He’d long been known as a fighter who survived against all odds after several plane crashes as a naval aviator, with the final one resulting in John McCain being held as a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years in North Vietnam.
And yet, in the end, it would be a deadly cancer that took McCain’s life just 13 months after the shocking announcement on July 19, 2017 that he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma. Doctors had found the tumor during surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye on July 14 of last year.
As the intervening months unspooled, McCain proved himself every bit the stubborn fighter who stared down torture by the Vietnamese and stood up to tyranny by Donald Trump.
As McCain was recovering from the surgery in Arizona and considering treatment options, McCain’s daughter Meghan got into a screaming match with her dad over his plans to fly to Washington to vote on the Republicans’ attempt to repeal Obamacare.
“I said, ‘What could possibly happen if he gets on a plane?’ and the doctor said he would like hemorrhage and it can be dangerous if he still has air in his brain, and all this crazy stuff,” The View co-host said in the HBO documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“So I freaked out and I screamed at everyone that he couldn’t get on the plane and that I didn’t agree with it,” she said. “And my dad snapped at me and said, ‘It’s my life and it’s my choice.”’
McCain, a Republican, made the trip and took to the floor of the senate on Friday, July 28. His deciding no vote on Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, saved millions from losing healthcare coverage.
“I will not vote for this bill as it is today,” McCain forcefully told his senate colleagues, many of whom reacted with stunned silence and a few audible gasps.
In the months following, as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, McCain continued working on Capitol Hill and returning home to Arizona, surrounded by family and close friends. This included visits at his home outside of Sedona from senate pals Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. (The trio are so close they are also known as ‘the three amigos.’)
“He was just talking about the fullness of his life,” Graham told PEOPLE last September. “How many things he was able to do and things hopefully, he can do.”
McCain faced the cancer with the fortitude that got him through his POW torture decades ago.
“He’s by no means giving in, I mean he’s fighting it,” Lieberman told PEOPLE in October. “But I will say that this confrontation with his mortality is the most direct that he has had since was a prisoner of war.”
“It’s also brought out a philosophical side,” Lieberman continued. “He looks back and is very grateful for the life that he’s lived.”
“He was born to serve our country and he’s served it with great honor and he’s gotten enormous satisfaction out of that. I think he feels as he looks back he’s worked very hard to make a difference for the better for our country, he is a real patriot.”
During Lieberman’s visit, most of McCain’s seven children were there, a devoted brood who spent time recalling childhood memories.
“A lot of closeness,” says Lieberman. “They are very supportive. It all means a lot to him.”
McCain loved nature and regaled his friends with how many birds he’d see fluttering around the homestead as he sat on his patio. “There was a succession of hummingbirds coming to the bird feeders,” Lieberman said, “and he got excited every time he saw one.”
McCain appeared on The View in October to celebrate Meghan’s 33rd birthday, a few weeks after she started on the show as a cohost. The Senator said he was feeling “fine” and “getting plenty of rest, plenty of food, plenty of exercise.”
“I don’t mean to get a little sentimental, but it does make you appreciate every minute of every hour of every day,” he said. “We should all thank God for every minute because we are blessed. And we’re blessed to be in the greatest nation on Earth.”
At the time she told PEOPLE: “My dad is doing really well right now, but it’s a deeply unpredictable cancer. You’re really just living scan to scan. I wanted to make sure that he was — that we were all — there. Why wait?”
By December, McCain would remain in Arizona as he continued to battle the brain cancer and go to physical therapy to work on regaining his strength. In April, he was hospitalized following emergency intestinal surgery related to his diverticulitis.
Still, in his final months, McCain continued to make news. In his bestselling book “The Restless Wave,” published in May, McCain expressed regret that he had not chosen Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, as his running mate during the 2008 presidential campaign, instead of Sarah Palin.
McCain publicly rebuked Donald Trump on a number of issues, both domestic and international. In May, after McCain opposed Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Trump aide Kelly Sadler said of McCain: “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.” The leaked Sadler criticism created a firestorm, and outpouring of support for McCain.
In July, in what would be his final jab at the president, McCain excoriated Trump following a press conference in Helsinki with Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. At the time, Trump accepted Putin’s denials that Russia had launched cyberattacks to interfere with the 2016 presidential election rather than believing U.S. intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusion that it had.
In a statement, McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“No prior president,” said McCain, who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, “has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”