How a Tumor Is Changing My Life

By Robert D. Novak
Saturday, September 6, 2008

Many people have asked me how I first realized I was suffering from a brain tumor and what I have done about it.

The first sign that I was in trouble came July 23, when my 2004 black Corvette struck a pedestrian on 18th Street while I was on my way to my office downtown.

I did not realize I had hit anyone until a young man on a bicycle, who I thought was a bicycle messenger, jumped in front of my car to block the way. In fact, he was David A. Bono, a partner in the high-end law firm Harkins Cunningham. He shouted at me that I could not just hit people and drive away. Bono called the police, and an officer soon arrived.

While Bono and other bystanders were taking on aspects of a mob, shouting "hit-and-run," the investigating officer listened to me about what had happened and issued a right-of-way infraction against me, instead of a hit-and-run violation, which would have been a felony. Following his instructions, I promptly paid the $50 fine at 3rd District police headquarters.

The person I hit, identified by police as Don, with no fixed address, was taken to George Washington University Hospital. A D.C. fire department spokesman said there were "no visible injuries."

The next day, there were more clues that something was seriously wrong. I lost my way to my dentist's office in Montgomery County and never found it. I also had trouble finding my way back to my office. After returning from a speaking engagement in North Carolina that week, I found it difficult to locate my office in the 13-story building where I have been a tenant since 1964.

My wife, Geraldine, and I went to spend the weekend with our daughter, Zelda, and her husband, Christopher Caldwell, and their children in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. When Geraldine noticed that I was having trouble following her in the Boston airport, she suggested I go to a hospital emergency room. The CT scan at Salem Hospital showed a brain mass. I left the hospital and went into seizure the next day.

I suffered another seizure in the ambulance, the second of three that day. I was admitted to the high-quality Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where a biopsy showed a large, grade-IV tumor. In answer to my question, the oncologist estimated that I had six months to a year to live.

Being read your death sentence is like being a character in one of the old Bette Davis movies.

I believe I was able to withstand this shock because of my Catholic faith, to which I converted in 1998.

I called Donald Morton of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., who removed a cancer from my lung in 1994 and has been a friend and close medical adviser. He told me that different people react to serious cancers in different ways and reminded me that I was a three-time cancer survivor.

Morton recommended that I consult Allan H. Friedman, chief of neurosurgery at the Duke University Medical Center.

After reviewing my case, Friedman said a resection -- that is, a removal of the tumor -- was possible by surgery. He performed a similar operation this summer on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

In today's world, it is up to the "informed patient" to make many decisions affecting treatment. My dear friend Bob Shrum, the Democratic political operative, asked Sen. Kennedy's wife, Vicki, to call me. I barely know Mrs. Kennedy, but I have found her to be a warm and gracious person. I have had few good things to say about Teddy Kennedy since I first met him at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, but he and his wife have treated me like a close friend. She was enthusiastic about Dr. Friedman and urged me to opt for surgery at Duke.

The Kennedys were not concerned by political and ideological differences when someone's life was at stake, recalling at least the myth of milder days in Washington. My long conversation with Vicki Kennedy filled me with hope.

The irony of my going to Duke to save my life can only be appreciated by somebody who knows that I am a fanatical University of Maryland basketball fan with no use for the Duke Blue Devils and their student basketball fans.

The ingenious taunts by the students at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium are usually directed against opposing players, but I have also been the target of the "Cameron Crazies." During my last visit there to watch a game won by Maryland, students raised a placard with two pictures: one of Benedict Arnold and one of me. "Two Traitors," said the sign.

But I was treated with immense courtesy and skill by the Duke neurosurgical team. Friedman operated on me for more than four hours on Aug. 15, removing a 3-by-1.5-inch tumor. Of course, cancer cells remain, requiring a rigorous regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

Journalist Al Hunt, who has become a close friend despite our disagreeing about almost everything, says it will be very difficult for me to inveigh against Duke in the future. I believe he is correct.

I am now home in Washington, awaiting further therapy. Dr. Friedman recommended that I try to get back to at least parts of my normal life, which is part of the reason I composed this piece.

My brain cancer has cost me not only my left peripheral vision but nearly all my left vision, probably permanently. Several people have asked whether the person I hit was crossing in front of me on my left. I answer, "I never saw him."

Though angry bloggers profess to take delight in my distress, I feel no need to pay them attention in the face of an outpouring of goodwill. I thought 51 years of rough-and-tumble journalism in Washington had made me more enemies than friends, but my recent experience suggests the opposite may be the case.

Support for me and promises of prayers have poured in from all sides, including from political figures who had not been happy with my columns. I'm told that George W. Bush has not liked my criticism, particularly of his Iraq war policy. But the president is a compassionate man, and he telephoned me at 7:24 a.m. on Aug. 15, six minutes before I went into surgery. The conversation lasted only a minute, but his prayerful concern was touching and much appreciated.

Thanks to my tumor, I probably never will be able to drive again, and I have sold the Corvette, which I dearly loved. Taking away my typewriter, however, may require modification of the First Amendment.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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