10.15.12

A Kinder, Gentler Arlen Specter, Inspiration to Cancer Sufferers

He was ‘Snarlin’ Arlen’ in the Senate and seemed to revel in being cantankerous. But fellow non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma sufferer Jamie Reno remembers another side to the lawmaker, who died Sunday at 82.

During his 30-plus years in the Senate, Arlen Specter earned a reputation as a tough guy. But I got a rare glimpse of his kinder, gentler side. As a journalist who covered him over the years, I did my best to report on his political life objectively and keep my professional distance. But it was no secret that I admired the man, who kept working for his constituents throughout his storied battles with advanced cancer and other serious health issues.

I got to know Specter in a way I suspect most journalists did not. We both fought stage IV cancer, more than once, and we swapped stories about our respective battles. There was a mutual respect, a bond. At least I’d like to think so.

The news that he died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma hit home. I’ve been battling the same type of cancer for 16 years. I was saddened and frankly surprised. I guess I really thought Specter, who was 82, was immortal. He was a definitive example of a survivor, both in politics and life.

In an interview soon after he finished treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma four years ago, Specter shared some of his secrets of survival and opened up to me in a way politicians rarely seem to do with reporters.

The conversation quickly turned from talking points to cancer, as well as the other “C” word so many cancer survivors know about: chemotherapy. He told me that during his chemo he never missed a day of work in the Senate. He was 78 at the time. I was floored.

When I asked him where he summoned the strength to go through such a brutal chemo regimen at his advanced age and never miss a day on the job, he said he forced himself to play squash every day. Yes, squash. No matter how sick he was.

“It’s just willpower, really, is how I do it,” said Specter, who with Frank Scaturro wrote Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate. “I do come from a strong family. My father was an immigrant who literally walked across Europe to get out of Russia. He fought in World War I. He was wounded in action. My father was a great success even though he never had money. He was a very determined man, a great role model.”

When I went through chemo, I tried to keep working, too, but there were days—weeks, even—when I could not get out of bed. Specter, who was nearly twice my age, put me to shame.

He not only beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice, he also survived a brain tumor and cardiac arrest after bypass surgery. I never met a more resolute man.

But it was his compassion I admired most. This cantankerous pol who came to be known as Snarlin’ Arlen was a champion for stem-cell research, cancer patients, AIDS patients, veterans, and people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Specter, who I think was widely misunderstood, always spoke his mind, political consequences be damned. How refreshing and rare is that inside the Beltway? He ticked off folks on both sides of the aisle, which tells me he must have been doing something right.

Beneath the gruff, sometimes combative demeanor was a man with heart, humor, and decency.

Specter spoke out against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, angering his fellow Republicans, but he also ruffled Democrats’ feathers when he went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, accusing her of committing “flat-out perjury.”

At times charming, at others pedantic, Specter was a star in the GOP for decades and briefly entertained the notion of a White House run. But his political career ended rather abruptly after he switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and lost the subsequent primary in 2010.

Specter enjoyed the support of President Obama in that Senate race, but lost it to Joe Sestak, who was subsequently defeated by conservative Republican Pat Toomey, then a congressman, by 2 percentage points.

Of course, Specter was sharply criticized when he announced he was switching his party affiliation. His critics said he left for expedient reasons. That wasn’t entirely true. Yes, he wanted to get keep his job. But Specter had become disillusioned with the party to which he had pledged his allegiance. He felt the GOP was moving too far to the right.

It’s too bad there aren’t more politicians today like Specter who think for themselves and aren’t afraid to call out their party when it goes to extremes.

After his political days were over, Specter returned to practicing law. But in August he announced that his Hodgkin’s lymphoma had transformed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (It is rare, but it does occur. It also happened to Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.) Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can be harder to treat than Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It’s another battle I intend to win,” Specter said in a statement this summer. “I’m grateful for all the well wishes I’ve received.”

I thought he would win this fight, too. But it was his time. He battled heroically and went down swinging. He will always be an inspiration. I always felt that if he could beat this insidious disease twice at his age, then so could I. And I know a lot of people who’ve been through the hell that is cancer were rooting for him this time, too.

He told me once how important it is for patients to ask questions, get second opinions, become their own best advocate, and respectfully challenge their doctors. That’s just how he lived his life.

“Twice doctors gave me a death sentence, and twice they were wrong,” he once said. “As patients you have to ask questions, get second opinions, go to the Internet, talk to friends. Doctors don’t always respond well to questions, but you have rights as a patient. It’s your health that’s at stake, not theirs.”

Specter was tough as nails, and he loved politics. He craved the fray, and I think he even enjoyed being controversial, which he most certainly was. But beneath the gruff, sometimes combative demeanor was a man with heart, humor, and decency. I will miss him greatly.