These days, there seems to be one thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on: more funding for cancer research. In a poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, 90 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans support Vice President Joe Biden’s moonshoot initiative -- a $1 billion commitment to accelerating a cure for cancer.
At the same time, several high-profile politicians have announced cancer diagnoses of their own. Though she expects a full recovery, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill announced earlier this year that she has breast cancer. Just a few weeks later, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced his prostate cancer diagnosis. Louisiana last month lost state Rep. Ronnie Edwards to pancreatic cancer.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan already had a tough job on his hands as a newly elected Republican governor in a traditionally blue state. Then, less than six months after his January 2015 inauguration, he was diagnosed with an advanced stage of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He spent much of the year juggling chemotherapy with the business of running the state; Hogan was declared cancer-free at the end of 2015.
Hogan sat down with Governing to discuss his experience battling cancer and maneuvering the health-care system as a public official. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’d been at your job five months when you got this grave diagnosis. What’s running through your head?
It was a shock because I did think I was perfectly healthy. I had gone through a tough campaign that took a year of nonstop work. Then there were the riots in Baltimore, the worst violence in the city in 47 years. Just a few weeks after that, I was listening to three doctors I’d just met telling me I had a very aggressive and advanced form of cancer that had spread all throughout my body. It was surreal. They found 50 to 60 tumors from my neck to my groin, some of them the size of baseballs. And I had no idea.
It happened to be Father’s Day weekend, so I went home and told my wife that Friday night. My daughters and my father were coming up for that weekend, so Saturday I told them all. It was really tougher on them than on me. That Monday I decided that I needed to tell the people of Maryland, the people who’d just elected me, because I wanted to be as transparent as possible.
I read that you’d take meetings in the hospital when you could. What other logistical workarounds did you use to make sure you could still do your job while undergoing treatment?
I had somewhat of a strange scenario, where I had six months of on-and-off chemotherapy. So I would go into the hospital for five days at a time and would do 24 hours of chemo for five straight days. But then I would be off chemo for 16 days, and I’d be in the office working. Then back in the hospital for five days, then back in the office for 16. Back and forth. When I was here in my office, I was still working normally.
Chemo does have a cumulative effect, and after a while it does take its toll on you. I couldn’t quite keep up a schedule like I was used to, but I was trying to work as normally as I could. When I was in the hospital, my staff was constantly coming in and giving me materials to read and sign, going through proposals, things like that. I was able to maintain working full-time. I’m sort of a workaholic, I had to cut back some but still doing more than your average 9-to-5 job.
Has that translated into more of a work/life balance now that you're in recovery?
Not really. I’m back to doing crazy hours. For example, yesterday I left work close to midnight, and I got in around 8 a.m.
As someone with the ability to shape public policy, how did this experience change your view of our health-care system?
First of all, it opened my eyes to the incredible health-care system we have here in Maryland. We have National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland medical system, so I am very lucky to be living in this state. We really do have some of the best health-care systems and organizations -- and not just for cancer.
Being in the hospital so much, I got to meet people from all walks of life going through much tougher battles than my own. I definitely got a more direct view of our health-care system than I ever have before.
Was there anything that you singled out during your treatment and thought to yourself, "I’d like to change that"?
There’s one little silly thing that all cancer patients complain about. The hospitals have these machines that everyone is hooked up to, it feeds the chemicals -- the chemo -- in your body. These machines beep anytime there is a tiny air bubble. So these machines are beeping all the time. It’s loud, patients are woken up like every hour, and nurses are running up and down the hall to fix it. I want to find a machine that doesn’t beep and keeps the air bubbles out. It’s a little thing, but I want it to be my next discovery.
What was your experience with the billing and claims process like? Did this change your view of our health insurance industry?
I’m luckier than most as a state employee. The state provides great benefits to all of its employees.
I know that most people have a much tougher time than I did. I have a staff and a support system, from my family to the incredible people in my office helping me out. But I imagine for many people it’s a confusing and complicated process.
There’s been so much press around Joe Biden’s moonshot initiative. Just last week, Napster and Facebook entrepreneur Sean Parker announced he was donating $250 million to cancer research. Do these sorts of headlines excite you? Are you hoping to get involved?
I love it. I honestly have a new calling in life. Before, I was peripherally involved. I would go to lots of cancer charity events. But now I’m wholly focused on raising awareness and money. I was with the vice president recently at Johns Hopkins to kick off the opening of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is really exciting. It’s where you use a person’s own internal organisms to fight off the cancer. It’s a total departure from chemotherapy, where they are just trying not to kill the patient while killing the cancer.
I was at the White House a month ago for the National Governors Association meeting. During the dinner I sat with Joe Biden, and we shared stories. He told me that he followed my journey, and we discussed what he went through with his son. (Beau Biden died from brain cancer in May 2015.)
One last question, and it’s a bit hokey: What advice do you have for Sen. McCaskill, Gov. Wolf and any other politician staring down a cancer diagnosis?
I’ve reached out to both of them, but this is advice for anyone. Just stay positive and realize that there’s an end to it. This might be a hokey answer to your hokey question, but the power of prayer doesn’t hurt.
I stayed positive, I stayed active and I kept myself distracted. You can’t be consumed by your diagnosis. You have to just keep moving forward.