"The mere fact that you have cancer doesn't mean you're going to die," Reid tells PEOPLE, after announcing his "remarkable" recovery following experimental treatment
Harry Reid
Former Sen. Harry Reid says he's now in "complete remission" after experimental cancer treatment.
| Credit: The Hive Studios

A year and a half ago, former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada all but pronounced himself dead from pancreatic cancer.

“As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you’re dead,” the former Senate Majority Leader told the New York Times Magazine, in late 2018.

But 18 months later, Reid and his doctor say the former senator is in “complete remission.”

“I feel pretty good,” Reid, 80 years old and cancer free, now tells PEOPLE.

The former 34-year congressman credits his unexpected recovery to an experimental cancer treatment being tested by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, inventor of the drug Abraxane, which is used to treat a number of cancers, including in the breast, lung, and pancreas.

Soon-Shiong is working on a new combination therapy for difficult-to-treat cancers, such as metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Reid, believing he was out of options and facing death, met with Soon-Shiong on the recommendation of another friend working in the medical field — though Reid admits he didn't have much hope, having made little progress for the past two years.

“[My confidence] was pretty low,” Reid says. “The only strength I received during that period of time was from my wife. She toughened me up. When I met with Dr. Soon-Shiong, of course I was afraid, but after meeting with him, I was hopeful."

Reid started traveling from his home near Las Vegas to Dr. Soon-Shiong's office in Los Angeles for outpatient IV treatments. Reid now says, after eight months of taking the experimental treatment, that his "hope turned into reality.”

President Obama Campaigns For Hillary Clinton In Las Vegas Area
Former Sen. Harry Reid in October 2016.
| Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty

The former lawmaker, who also served in the House of Representatives from 1983-87 before running for the Senate, became one of four patients in Soon-Shiong’s compassionate use program, which is "designed for seriously ill patients who run out of treatment options," according to a representative for the doctor.

Dr. Soon-Shiong tells PEOPLE he’s working to create a more universal cancer treatment by rethinking how we use radiation to target cancer cells – and that Reid is proof it can work.

Instead of blasting the body with high doses of radiation, the doctor says the method he’s testing “tickles” the cancer cells to wake them up, while at the same time a patient is injected with additional “natural killer cells” that reinforce the body’s immune system in order to find and fight off the cancer.

“The cancer has a way to hide and put your natural killer cell to sleep,” Soon-Shiong says. “What we do is ‘find me, expose me, kill me, and then remember me,’ meaning taking over the cancer’s ability to invade the immune system and then activate your own immune system with our cells.”

After six months of the treatment, scans revealed Reid's body no longer showed signs of the cancer. Reid was the first of Soon-Shiong's four patients to show a complete eradication of the cancer.

Of the other three patients, Soon-Shiong's rep says that "another patient was stable, that means the severity of the cancer did not increase or decrease. The other two patients have not been treated long enough to evaluate."

Pancreatic cancer is known as one of the deadliest forms of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization estimated 57,600 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by the year’s end and the cancer will kill 47,050 more.

Reid — who began serving in the Senate in 1987, where he remained until retiring in 2017 — says Soon-Shiong’s treatment had a “remarkable” impact on his condition.

“Within two months — I believe that’s right, it might’ve been two and a half months — the lesions were gone,” Reid tells PEOPLE, minutes after completing his daily exercises. After his diagnosis two years ago, Reid was confined to a desk and unable to move around without a walker.

Dr. Soon-Shiong recently told The Washington Post to “consider the senator the first astronaut to the new universe."

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
| Credit: Ringo Chiu/PHOTOFORMULA.com

Prior to the breakthrough, the longtime lawmaker believed he had run out of options.

Reid was on a “farewell tour of sorts” as recently as late February, according to the Post, referring to the lead up to the February 22 Nevada caucus, when Reid had the chance to greet former colleagues and reporters from his time in office.

Reid says he “wasn’t in a very good mindset” about his future heading into 2020 and that his confidence in his recovery was low until a recent scan showed his body no longer had signs of cancer, following Soon-Shiong’s treatment.

“I had a scan and, my friend who was a physician, I asked him if he could find out early on for me from the radiologist what the result was,” Reid says. “I remember traveling from the doctor’s office where I had the scan — it takes about a half hour for me to get home. I get a call about 20 minutes later and he said, ‘I talked to the doctor and he said there’s no lesions anymore.’ “

Reid, who was once a boxer before turning to a career in politics, was known in the Senate for his blunt rhetoric and always speaking his mind. But in this case, Reid said it was a struggle to express how he felt learning about his new lease on life.

“Words cannot describe the elation and relief that I felt in that moment,” he says. “I can still remember.”

As soon as he hung up the phone, Reid says he dialed his wife Landra’s phone: “I called my wife and I told her, ‘Those pancakes you fix? They’re really a special pancake.’ I said, ‘I want to have some pancakes,’ so that was my celebration,” Reid recalls, making Soon-Shiong laugh.

“It’s an honor to have helped the senator,” Soon-Shiong says after. “He’s a national treasure.”

Reid’s 34-year congressional career is most remembered for his time as the Senate Majority Leader from 2007 until 2015, when the Democratic Party held the majority in the Senate (Sen. Mitch McConnell took over after the Republican Party won back the majority after the 2014 midterm elections). His straightforward approach to discussing politics earned him a reputation for being hard-nosed, at times, and always direct: “I always called ‘em the way I saw ‘em,” Reid says.

Roughly a year and a half after he likened pancreatic cancer to a death sentence, Reid has another candid message about his diagnosis: “The mere fact that you have cancer doesn’t mean you’re going to die.”

“There’s new things being discovered every week with detection and with programs like the one that I’m going through for healing your body,” Reid says, delivering a shred of good news to those he knows may be feeling the same hopelessness he did just 18 months ago. “That’s the main thing: Don’t let the word ‘cancer’ ruin your life. Just be aware of it. Good things are happening with the detection and treatment of cancer.”