Instead, under an experimental treatment, Reid has been declared in “complete remission” and cancer-free. He does therapy workouts with a trainer four times a week, including 20-minute walks with the help of a cane in his neighborhood outside Las Vegas. His hair is even starting to grow back.
One year later, his world has been transformed, he said. “There’s no comparison to how I feel — I feel good. I’m alive.”
The 80-year-old former amateur boxer long ago turned fighting into his political call sign. He titled one of his books “The Good Fight” and, on the day Democrats elected him leader, he declared that he knew how to dance and how to fight. Over 12 years as leader, eight in the majority, he danced and boxed his way to a vast legislative legacy.
But his latest steps might prove to be even more lasting.
“Consider the senator the first astronaut to the new universe,” said Patrick Soon-Shiong, a cancer specialist who credits a new drug treatment with saving Reid’s life.
Soon-Shiong, a South African of Chinese descent, has spent the past decade working on alternative cancer treatments, other than the standard heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation that ravage a patient’s body.
Reid is one of four patients who joined his compassionate-use program for patients suffering from certain forms of pancreatic, breast and brain cancers — basically, those who have run out of options.
“The prognosis for these patients, sadly, is months,” Soon-Shiong, adjunct professor of surgery at UCLA, said in the conference call with Reid.
They might seem to have nothing in common, but for their shared dislike of authority figures. Reid famously punched his future father-in-law in the face when he refused to let his daughter marry him, eloping to Utah not long after.
Soon-Shiong has run into trouble at various medical destinations along the way, including MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and at Northwestern University. Years ago they wanted to use his cancer drug, Abraxane, at high doses that would create the same effect as chemotherapy.
He returned to UCLA and kept working on using Abraxane and therapies at lower doses, focusing on what he called the “triangle offense” of igniting three “killer cells” to attack tumors. The final cell is ignited through an IV therapy in a way that, Soon-Shiong contended, allows the cells to locate and continue fighting the cancer.
“Find me, kill me, remember me,” he said.
Reid reached out to Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, about his new doctor and received a warning that Soon-Shiong was unconventional. He didn’t mind and, besides, he had just about run out of options.
“I saw him the next day,” Reid said.
After surgery in May 2018, Reid underwent a brutal slate of chemo and radiation that crushed his body. Doctors would not even allow Reid to take a short flight to Phoenix for a memorial service for his old friend, the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), that August.
Reid told the New York Times in late 2018 that his diagnosis was “you’re dead,” further feeding fear among former colleagues he might soon die. He fought through most of 2019, but the standard cancer treatments left his already hunched back even more curled up, requiring a wheelchair to get around in public places because he had lost his balance.
Many Democrats privately viewed the weeks leading up to his state’s critical Feb. 22 presidential caucus as a farewell tour of sorts. He received a standing ovation at the Democratic debate and doled out his political wisdom to any reporters who made their way to his office inside MGM’s Las Vegas headquarters.
He greeted reporters with jokes about their graying hair, only to take his cap off to show a completely bald head of his own.
Reid didn’t let on that things were improving.
Last September, he and Landra Reid celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and he began the new treatment regimen with Soon-Shiong.
The doctor is comfortable around powerful figures. He spoke with then-Vice President Joe Biden during his son Beau’s fight against brain cancer, and later joined top cancer experts at the Naval Observatory when Biden convened the “cancer moon shot” strategy, a massive infusion of funding to National Institutes of Health to fight the disease.
That legislation, part of a broader 21st Century Cures legislation, was one of the last major bills to pass under Reid’s watch before he retired in January 2017.
Soon-Shiong said that the spirit of collaboration infused by Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has fallen apart amid internal politics and profit motives for the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
He kept pushing on his own and, in Reid, feels he has a triumphant case to present to those experts who dismissed him years ago. “People may still think this is quackery. It’s not,” Soon-Shiong said.
He is CEO of NantKwest and ImmunityBio, the company that has been cleared to start a Phase II trial for his treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer, using a new IV therapy that allowed Reid to do these sessions as an outpatient.
For Reid the progress came instantly, seeing his data points drop quickly to normal levels. By April they declared they had answered the question.
“Clinically? A complete remission,” Soon-Shiong said.
Reid showed his results to an oncologist in Las Vegas, who told him it must be “witchcraft.” He spoke to Biden just over a week ago and gave him an update on his health.
Reid will continue to keep up the treatments, for fear that there are cancer cells lurking that will return to go up against him.
For now, however, the former majority leader’s bigger fear is battling through the covid-pandemic world, as an elderly man fighting cancer. He has a big backyard, where his children will visit and bring the grandchildren. They all wear masks.
Just keep fighting, Reid said. “The simple fact that you have cancer doesn’t mean you quit.”