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Her Fiercest Foe

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Geraldine Ferraro is no stranger to formidable obstacles. In 1984, as a largely obscure three-term New York representative, she joined the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale, becoming the first woman ever nominated by a major party for Vice President. Her groundbreaking campaign was buried in a Reagan landslide, but Ferraro remains fiercely proud of the mark it made. “We took down the Men Only sign at the White House,” she once said.

It was near the end of 1998 that she faced a far stiffer challenge. A blood test during a routine physical revealed that Ferraro has multiple myeloma, a crippling bone-marrow cancer that suppresses the immune system and kills 11,000 Americans each year. “When you hear a diagnosis like that, you’re stunned,” says Ferraro, 66. “But I also believe that there’s a purpose in this for me.”

Now working as a political consultant, Ferraro has opted for a still-experimental treatment she hopes will help others in the future. She receives monthly three-hour infusions of the new bone-strengthening drug Aredia as well as daily doses of thalidomide, the drug pulled from the market in the 1960s after causing severe birth defects. In use for myeloma patients since 1999, thalidomide interrupts the blood flow that feeds the cancer in bone marrow and consequently boosts the immune system. “Thalidomide has definitely made its comeback,” says Ferraro’s physician Jeffrey Tepler, 43, doctor of oncology and hematology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “We have yet to unleash its potential.”

Anticipating the time when she will no longer be able to climb stairs, Ferraro and her husband of 42 years, real estate developer John Zaccaro, 68, are selling their two-story brick home in Queens and looking for a Manhattan apartment. Despite that concession, Ferraro—mother of Donna Zaccaro-Ullman, 39, a TV producer, John Jr., 37, a lawyer, and pediatrician Laura Anne Lee, 35, and the grandmother of four—is resolute. While undergoing, her Aredia infusion therapy at the Hospital for Special Surgery, she spoke with correspondent Colleen O’Connor about her illness.

I had absolutely no symptoms other I than being a little tired, and I’d I been working hard to get ready for the holidays. I went to my annual checkup with Dr. C. Ronald MacKenzie in December 1998, expecting my usual clean bill of health. About three days later he called me at home and told me I had a problem. I asked, “Is it serious?”—of course thinking the answer was no. Then he said he thought I might have leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma. I was dumbfounded. It was like he was talking about someone else, and everything seemed to be in slow motion. “Doc,” I said, “I’ve heard of the first two but not the third.” Funny, I knew leukemia and lymphoma were serious, so I was hoping I had the other one, because it couldn’t be as bad. Little did I know.

John and I went to the doctor to find out what it all meant. He held my hand, and when we heard, it was like getting smacked in the middle of your forehead with a hard ball. John was absolutely stricken. I didn’t fall apart exactly, but my first reaction was, “Thank God it isn’t one of my kids.” The prognosis really was not very good. They give you three to five years. When I heard that, it was like a second body blow. John just stared into space. I was glad that he wasn’t the one who had gotten this diagnosis, because he would drive me crazy. He wouldn’t take his medicine, and he wouldn’t do all the things that I do without asking. Neither of us can imagine the world without the other.

When I found out that I might not be around as long as I thought I would, I guess I’m a mother first. I wanted to protect my children. We decided not to tell them until after the holidays, which we spent at our house in St. Croix. Donna’s reaction was pure horror. John teared up—he had that lost-little-boy look. My youngest, Laura, was as devastated as the others, but she pulled herself together and reacted like the typical doctor: “Okay, let’s get the specialists.”

When you have a disease like cancer, you learn all the medical terms. They said I had “smoldering” or “indolent” multiple myeloma. They know it exists, but not the full extent of it. Honestly, though, I have never had any of the awful symptoms associated with this disease. For instance, doctors tell me your bones can snap. I talked to one man who didn’t know he had the disease until he broke his back taking a golf swing. I feel the strain on stairs sometimes. I had an MRI and a bone-density scan and was expecting the worst. But my doctor said I have the bones of a 30-year-old. Last July I fell off my bicycle at the beach. It was so stupid of me. I was riding with my son, not paying any attention, and just went over headfirst. By all accounts I should have broken something, but even though I was heavily bruised, I didn’t.

The first real physical pain I felt was when they did the bone biopsy. They stick a very large needle right into the bone, deep into it, in order to draw out the marrow. The first time they did it, I remember the sound and you feel this horrible pressure. They told me it would hurt, but my doctor said later, “Gerry, you didn’t yell.” I said, “Anyone who’s ever had a baby isn’t going to yell about this.”

Was I scared? Yes. I remembered how, when my father died, we were driving back from the cemetery and one of my aunts said that he was too young to die. He was 44. But, God, I’m 66 and I’m too young for this. Still, I kept taking tests and living my life like I always did. Then in June of 2000 my doctors told me that the cancer protein was starting to show up in my urine. That meant it was progressing. They put me on steroids, which bloat you up. Your bones ache, you look and feel terrible. For the time being, we were keeping my illness quiet. I have a consulting business, and believe it or not, I was worried that people might not want to hire me. In October I was told the steroids had plateaued and that the next step was a stem-cell transplant. They zap you with chemo and radiation. I’ve known people who have gone through it and it tears them up. And you lose your hair. I didn’t want to lose my hair, like any woman wouldn’t. At my low point I remember telling my daughter Laura, “Why-should I go through this torture?” She smiled and said, “Is it because you want to live?”

The next month Dr. [Kenneth] Anderson at Dana Farber [Cancer Institute in Boston] told me about thalidomide. I was shocked it was still around. But he said they’d had amazing success with it and that it had far fewer side effects than chemo. I said, “If this was your mother or wife, what would you advise?” He said he’d want her to try it.

I’m lucky because I’m on a minimal dosage and it started working immediately. For six months the cancer protein has been fluctuating downward. So basically I am in remission. When the thalidomide stops working, they’ll increase the dosage. The one reaction I have is that I now sleep eight or nine hours a night, and all my life I’ve gotten away with a lot less. I can’t believe how hard it is to get going every day. But what I really worry about are immune-system problems. The slightest cold can knock me out for days. During the presidential contest, Al Gore’s staff asked me to campaign, and I was sent to Ohio. I probably absorbed every dangerous germ floating around on that plane, because when I got home, I was a wreck. I had to stay in bed for days with pneumonia.

Early on I told my oldest friend, Nancy Keating, whom I went to college with, about my illness. I also told my three best friends in Washington, [Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright and former Connecticut Rep.[Barbara Kennelly]. When you’re down, when you have to cry with someone, you can always do that with your best friends. But when I began to write my congressional testimony [Ferraro testified before Congress on July 21 to support funding for blood-cancer research], it was so emotionally hard for me that I couldn’t get it down on paper. I had to stop writing and do something else because all the fears were flooding back. I guess I was pretty shaky doing it, because the focus becomes your own mortality.

In all honesty John is having a tougher time than me with this. He is taking good care of me and keeping me upbeat, but I can see a new sadness in him. Dr. Anderson said that I could well live to see my grandchildren go to college, but he didn’t say which ones. Matthew, the oldest, is 7, but there’s one on the way. So I tell my kids they have to keep on having children so I can go on forever. If this is what it takes to stay alive, I don’t mind it. I fully expect to be at their weddings and graduations, sitting in the front row. Beaming, of course.