Physicians removed three small polyps from President Reagan's intestine yesterday during an examination at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, and the White House reported later that the polyps did not appear to be cancerous but that additional laboratory tests are being conducted.
Doctors also shaved a piece of skin from a "tiny" growth on the right side of the president's face for laboratory examination.
The White House said the results of all other examinations were "normal" and "revealed no evidence of any disease."
The examinations yesterday were a follow-up to last July's cancer surgery in which a two-foot section of Reagan's large intestine was removed, including a large tumor. The president also underwent two separate surgical procedures last summer to remove skin cancer from his nose.
After nearly six hours at the Bethesda hospital, Reagan, who will be 75 next month, left for the presidential retreat at Camp David, smiling and flashing a thumbs-up sign to reporters. Asked whether any further cancer had been discovered, the president shook his head no and said "Fine" to a shouted question about how he felt.
Two physicians not connected with the president's care, Charles Moertell, a professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Philip Schein, former chief of oncology at Georgetown Hospital and now vice president of SmithKline Beckman, said yesterday that the discovery of small polyps is common in such cases. They also said it is a common procedure to remove the polyps as soon as they are discovered to prevent eventual growth into cancerous tumors.
Following the orders of First Lady Nancy Reagan, the White House issued only a sketchy report about the president's health, and officials refused to answer questions.
The statement said Reagan "underwent a routine postoperative examination" that included blood tests, X-rays, CAT scan -- a more precise form of X-ray -- and a colonoscopy, in which the colon is viewed through a flexible tube moving up through the bowel.
During the colonoscopy, the statement said, "three very small polyps," or growths, between 1 and 2 millimeters, were removed. "They were evaluated by the doctors as clinically benign," it said. "However, they will undergo standard laboratory evaluation."
The standard laboratory evaluation in such cases takes 24 to 48 hours and involves a thorough look at the inside of the polyps by viewing small sections under a microscope.
The White House statement did not say how the doctors concluded that the polyps were "clinically benign." One common method is to perform a quicker but sometimes less accurate test in which the growths are frozen, sliced and viewed.
The White House said "final results" of the tests will be "released as soon as they are available." The statement also said "all indications are that when the lab results are in they will confirm the president to be in excellent health."
The White House statement, which was not released until after last night's television network news broadcasts, did not bear the name of presidential spokesman Larry Speakes, nor did it identify the doctors who performed yesterday's procedures.
Nancy Reagan was upset by the detailed coverage of Reagan's surgery last summer and has insisted that senior presidential aides release only a minimum of information about his health.
Speakes said earlier that the same Navy doctors at Bethesda who attended Reagan last summer would be involved in yesterday's tests, including Cmdr. Edward Cattau, chief of gastroenterology, and Capt. Dale W. Oller, chief of surgery.
The First Lady accompanied the president to the hospital and was carrying their dog, Rex, as Reagan left the hospital.
Schein, the former Georgetown professor, informed of yesterday's results, said that Reagan's chances of having no recurrence of the cancerous tumor for five years probably had not changed. Those chances are estimated at 60 to 80 percent, according to experts.
The first indication that Reagan had intestinal problems came in May 1984, when a routine physical exam turned up a polyp in the lower intestine that was removed and determined to be benign. Later, debate arose about whether a more extensive examination of the colon should have been carried out.
In March 1985, a second exam found another polyp and evidence of blood in the stool, which might or might not indicate cancer. More tests were done to look for blood, which proved negative. No complete bowel examination was ordered.
A July 13, 1985, colonoscopy found a large malignant growth between 2 and 3 inches long. It had eaten through the inner wall, through adjacent muscle, and into the outer wall of the bowel.