CBS News Anchor Bob Schieffer
In His Own Words
by Laura Shipp
In his more than 40 years as a Washington correspondent, Bob Schieffer has covered every presidential campaign and has interviewed every president and presidential candidate since Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972. His work has earned him many of broadcast journalism’s highest honors, including seven Emmy Awards – one for Lifetime Achievement. He has been CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent since 1982 and for the past 19 years has served as anchor and moderator of Face the Nation, one of the longest running news programs in television history.
Each Sunday, he sits down with government leaders, political analysts, and newsmakers to discuss the latest issues facing the country. Recently, he spoke with Coping® magazine about an issue that hits closer to home – bladder cancer.
Can you tell me about when you were diagnosed with bladder cancer?
I had gone to the gym to work out, and afterward when I went to the restroom, I noticed blood in the urine. I couldn't imagine what that was about. I just figured that I probably strained myself, so I didn't think too much about it because it didn't occur again for the rest of the day. When I went to the gym two days later, the same thing occurred. So I went to see my internist, and he said, “You know, Bob, blood in the urine is one of the symptoms for bladder cancer. We need to get you to a radiologist and get an MRI.”
"Go to the doctor. Learn as much as you can about your disease. Make sure you know as much as you can about it. There's a world of information on the Internet. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion."
I got the MRI, and the urological surgeon who looked at it said, “I'm afraid this may be a tumor.” Two days later, I went to the hospital, and he removed it through a catheter. It turned out to be a grade 3 tumor. He told me that had we waited two more weeks, it would have gotten through the wall of the bladder. For me, acting quickly for once in my life when I had a symptom of something really paid off. Today I'm cancer free.
Men are notorious for not going to the doctor. Was there something in particular that made you get this symptom checked out?
My mother died of breast cancer because she was afraid to go to the doctor. She'd heard all these horrible stories from friends who had gone through radiation and chemo treatments and then died. And she just made up her mind that she didn't want to deal with that. She decided instead to spend the next year traveling. We didn't know anything about this until she collapsed one day. She went to the emergency room, and the doctor came out and told my brother she had cancer. They did all they could to treat it, but it was just too late.
There was that, and the fact that my wife is a double cancer survivor – breast cancer twice, which she had before she was 35 years old. I remember when they took her into the operating room that first time to have a mastectomy. I said to her, “Are you afraid?” And she said, “No, I want to see my children grow up.” We had two little girls. She is an example of someone who went to the doctor, and she has lived not only to see her children grow up but to see her grandchildren. We have both had long and productive and good lives, and we are very thankful for that.
As someone who has been both the caregiver and the person undergoing cancer treatment, did you find one of them more difficult than the other?
It was very, very difficult for me to see my wife being wheeled into the operating room that first time. In some ways, I think she was more at peace and more composed than I was. She was just determined to see it through, and for her there was just no question in her mind what she was going to do. And oddly enough, when I discovered I had cancer many, many years later, there didn't seem to be any questions about what I should do. I just decided to do what the doctors told me to do.
With your family history, what went through your mind when the doctor said the word, “cancer”?
Well, in my wife's case, because this was many, many years ago, it was like somebody saying to you that you had now been given the death penalty. But now, because the survival rates are so much higher, it's a whole different thing. Back then, we didn't know what was going to happen. We knew she needed to have treatment, but the survival rates in those days were not nearly what they are today.
When I talk to people, I try to get across to them that learning you have cancer today is not hearing someone read you the death penalty. It's saying that you have a disease, but that it can be cured in many cases. There are many things that can be done for it. Every day that you stay alive, you have a better chance of seeing this disease cured because of the breakthroughs in research. They know so much more about it today than even when my wife first had cancer.
I also have a disease called ulcerative colitis, which I contracted in 1974 when I stopped smoking. We know so much more about that disease now than we did then. For one thing, we know that a lot of times when people stop smoking, it throws their body into such a trauma that they contract ulcerative colitis. And when you get ulcerative colitis, that puts you in the high-risk group for colon cancer. Because of that, I go every year and have my colonoscopy. And what we are learning about that disease is that if you have regular colonoscopies, colon cancer is more or less preventable because you can spot it at such an early stage. I'm kind of an evangelist for colonoscopy; I encourage everybody I know to get one because it is the way to prevent colon cancer.
I read that you also have diabetes.
Yes. I've had diabetes at least 10 years. When you have diabetes, it is simply something that you have to treat and take care of, but if you do, in most cases you can lead a good lifestyle and enjoy a quality life. I had to lose some weight. I did that. I have to watch my carbs. I take my blood sugar count every day. But, once again, we are now able to treat these diseases, and we know so much more about them now than we did in the early days.
If you just follow your regimen, it's like anything else; you get into the habit. You eat better, you watch your weight, you make sure you get your exercise. And above all, don't smoke. I've almost become a zealot on smoking. We look at smoking being the cause of most preventable deaths. More than 400,000 people every year die from smoking-related diseases [in the United States]. I can't tell people enough, and I know they get tired of hearing it, but the fact of the matter is, if you will not smoke, you will live a longer life.
Is it difficult managing multiple health conditions at the same time?
You know, if you do it and you get into the routine, it doesn't become difficult. It's like getting up, and brushing your teeth every morning. But in addition to brushing my teeth and taking a shower and combing my hair, I take my insulin shots, I check my blood sugar, I take my various medications, and I go about my business. It's just the way life is, as we get older, especially. We’re kind of like a car. When a car gets older, you just have to take it to the garage more often and be careful with the maintenance, but if you do, you can keep it running. That's what I do, and I 'm happy to do that. I love my life. I love getting to see my wife and my grandchildren. I love my work. I still work a six-day week. As my doctor says, for the shape I'm in, I'm in pretty good shape.
Speaking of work, did you think about retiring after your cancer diagnosis?
I never really thought that far down the line. I went about getting this cancer treated the same way I go about doing a story. As reporters, no matter what's going on around us, the world may be falling apart, but we stay focused on what's in front of us and getting the information we need. I was that way about this disease. I didn't think too much about what was down the road. I was thinking about what was right in front of me and what I needed to do now to give myself the best opportunity to get this cured. Maybe it was my training as a reporter, but I did not panic. I just didn't. I said, this is what I have to do, and I did it.
Have you noticed any changes in your career since your diagnosis? Do people treat you differently?
They don't. Everybody knows I had cancer. Everybody knows I survived. But no, and that's the way I want it. I don't want people to be coming around saying “Oh, you poor old fellow,” because I'm not. I'm a very lucky guy. I'm happy to be here. I'll say one thing: it hasn't slowed me down in the least. Old age has just a little bit, but not these diseases.
What made you decide to speak out about your cancer?
I'll tell you what it was. It was because I was friends with a guy named Hamilton Jordan, who was Jimmy Carter's Chief of Staff. Hamilton survived five cancers. He finally died of a sixth cancer, but Hamilton had had a lot of experience dealing with this disease. He even wrote a book about it. When he found out I had been diagnosed, he called me one day, and he said, “Everybody has to make their own decision about this, but what I would urge you to do is to speak out about it. You have a platform, and you have no idea how much influence you will have on people and how much you can help them.”
I was very reluctant because, number one, men especially are reluctant to talk about what I call these below-the-belt-diseases. But the more I thought about it, I decided that maybe Hamilton was right. I went on Don Imus's radio show and talked about it. Then Wolf Blitzer at CNN heard me and asked me to come on CNN and talk about it. I've never been sorry that I did it.
Afterward, I was literally overwhelmed with e-mail and messages. Not just people wishing me well, but people who had this disease who said that hearing me talk about it made them feel good just to know that they weren’t alone. People would call and ask me my advice. And I don't want to make too much of this, but in some cases, I may have saved one or two lives. People have told me that they had noticed this symptom – blood in the urine – and didn't know what to make of it, but didn't go to the doctor. Because of my talking about it, they went to the doctor and were diagnosed, and their cancer was treated. It really brought home to me how important it is when we have these diseases to not be afraid to talk about them.
What advice do you have for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
Go to the doctor. Learn as much as you can about your disease. Make sure you know as much as you can about it. There's a world of information on the Internet. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion. As one of my doctors told me, “No good doctor will advise you not to get a second opinion.” He said, “A good craftsman is always happy to show off his work to others in his profession.” So always feel free to get a second opinion.
Then just follow the regimen, follow the protocol. Do what the doctors say. These protocols are protocols because they work. You just have to have faith in medicine. And remember that every day that you are alive, you have a much better chance of beating this disease because who knows what tomorrow will bring with breakthroughs and research.
As someone who covers the political landscape, what do you think needs to be done to improve cancer care in America?
I think the main thing is to make sure that we continue the fight against tobacco. I was a very heavy smoker, three packs a day. I had chewed tobacco since I was sixteen years old. I was so addicted to nicotine that I would get up at night and smoke cigarettes. I had to; my system needed it. So anything we can do from an educational standpoint, and from a legislative standpoint, to eliminate smoking and tobacco from our lives, I think, that's the number one thing. That's certainly my priority.
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Bob Schieffer has written four books, including Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories from the First 50 Years of the Award-Winning News Broadcast and Bob Schieffer’s America. He can be seen weekly on Face the Nation, which airs Sundays on CBS. Check your local listings for times.
Read the Coping cover story with Bob Schieffer.