Happy to Be Here

Last Nov. 2, one day before Election Day, Paul Tsongas’ doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston gave him the bad news. A tumor had been detected in his abdomen. Two weeks later they confirmed it was large-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a malignant cancer that attacks the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells.

For Tsongas, 52, the diagnosis was a devastating setback. The former senator from Massachusetts had apparently beaten similar cancers twice during the last decade. So optimistic were he and his doctors about his prognosis that he entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in April 1991, winning the New Hampshire primary, only to drop out in March 1992 due to lack of funds and support outside his native New England.

Tsongas, who now lectures on behalf of the Concord Coalition, an organization he cofounded with former Sen. Warren Rodman of New Hampshire to focus attention on the deficit, is meeting his latest challenge with the same fighting spirit and understated humor he displayed as a campaigner. Alluding to the loll two months of treatment have taken on his receded hairline, he deadpans, “If they could only devise chemotherapy that grows hair, they’d make a fortune.” Tsongas, who has rejoined his old Boston law firm, talked with bureau chief S. Avery Brown about his battles with cancer.

WHEN I ENTERED THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign, I had no misgivings about my health. I had gone to the doctor and asked for the usual tests so that it would be clear that I was in very good physical shape. I was competing in swimming at the national level. Everything was fine.

In August 1992, five months after withdrawing from the campaign, I went in for the checkup I get every six months. My doctors saw a spot on the Galliam scan, a procedure in which radioactive material is injected into the body to identify malignancies. Since I have a history of spots showing up and then disappearing, and nothing appeared on the CAT scan, they told me to come back in three months.

When I returned in November, the spot was still on the Galliam scan, but this time it was on the CAT scan as well. Two weeks later they operated to biopsy the mass. It was non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a more active version of the cancer I had 10 years ago.

I was frightened, but cancer is no longer a mystery. I’ve absorbed it emotionally. I started chemotherapy in December, but it speeded up my heart rate and I was put in the intensive care unit for six days until I stabilized. I sailed through the second chemotherapy in January. Radiation continued through February. I had only one episode of nausea, but I lost my hair again. I’m used to it now.

The second time around was nothing like the devastation I felt in September 1983, when I was first diagnosed. One of my great ambitions had been to run the Boston Marathon, and I was training for it. One morning I was taking a shower after running when I felt a lump in my groin. I thought, “Oh my God, it’s a hernia. I won’t be able to train.” There had never been any cancer in my family. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I ate what I was supposed to eat. A Capitol Hill physician examined me and said, “It’s not a hernia.” That Friday, doctors removed the tumor and biopsied it. It was a tough weekend. The doctor called on Monday. He said, “It was not benign.”

My lowest point was those first three weeks. I was given only eight years to live, so we came back to Boston to consult with doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Three months later, I decided that being a senator was less important than being with my family. So I announced I would not seek reelection. My life revolves around my family. Seeing my kids grow up was a big concern to me because I never knew my own mother. Shortly after my birth she was committed to a sanitarium because of tuberculosis. I was 7 when she died. I felt absolute stark terror that that history might repeat itself. I prayed a lot.

The disease was not advanced, so at first I was on no medication. In 1984 I went on steroids for several months. By December 1985, however, I had developed masses of cancer in my neck and abdomen, and I was going downhill. It was then that I was given my first chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I vividly remember the radiation. I would lie there and imagine it hitting the cancer cells, and I would say, “Go get ’em—kill those bastards!” But these therapies only knock the cancer into remission. I wanted a cure.

So in August I went into the hospital for an experimental bone-marrow transplant in which my own marrow was removed, radiated and reintroduced. My wife, Niki, went to law school, took care of the kids and nursed me through the transplant without missing a beat. It took extraordinary courage and discipline. Most important, she created an environment in which our kids could live a normal life. I was cancer-free for one year. Then in 1987 they found a lump in my arm. They took it out and gave me radiation across my chest. I went the next five years with no symptoms.

During last winter’s presidential campaign, we were concerned about my health becoming an issue. I noticed while campaigning that people would come up to me and grab my arm or my back rather than shake my hand. I realized they were checking my health by touching my arms. Of course, any swimmer has very solid arms. Thai’s why we decided to do the ads showing me swimming the butterfly. The theory was that since most people can’t swim the butterfly, they’d be less likely to worry about my health if they saw me doing it. It worked.

The node that showed up in November is large-cell lymphoma and more susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation than the small-cell type of my first two bouts. Today my body is clear. My doctors are optimistic, but they’re careful not to speculate. I can count, though. It’s been 3,494 days since I discovered the lump in 1983. I remember the day I got to 500. It was such a triumph.-Anybody who counts days is more grateful for the present than worried about the future.

My view is that you grow by adversity. It’s the dread of being removed from the scene that makes you appreciate being on the scene. If you presume endless days, then no day has particular value. I think of all the fathers who have young children and play golf all day Saturday and Sunday. They’ve never had cancer. I think of the husbands who never voice their affection for their wives. They’ve never had cancer.

It’s inevitable that I fear another recurrence, but I could be hit by a truck tomorrow too. These past 10 years have been much richer because I appreciate my wife and my children. I appreciate a sunny day. I didn’t even mind my bald head. It gave me a reason to wear my Red Sox baseball cap.

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