Since first being elected to the United States Senate in 1980, Arlen Specter has served five terms, making him the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania's history. Sen. Specter has also been a long-time supporter and proponent of medical research. Recently, he underwent his second round of chemotherapy to stop the recurrence of a form of lymphoma. But he hasn't let cancer slow him down. He recently spoke to NIH MedlinePlus magazine about the importance of medical research and his own experience in fighting cancer.
MedlinePlus: You have been a champion for medical research and NIH for decades. Why have you made this such a priority?
Specter: Health is our nation's number one asset. Without your health, you can't do anything. I believe medical research should be pursued with all possible haste to cure the diseases and maladies affecting Americans. I have said many times that the NIH is the crown jewel of the federal government—perhaps the only jewel of the federal government.
MedlinePlus: Is there an accomplishment you are most proud of in this area of your public service?
Specter: When I came to the Senate in 1981, NIH spending totaled $3.6 billion. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and I, a Republican, have worked very hard to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health. Now NIH receives $29 billion to fund its life-saving research. The investment in NIH has spawned revolutionary advances in our knowledge and treatment for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, mental illnesses, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, ALS, and many diseases. It is clear that Congress' commitment to the NIH is paying off. It is also clear to me that we need to do more.
- Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells that develops in the bone marrow.
- Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the white blood cells. It is the most common cancer in children, representing 23 percent of all cancers among those 15 or younger. Today, up to 90 percent of children in the United States with ALL are cured.
- Lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells, especially the lymph nodes and spleen. It is the most common type of blood cancer in the United States.
There are at least 60 different types of lymphoma.
MedlinePlus: Does medical research have a role to play in health care reform efforts by Congress?
Specter: In 1970, President Nixon declared war on cancer. Had that war been prosecuted with the same diligence as other wars, my former chief of staff, Carey Lackman, a beautiful lady of 48, would not have died of breast cancer. One of my very best friends, a distinguished federal judge, Chief Judge Edward R. Becker, would not have died of prostate cancer. All of us know people who have been stricken by cancer or other maladies.
This is the time to seize the scientific opportunities that lie before us, and to ensure that all avenues of research toward cures—including stem cell research—are open for investigation.
MedlinePlus: What were your first thoughts when you were told you had Hodgkin's? How did this compare to when you learned that it was back?
Specter: It was a tremendous shock. I wondered if I would survive, if I'd be able to do my job. I immediately told my constituents, and I tried to be upbeat. I said that I'd beaten two brain tumors, a double bypass surgery, a lot of tough political opponents, and I was going to beat this, too.
The second time I was surprised by the PET scan findings because I had been feeling so good, maintaining a rigorous Senate schedule, and playing my daily squash game. I chose to consider it just another bump on the road to a successful recovery from Hodgkin's, from which I'd been symptom free for three years—and I have good shock absorbers.
It was very, very tough. Chemotherapy is a very debilitating formula, but I just made up my mind. I had to drag myself out of bed and go to work.
MedlinePlus: You have a terrific new book out, Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate. What is your advice to others diagnosed with serious illness?
Specter: I wrote the book because I want people to know that they can fight serious illness. There are some limits as to what people can do physically, but when it comes to determination, to a mind-set, I think a lot can be done if you just are determined to do it. Mental attitude is critical. Having said that, the practical advice I would give is to:
- acknowledge your illness and move on
- organize and focus your psychological strength to face your medical issue
- as much as possible, maintain regular work and exercise
- supplement your doctor's advice by learning as much as you can about your medical condition
- listen to your body
- keep busy and never give in!
MedlinePlus: Do you have any other thoughts for our readers?
Specter: Doctor's orders prohibit me from shaking hands while my immune system is down. It's kind of tough for a guy in my line of work not to shake hands so I do the elbow-bump so that I don't violate doctor's orders. It keeps me away from something possibly contagious. It's not quite the same as shaking hands, but people understand. Now I find there's more interest in my hairdo than in my public policy. For example, I get letters saying I ought to wear a wig. I have people saying I ought to shave my head and become a sex symbol, but I don't do that for two reasons: one, my wife objects, and secondly, I'm not qualified.