Louis Farrakhan Battling Cancer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 2, 1999; Page A1
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan underwent emergency surgery this week and is more seriously ill than top organization officials have publicly acknowledged, according to sources at Howard University Hospital.
Farrakhan's worsening condition has set off a new wave of anxiety among his followers in the organization he has dominated for the last 20 years, as well as in the wider black community, where Farrakhan resonates as one of the last authentic figures who can tap into a sense of pride and alienation.
Farrakhan, 65, was flown to Washington from his lakeside home in Illinois Tuesday night and rushed to Howard University Hospital bleeding and in great pain. After a series of tests, Farrakhan underwent emergency surgery to administer radiation for a recurrence of prostate cancer, marking the third time he has undergone treatments for the disease since he was diagnosed in 1991, according to hospital sources.
Farrakhan remains in "very bad shape," according to one university hospital source familiar with his condition. The controversial minister, his family and his top officials seemed "shaken," said the source.
Nation of Islam officials continued to deny that their leader was gravely ill as they have since his worsening condition became public last month. "The minister's treatment continues to be successful and his prognosis is excellent," his chief of staff, Leonard Muhammad, said in a statement released Wednesday. "He is stable and resting, and we ask all well-wishers to keep Minister Farrakhan in their prayers."
But many of his followers were rattled by his rush to the hospital less than two weeks after he was pronounced healthy and cancer-free. On March 19, Farrakhan's personal physician, Abdul Alim Muhammad, who runs the Abundant Life Clinic in Washington, held a news conference in Chicago saying Farrakhan had bounced back from his illness and felt "full of energy, full of life."
"When he showed up and gave a strong speech it dispelled myths, and everybody thought they had witnessed a miracle," said one Nation of Islam official. "Now this relapse comes out of the blue. Everyone is confused and worried. There is just a lot of confusion."
Followers pointed to a few especially troubling signs. In the past, Farrakhan has been treated at an outpatient facility, at his home in Chicago or at a Nation of Islam retreat in Arizona. This was the only time followers could remember him checking into a hospital overnight.
Since he arrived Tuesday, Farrakhan has refused all visitors to the sixth-floor private wing where he is staying with his family and top officials. Jesse L. Jackson visited twice but was denied entry to Farrakhan's room, instead meeting outside with his wife and children.
Two guards are posted outside the luxury suite, and security guards and police are stationed at every entrance of the hospital. Over the last three days, a trickle of anxious visitors from the Nation of Islam, many dressed in casual clothes to avoid attracting attention, have gathered to say prayers and deliver messages to Farrakhan.
Meanwhile, black radio stations around the country are buzzing with callers concerned about the leader they associate with organizing the most moving black event in recent memory: the Million Man March in Washington.
"Minister Louis Farrakhan is the most recognized spiritual leader in the African American community today," said Mark Thompson, a host on Washington's WOL radio who has fielded dozens of calls this week. "I think we should allow the minister to recover without any fatalistic speculation."
Speculation, however, was unavoidable as the secretive group has been dominated by two decades by the iconic Farrakhan, who has set no clear hierarchy of succession. Since he took over from founder Elijah Muhammad in the 1970s, membership in the Nation of Islam has increased from a stagnant 5,000 to as many as 200,000, by the most generous estimates, with 20,000 regularly attending services at a network of mosques across the country.
Two of the minister's children, his chief of staff, his physician, and Benjamin Muhammad (formerly Benjamin Chavis, who was forced to resign from the NAACP), are among those mentioned as successors in what followers fear could be a draining and destructive fight for leadership.
But whoever prevails is unlikely to stir as much controversy as Farrakhan did by targeting whites and Jews with his fiery rhetoric, always packaged with an eye for maximum publicity, and his curious and compelling mix of discipline, spirituality and nostalgia.
Farrakhan was diagnosed with cancer in 1991 and treated for three years with hormones. When the cancer reappeared in 1994, radioactive pellets called "seeds" were implanted in his prostate. The treatment was repeated in 1997 when cancer was discovered in his seminal vesicles.
In December 1998, Farrakhan began feeling ill again. Respiratory and intestinal viruses combined with the aftereffects of radiation treatment made him weak and anemic, and he lost 20 pounds, his doctor said at the March news conference. He was at "death's door," but then a "miracle" happened, his doctor announced. When he stepped on the stage to give a speech on Saviour's Day in February, he was suddenly "resplendent, regal, glowing."
When he returned to Howard Tuesday, physicians again administered the radioactive seed treatment, which can sometimes delivers higher doses of cancer-killing radiation than is possible with external beams, which are similar to X-rays.
A leading practitioner of the technique said it would be distinctly uncommon to use it three times in a prostate cancer patient. "I've never done it a third time," said Gordon Grado, a physician in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has treated 3,000 cases.
The therapy is occasionally repeated to treat bleeding, which occurs when the regrowing tumor invades blood vessels near the bladder. The radiation shrinks, but does not eliminate, the tumor.
Hospital officials would not confirm any details about Farrakhan's treatment or the stage of his cancer.
Prostate cancer is among the slowest-growing cancers. A study from Sweden published in 1997 showed that in men with "localized" – potentially curable – tumors, 81 percent were alive 15 years after diagnosis. Among those whose disease was immediately outside the prostate – and, consequently, not curable – 57 percent survived 15 years.
Nevertheless, many men die of the disease. This year, the number is expected to be about 37,000. The immediate cause is usually complications that arise when the cancer spreads to distant organs, such as the lungs or bones.
Staff writers David Brown and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company