John Kerry Speaks Candidly
about His Cancer Experience
Senator John Kerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer while on the presidential campaign trail in 2002. In an interview with Coping® magazine, he speaks candidly about beating cancer, losing an election and advocating for the American people.
Coping® magazine: What is the status of your cancer?
John Kerry: In December of 2002, I got tested, I got diagnosed, I had surgery, and thank God I was cured. I’m one of the lucky ones. I try to remain health conscious. I lost my dad to prostate cancer at age 85. His was caught too late. He didn’t have the options I had. I get tested every six months so doctors can keep an eye on my blood for any traces of the cancer. I also push myself to exercise consistently, and [my wife] Teresa stays on my case and challenges my worst instincts – she makes me eat a healthy, balanced diet! But, you know, it matters. My doctors say one of the reasons I recovered so quickly and could put it all behind me was that I was pretty fit in the first place.
"Overnight, I had to put the brakes on and put my health first, halting my travel and speaking schedule."
CM: What treatments did you have?
JK: Surgery. Teresa and I researched all the options. After learning that radiation wasn’t a fail-safe option, I decided to go the surgical route. My dad had radiation, and I saw what it did to him and how tiring it was. There was no way I wanted to go through that. It works for some people, and different people make different decisions. But for me, at the age I was at the time, 59, and for my level of detection, I felt I chose the best option.
CM: Did the side effects from treatment interfere with
your job in any way?
JK: I was diagnosed and treated as I was crisscrossing the country running for President. So overnight, I had to put the brakes on and put my health first, halting my travel and speaking schedule. I was dead tired for weeks. But I got better, got back on the trail and picked up where I left off. I’m very proud of that. I figured I could either let this thing stop things I’d dreamed of or I could prove it wrong, and I tried my best to prove cancer wrong.
CM: Did your diagnosis change your relationships?
JK: I had very close relationships with my family and friends before I was diagnosed and treated for cancer, but I think the experience has certainly made me appreciate them more, and hopefully vice versa. My family and friends were 100 percent supportive throughout the whole process, and I will be forever grateful to them. In many ways it made me even closer to my daughters and to my wife, Teresa, than I was before the diagnosis. They were with me on that journey every step of the way, and it tested what we are made of as a family. This was a battle we all faced together.
CM: What do you think needs to be done to improve
the way prostate cancer is treated?
JK: We need to make sure that all Americans know they need to be tested regularly, but there are certain groups who are more vulnerable than others when it comes to cancer. We need to use our voices to end the doctrine of “separate but equal” in healthcare and in cancer treatment. I recently introduced a bill to fight the prostate cancer crisis in the African-American community, encouraging African-American men in particular to get screened and urging Congress to provide the funds necessary.
CM: Has cancer changed your perspective on your
career? On your life in general?
JK: It’s definitely changed my perspective. A lot of us who were lucky enough to come home from Vietnam in one piece did so with a saying: “Every day is extra.” Thirty-five years ago, I used those extra days to stop that war. I realized I had a responsibility to stop others from getting killed. I have extra days after cancer as well, and I use my anger about the disease to do what I do: be an advocate, keep fighting.
CM: What has been the one most difficult challenge
you have faced since having cancer? How did you
JK: You know, there are a lot of challenges at my age. You lose friends and family to illness and death. And, in my case, I lost a pretty close election. The learning gained from getting knocked on my ass in defeat is not my favorite way to gain insight and knowledge, but it is an event in life that sticks with you, I’ll tell you that much. I was forced to confront my shortcomings, figure out what I did wrong, listen, and in defeat I also was reminded what really mattered to me. As lousy as it felt to lose, life was a hell of a lot harder after November 2, 2004, for the working father who woke up still without healthcare for his kids, for families in New Orleans abandoned on rooftops while the water rose, or for troops in Iraq who got up every day in the middle of a civil war. I felt a really personal obligation not to lay around licking my wounds but to dust myself off and fight for those people.
CM: What are your plans for the future, professionally
JK: To keep fighting every day for the issues I’ve cared about all my life – getting the policy right in Iraq, getting people health insurance they can count on, cleaning up the environment and living up to our responsibility on global climate change. Cancer is one of those big issues I care about. It’s personal. My friend Tom Farrington and I were diagnosed with prostate cancer, and we got cured. Our fathers weren’t so lucky. Prostate cancer took them away from us. But once I got well, and once Tom got well, we started learning more and more. And a statistic that stays with me, and with Tom, who is African American, speaks volumes. African-American men are 80 percent more likely to die of prostate cancer than white men. I started digging more and discovered the unacceptable apartheid of healthcare in America. That’s a big issue to me as a cancer survivor and a policymaker. These are also issues to me as a father. My daughter Vanessa is in her final year of medical school. I’m struck by just how much her life and her compassion for her patients will inevitably be caught up in the kind of healthcare system we choose for our country, or, if we let the status quo continue, the kind of system we’re stuck with. That’s why I won’t quit on these fights.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2007.