From Chemotherapy to Constituents: Maryland Governor Faces Cancer, Politics

November 10, 2020
Brielle Benyon

Heal, Heal® Fall 2020, Volume 8, Issue 4

Doctors told Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to go home and rest after undergoing cancer surgery. But he had other plans: sharing his health issues.

Holding governmental office comes with its fair share of surprises, but Larry Hogan was in for the shock of his life when he received an advanced lymphoma diagnosis in 2015, shortly after being elected governor of Maryland.

“We had just battled riots in Baltimore. I just finished our trade missions. And then five months of being on the job, I thought, ‘Is this really how it’s all going to end?’” Hogan said in an interview with Heal®.

But the governor pushed on with his treatments — which involved a regimen referred to as CHOP: cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin hydrochloride (hydroxydaunorubicin), vincristine sulfate (Oncovin) and prednisone — and his gubernatorial duties. Then, three years later, a second diagnosis, a less severe skin cancer.

Throughout his journey, Hogan met some amazing patients. His interactions with them, as well as his own experiences with the disease, inspired him to write his book “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics that Divide America.”

Heal®: Can you walk us through your cancer journey from the beginning?

Hogan: I had just been elected governor of Maryland. I’d only been governor for five months. I was on our first trade mission to Korea, China and Japan, and we had been really busy going through a yearlong campaign, our first legislative session, (and I) had been working day and night.

I had no idea I was really sick, but I started to have some aches and pains on this trip. I started to feel a little rundown, but I thought I was OK. But (then) I noticed a lump in my throat, and I said, I better check this out. And so I went to the doctor as soon as we got back, and the first primary care physician sent me to another doctor, (who) sent me to another doctor, and I ended up having three doctors. After doing a bunch of CAT scans, (the doctors) walk into the room together. ... they said, “We have some bad news to share with you, Governor. You have very advanced and aggressive cancer. We found about 50 some tumors from your neck to your groin, and we’re going to set you up with a specialist oncologist.”

I was stunned (because) my first doctor said (he) didn’t think it was anything to worry about, (that) it’s probably just a benign cyst of some kind of fluid in my lymph node and my neck. Then I heard this shocking news and it set off a whole series of things. This was Father’s Day weekend, Friday of Father’s Day weekend.

My very first thought was not really about being afraid of what was going to happen to me, but I think it’s probably what so many other cancer patients go through: my first thought was of my family. How am I going to tell my wife? My three daughters were coming to visit for Father’s Day weekend, I was going to break that news to them.

And then my dad, who was coming over for Father’s Day weekend, and it doesn’t matter how old you get, you know, I was still his little boy. And he took it almost tougher than anybody. But it was a group hug, a little tears, and I thought everybody was going to be OK. And then, you know, I had to break the news to my staff, who work so hard and were just getting started on our administration. And break it to the six million people of Maryland, who put their faith and trust in me to help run the state. I was trying to be as open and honest and transparent as I could possibly be with all the people of the state. They went through and shared the whole cancer battle with me.

What was it like going through aggressive treatment while also serving as governor?

I had to tell the people in Maryland. They were going to say, “Hey, where’s the governor?” (when) I was going to be tied up going to these treatments. So I had to be open and honest. And so right after I told my family, I had to do a biopsy surgery, and they were removing a lymph node from under my arm and I was under full anesthesia. And then they gave me some pain pills afterward, and they said, you just have to go home and rest and don’t make any big decisions. And I said, I have a press conference this afternoon. The doctor said, “No way, you can’t have a press conference. You’re not going to (answer the public’s questions), are you?” And I said, “Yeah, I think they’re going ask me a lot of questions.”

But I went out there. Maybe it was truth serum. I was very relaxed, but I told the people exactly what was going to happen in that I had to start aggressive chemotherapy, and I was doing a thing called CHOP, which is a concoction of five different types of drugs administered for four straight days, 24 hours a day in the hospital. Then I would take 10 days out of the hospital to come home, recuperate and rebuild my white blood cells and then go back in again and then again. And this took place over a five-month period and then I did another year of kind of maintenance chemo. But I worked through the whole thing, like so many people who try to continue with their life and sometimes have to go to work even though they’re in a lot of pain and they’re not feeling well.

It was a struggle, but I met so many other patients who were going through much more difficult challenges than I was. (Treatment) becomes cumulative... the first one wasn’t so bad. And then the next one didn’t feel that great. And the third one, all of my beautiful hair fell out in the shower. And then by the end, it was pretty debilitating.

I was in a lot of pain, and you know, it takes a real toll on your body. But you actually get beyond that. And it was a tough regimen to go through. But, thank God, we had incredible doctors and nurses. And the technology, the drugs that we have today, the improvements (being made) in cancer research are saving a lot of lives.

What was it like having a second cancer diagnosis thrown your way so soon after the first?

Well, it wasn’t nearly as serious. I don’t want to diminish the importance of people going to the dermatologist, skin cancers can be scary. I did have maybe 30 some stitches that hopefully aren’t too visible. I caught it pretty early. ... It was not nearly as scary as the diagnosis I got with the tumors all over my body with the aggressive cancer of the immune system.

Just the word “cancer,” hearing it again so quickly after that was not something I wanted to hear. But it was much easier to go through. I didn’t look so good. I looked like I’d gotten in a fight or I was a hockey player, and I had to be on television and going to press conferences with scars all over my face for a while. But that was a much easier cancer to go through. I’ll tell you what, I also use that to message to people about the importance of sunscreen and doing regular skin checks. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, of being out in the sun and being unprotected.

You’ve written a book where you talk about courageous people you met while you were fighting cancer. Can you share some insight into those folks and their journeys?

I couldn’t stand lying in bed the whole time (I was in the hospital), but I was attached to this pole with the chemo bags 24 hours a day and it has wheels on it. So I just did laps around the hospital. And I would get to meet all these folks. I first met a woman named Shelly who was from West Baltimore, and she had lost her hair....We started doing laps together, and we were joking bald is beautiful. And she was telling me her experiences, what she was going through.

Then I met a young man named Jimmy who had Down syndrome, and he was fighting leukemia. And he just had the most incredible positive spirit and energy of anybody I’ve ever met, and I started to do things when I was out of the hospital with groups of (children with cancer). I went down and visited kids in the pediatric oncology ward and met their families.

I met this one young man, Andrew, (when) we took some kids out to a ballgame. And this young little 5-year- old kid came up to me with his mom.

We introduced them to some football players, and they got autographs for the kids (who) were battling cancer. And this young man comes up to me and he says, “Governor, I heard you have cancer, and you’re going through chemotherapy,” which he had been going through for a couple of years already. And he says to me, “My mommy helped me write a list for you.” And so he goes through this list he gives me and there are 10 things on the list. It’s like, “Make sure they give you the num num cream before they give you the pokey. You know, find a hugging person ... mine is my mommy. You might not like the doctors at first, but they’re there to help you.” (His mother) wrote it all, but he was telling her the things to tell the governor.

So we became pen pals and I helped him celebrate when he rang the bell and was cancer-free. He was there at my press conference, (and he) came up and hugged me when I was cancer-free. There are many of these stories, (including of) Jimmy, (the young man) with Down syndrome. I have a Governor’s Courage Award that I present at Special Olympics every year to an athlete. I picked the first one for this young man, Jimmy Myrick Jr. Unfortunately, he died of his battle with cancer, and I spoke at his funeral. I had named (the award) the Jimmy Myrick Jr. Governor’s Courage Award, and I got to present it to him right before he left the hospital. And he was so excited. But sadly, when he went home, he caught an infection and died shortly after that, so there are some really sad stories about people we lost along the way. But (there also are) some really exciting, happy stories, you know, success stories. And I’m still in touch with some of the families, and I’ve met some incredible people.

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