Specter’s Cancer Battle

Sen. Arlen Specter, the five-term Republican legislator from Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2005 and subsequently underwent a grueling chemotherapy regimen. But he never stopped working. In his new book, "Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate," Specter chronicles with characteristic candor and extra-dry wit what it was like to battle a potentially deadly disease while still working long days on the Hill.

Specter, 78, a former prosecutor and a moderate who has rankled some of his fellow Republicans with his support of stem-cell research and his opposition to President Bill Clinton's impeachment and the recent troop influx in Iraq, had undergone two brain tumor operations and double-bypass heart surgery with multiple complications in the years before his cancer diagnosis. A tested survivor, his first public statement after learning he had cancer was simple and assured: "I'm going to beat this, too."

NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno, himself an 11-year survivor of stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and author of "Hope Begins in the Dark", a newly published book that tells the stories of 50 survivors of Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, talked with Specter about why the senator wrote his book, how lymphoma affected him personally and politically and from where he summoned the strength to fight cancer. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: I read your book in one sitting. It hit home, and I think it will inspire a lot of people. What made you decide to write it?
Arlen Specter: I decided to write it to tell other people that they could cope with this too if they made up their mind to do so. I wanted to share my experiences as an example of what can be done. I don't want to sound self-laudatory, but I knew that I was going to go through this fight in the public eye, with the national TV exposure around the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of [Justices] John Roberts and Samuel Alito. I knew people were going to see me see deteriorate before their eyes. They'd see me grow pale and thin and bald, then hopefully see me recover. They would see me stay on the job. I thought they could take an example from it. I finished chemo July 22 [2005], and by the time we got to the Alito hearings in January [2006], they saw me coming back; they had the full picture.

You say in the book that your doctor had never seen anyone your age tolerate aggressive chemo with fewer side effects than you. You tolerated it better than I did, and I was 35. Where did you summon your strength?
How the hell do I know? [Laughs] It's just willpower, really, is how I do it. I do come from a strong family. My father was an immigrant who literally walked across Europe to get out of Russia. He fought in World War I. He was wounded in action. My father was a great success even though he never had money. He was a very determined man, a great role model.

Your book is particularly poignant when you talk about others in your life that have died of various kinds of cancer, from your former chief of staff Carey Lackman to one of your best friends, Third Circuit Judge Edward R. Becker. How did their courage inspire you?
Ed Becker was just a terrific guy. He worked with me on asbestos reform as a senior judge. He put in long hours with me on that. And I was with Carey the night before she died, and as I say in the book, she smiled and told me that night that she had a good run. She was very brave. It's inspirational to see someone who is dying smile.

You call yourself a workaholic and suggest that the stress of your grueling primary challenge in 2004 may have played a role in your cancer diagnosis. There are conflicting views on whether stress can cause cancer. Do you believe it can?
I don't know. I've studied this and the evidence is inconclusive. What I do know is that I am not going to succumb to it. I'm not going change my way of living out of concern that stress can cause cancer.

But are there ways you've been able to manage your workload and deal with stress since your cancer diagnosis?
Yes, I manage it in variety of ways. First, I get seven hours of sleep every night, and most days I also get a half-hour nap. And exercise is a big manager of stress. I'm a squash player, and I dragged myself out of bed every morning to play, even during chemo, which is a debilitating process. I used to say that playing squash was the most important thing I do every day, but now I say that playing squash is the only important thing I do every day. If you get enough rest and exercise, the human body is meant to sustain a heavy workload.

You say in the book that it's important for patients to ask questions, get second opinions, become their own best advocate and respectfully challenge their doctors. But some people are intimidated by their doctors. How do you convince them to do these things?
Just listen to my story and you'll understand why it's so important. A doctor once told me I had Lou Gehrig's disease, then later changed that diagnosis. Another doctor told me I had three to six weeks to live. A chief neurosurgeon of a prominent hospital said my brain tumor was malignant and told me to just go home and have a good time. That really happened. It led me to think he was crazy. I said, "Give me my films. I'm going to Philadelphia." Twice doctors gave me a death sentence, and twice they were wrong. As patients you have to ask questions, get second opinions, go to the Internet, talk to friends. Doctors don't always respond well to questions, but you have rights as a patient. It's your health that's at stake, not theirs.

You've been a staunch supporter of embryonic stem cell research, but is it even more important to you now that you're a cancer survivor?
Yes. I'd like to see a million-person march on the Mall [in Washington, D.C.] that makes enough noise so that they can hear it in the living quarters of the White House. I want to put the pressure on to support the Specter-Harkin bill to have federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There are more than 110 million people with cancer and a wide variety of maladies who can benefit from this research.

Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and the fifth-most common cancer in the United States, but it doesn't get the same amount of media attention as some other cancers. Do you have any theories why this is?
Well, I think the impact of breast cancer is the most graphic. Women lose their breasts, and that's pretty tough to take. Prostate cancer gets a lot of attention, as well, because so many men get it. But lymphoma and cervical and some of the other cancers don't get quite get as much.

How well did you know the late Paul Tsongas, a fellow senator and onetime presidential candidate who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1983?
After Tsongas was diagnosed he announced he wasn't going to run for re-election. I said, "Paul, you ought to run. Let your constituents decide if you should still be in office." He rejected my advice. He would have lived out his term, and of course he later ran for president. He was a hell of a senator. We served four years together. I had the same attitude about Paul that I have for myself, which is: run! Don't be discouraged! Never give in!

Speaking of never giving in, it's the title of your book and it comes from Winston Churchill. I take it you are a great admirer of his?
Churchill never gave in, to anything. He was fiercely determined. Talking about a famous war battle, he called it an exhilarating experience to be shot at and missed. He was an inspirational political figure who lost an election just after World War II, an ironic political fate for one of the greatest men of all time.

How does it feel to be called a cancer survivor? Do you think of yourself now in such terms?
Yes, I do. Although I must say it's a little eerie to call yourself a survivor, because the implication is that you might not have survived.

Will you be running for re-election in 2010 at the ripe young age of 80?
Sure. I'm at the top of my game. Why stop now? I have no plans to slow down. I was on Jon Stewart's show the other day selling my book, and he started off by saying, "How old are you, Senator?" I said, "I forget. But I looked at my birth certificate recently and thought, "Why should I let a little thing like that bother me? It happened so long ago."

So in other words John McCain isn't such an old guy after all, eh?
As the late Strom Thurmond and I would say, he's just a fledgling.