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Sarah Brady

An Assassination Attempt, the Brady Bill, then Lung Cancer

by Julie McKenna

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, November/December 2002.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor


(photo by Murray Bognovitz)

Nothing will get the best of Sarah and Jim Brady. Over 20 years they have survived an assassination attempt, years of fighting to improve the handgun laws in the U.S., and most recently, lung cancer. Sarah and husband, Jim, have done it all and survived.

In 1981, just months after Jim was appointed Ronald Reagan’s White House press secretary, John Hinckley shot Reagan and Jim in an assassination attempt on the president. The bullet that pierced Jim’s brain caused severe damage, marking the beginning of a very long recovery.

Just a few years later, Sarah began her fight for gun control and worked for several years to get the Brady Bill passed. This, however, wasn’t the last battle for the Bradys. In 2000, Sarah was diagnosed with stage III A non-small cell lung cancer.

In my interview with Sarah for Coping® magazine, she tells me she was struck by disbelief after her doctor telephoned her with the news that she had lung cancer. Sarah remembers, “The shock in the beginning is so difficult. You know that you have limited time to decide what your path is going to be, where you’re going to go for treatment, what the treatment might be, and what your options are. And that becomes very, very confusing,” Sarah explains. “So you have to get control and realize it’s your life and that you need to become educated as quickly as possible.”

Not even lung cancer can get the best of them.

From talking with friends and other doctors, Sarah knew that the most important thing was for her to feel comfortable with her treatment team. With this in mind, she began her search for a cancer treatment center. “The biggest decision I had was whether to remain here at home and use our local community cancer center or go to Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, or one of the other large cancer centers,” Sarah recalls.

“I quickly discovered that certainly in my case, my kind of cancer is so prevalent that cancer centers all over the country, and many community centers, are very adept and capable of taking care of it. And I was lucky enough that here we had an excellent surgical oncologist who had dealt with this many, many times. So I opted not to go away, but to stay home because I wanted to be with my family.”

Sarah is pleased with her decision and her treatment team and has never looked back. “It was the best decision I ever made. I got wonderful care,” she says. The treatments worked and Sarah is now in remission.

Sarah tells me her fight for handgun control, her magnum opus, really began a few years after Jim was shot. In fact, Sarah remembers the exact moment. “We were visiting Jim’s family in southern Illinois and we went to go swimming with some friends. Scott, our son who was five, hopped into a pickup truck and I got in behind him. He picked up off the seat what he thought was a toy gun and I did too at first,” Sarah recalls. “I explained to him that you don’t even point a toy gun at anybody, and as I took it from him I realized it wasn’t a toy. It was a fully loaded .22 handgun. I was absolutely irate that anybody would be that irresponsible and that we’d come so close to another tragedy. So when I got back to Washington, I decided to get involved.”

Not only did Sarah get involved, she changed the way the nation thought about handgun safety. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law, requiring a waiting period for buying handguns and, for most areas of the country, a background check.

Sarah is still not finished with her fight. She and Jim will continue to work for what is important even though they are semi-retired. “We’ll keep working on the gun issue, and I’ll be trying to elect the candidates that are with us and defeat the ones that aren’t.”

When I ask Sarah how she has been able to fight so many battles for over 20 years, she laughs and says, “Oh golly! I just have to. I don’t want to lay back and let anything get the best of us.” History shows that nothing will.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2002.