanoma treatment.

“No kidding,” Shatner said comically. “Well, what did they do before?” The audience laughed. “That was the cure. ‘You have melanoma. Good-bye,'"Shatner joked.

In another shift in tone, Shatner expressed amazement about the conversations physicians have with patients facing lethal diseases and mortality. “What an experience it must be for one human being … to turn to somebody and say you got five months, you'd better pack your bags. What experience to have between two people.”

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