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General Colin Powell

There was One More Battle to Win

by Julie McKenna

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

On December 15, 2003, General Colin L. Powell geared up for one more battle. It was a war he had to win; this time the enemy was prostate cancer. Although the adversary would be unlike any other he had faced, he would go on to emerge victorious and add one more title to his distinguished career: cancer survivor.

Before serving as the 65th Secretary of State from January 2001 to January 2005, Powell was a career soldier for 35 years and reached the rank of 4-star General. He also served as assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chairman of the nonprofit organization America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth.

In an exclusive interview with Coping® magazine, Powell admits that he was somewhat prepared for his diagnosis after a biopsy in August 2003 confirmed prostate cancer. “It is a bit of a shock, of course, when your doctor calls and tells you they found cancer, but I was not completely surprised,” explains Powell. “For about six years I had been running an elevated PSA and we watched it over the years, very faithfully. I had regular PSA tests and regular digital exams at least twice a year.

“When I found out, I did what everybody does: I went on Amazon and bought every book I could find,” jokes Powell, who approached his war on cancer with the same precision and planning that he has exercised throughout his professional career. He consulted with his doctor and other specialists and decided the best plan of action was surgery. “I then had to arrange my schedule so that I could find the time to do it. You don’t just step aside when you’re Secretary of State,” remarks Powell.

“I told the President and a few of my immediate co-workers – only so they wouldn’t be surprised.”

Powell chose not to release information about his diagnosis to the public right away, wanting to avoid any unnecessary speculation. “I told the President and a few of my immediate co-workers – only so they wouldn’t be surprised,” he says. “But I did not share it any more broadly, except with my wife, Alma, of course, who went through the whole thing with me, and my children.”

Having formed his troops at the front line, Powell took on the challenge in a two-hour surgery on December 15, 2003. “The morning that I went into Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the operation, my deputy told our staff and we made a press announcement about the time I was coming out of surgery,” Powell says. “Everyone was surprised and a little bit nervous, I suspect, but we were able to reassure them rather quickly that the operation went successfully.”

When I ask Powell if he thought about reducing the demands of his schedule after his surgery, he laughs and says, “Oh, absolutely – I didn’t have to think about it! The first few weeks proved to be challenging, but I was back in my office within about a week. I was a little frail, but I showed up nevertheless.”

As many people discover when they are diagnosed with cancer, Powell soon learned that he was not alone. “We have a lot of prominent men in the Washington area who have all been through this,” Powell says. “What astonished me was how many guys came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I went through that last year.’ I discovered that most of the people I know my age either had it or think they are going to eventually have it.”

Asked if cancer has changed his perspective on his personal or professional life, Powell responds without hesitation: “Not at all. I mean, I had cancer and I have defeated it. Whether I will get cancer or some other disease in the future I don’t know. At age 68, I’m probably going to get something,” he jokes. “But I can’t worry about it; I just have to go on.”

Powell discovered that winning takes more than “an army of one,” and attributes his positive prognosis and steady recovery to the support of his family and his healthcare team. “I’m pleased that I had the best medical care and that I was able to closely monitor my elevated PSA with my doctor over an extended period of time,” he says. “I have been telling everyone that if you’re not getting a regular exam – not only PSA testing, but a digital exam – then you’re playing with fire.”

As for his future plans, Powell says, “I’m still working them out. I’ll be returning to the speaking circuit and examining a variety of opportunities in the business world and in the nonprofit world. So I’ll be around.”

To newly-diagnosed cancer survivors, Powell offers what he considers to be the five most important steps to winning the war against cancer: “Read as much as you can, study the nature of the disease, share it with your family, put your faith in your doctor, and have a positive attitude. Then you can set your sights on defeating the cancer.”

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2005.