By Susan Horsburgh
September 09, 2002 12:00 PM

He had battled Hodgkin’s disease a decade earlier, so when Neil Cavuto began experiencing odd symptoms during the summer of 1997, he feared the worst. “I was stumbling and falling,” the Fox News Channel anchor recalls. “I would wake up prickly. My legs felt like stilts.” But the problem wasn’t cancer. The diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease that has no known cure. “For three or four days I was silent,” says Cavuto, now 43. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was very angry at the world. What the hell did I do? Was I a Nazi storm trooper in a prior life?”

When the self-pity passed, he vowed to deal with this illness differently. In 1987, shortly after landing a TV position in New York City, he endured a punishing year of chemotherapy and radiation in secrecy. “I was paranoid that I’d lose my job,” he says. “I was a basket case.” This time he told his bosses—as well as the viewers of his Fox News show, Your World with Neil Cavuto. With this openness came a healthier attitude. “It sucks, but life doesn’t suck,” he says. “You can look see blind spots. My hand would feel at the bad news and forget the good or you can balance them.”

Cavuto tries to bring the same optimism to his 6-year-old daily financial news program, now the No. 1 business show on cable. “When I tell you about the nine companies that are under investigation,” he says, “I also tell you about the 9,000 that are not. I try to look at the half-full glass, maybe because of my illness.” Not that he has become soft. Cavuto may be “the nicest man you’ve ever met in television,” says Fox News host Sean Hannity, but he’s also a “fearless interviewer.” Fellow Fox anchor Brit Hume agrees: “He can be aggressive without seeming to be rude. It makes it harder to duck the questions.”

Often those questions are delivered while Cavuto is in pain. “When it’s really bad, my shoulders can’t move, my head is spinning, I can’t feel my arms or my legs,” he says. But he manages to hide his suffering. “He would never let on that anything is bothering him,” says pal Mark Neschis, a public relations executive and former CNBC producer. On air, Cavuto will mention his MS if it’s relevant, but he refuses to be a poster boy for the disease. “I’m not a cause and I’m not a statement,” says Cavuto. “I want to be judged on what I do, not the disease I have.”

What he does best he started doing as a 12-year-old kid, interviewing his family every Christmas. “He would go around the room with a tape recorder,” says his wife of 19 years, Mary, 42, a homemaker. “The famous question was, ‘What’s the mood here?’ He still continues to this day. He still asks about the mood.” In those days, the shy Cavuto—the third of four children of Pat, a can company sales exec who died of a heart attack in 1992, and Kathleen, a United Nations staffer-turned-homemaker who died of a brain tumor in 1987—was planning to be a priest. But his passion for business and politics soon won out. “I remember being glued to the television watching the Watergate hearings,” says the Westbury, N.Y., native. “My father would say, ‘Go out and play baseball.’ ”

In 1980 he graduated with a journalism degree from St. Bonaventure University near Buffalo—where he met Mary, who worked with him at the school newspaper—and took a job at Investment Age magazine in Washington, D.C. When he decided to switch to TV in 1982, he had an inauspicious start: as weekend anchor for WCAX in Burlington, Vt. “I would drone on and on,” he says. But dogged practice finally led to a plum post at CNBC in 1989, hosting Market Wrap and reporting for NBC’s Today Show. When he left seven years later to join Fox’s start-up news channel, his workmates thought he was mad. To him, the move made perfect sense: After his bout with Hodgkin’s, which has been in remission since 1988, he was willing to take a risk. “Having a disease makes you crazy, and I like that,” says Cavuto. “I’m not afraid of making a bad move because the worst that can happen is you get fired or you do horribly.”

So much for reordering your priorities and taking it easy. “Neil is 100 percent the opposite of that,” says Mary. “If anything, he goes in to work more now.” When they can get away from their Chester, N.J., home, Cavuto and Mary take their daughter Tara, 17, somewhere cold (Alaska, Canada and Maine so far) because heat seems to exacerbate his MS symptoms. Mary jokes that next year “it will be an underground cave”-and Cavuto shoots back, “Don’t knock it till you try it.” After all, he doesn’t know when his MS will disable him, so for now, “I want to go for all the gusto I can,” he says. “I’m more impatient and neurotic than ever.”

Susan Horsburgh

Liza Hamm in Chester