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Michael Bennet has cancer, but will still run for president



Sen. Michael Bennet wants to be president. - MARC NOZELL / FLICKR.COM
  • Marc Nozell /
  • Sen. Michael Bennet wants to be president.

When U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's office called to say he had a big announcement to make, I assumed he would be confirming what everyone already knew: that the Colorado senator would be joining former Gov. John Hickenlooper and the rest of the ever-expanding Democratic field running for president.

In fact, that is what Bennet said when he got on the phone — but it wasn't nearly the most important or the most scary part of the conversation.

That was this: Just as he had finally become comfortable with his decision to run, he went to get a physical and received very discomfiting news from his doctor — he has prostate cancer.

His prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level was high. The biopsy showed malignancy. The doctors recommended that, at his age, 54, surgery was the best course of action. His family agreed. The risk, he was told, was low.

Former presidential hopeful John Kerry had survived the same surgery in 2003, was declared cancer-free, and two weeks later was back on the campaign trail, on his way to winning the Democratic nomination. And so...

And so, now Bennet is still committed to running for president if — and it's an important "if," but an "if" that Bennet says he's at peace with — he ends up cancer-free. The surgery to remove his prostate gland is scheduled for soon after the congressional spring recess begins in mid-April.

When I asked Bennet how he was taking all this — the cancer, not the presidential bid — he said he was OK. "I'm too busy to really sit back and think about it," he said, "and that's probably the best thing."

But it's one thing to be healthy and make the grueling, unforgiving run for president when no one is actually begging you to do it and quite another to make that decision when you've been told you have cancer.

Bennet explains that he decided to get into the race after finishing his book — The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics, which comes out in June — and realizing that no one in the field was talking about the reasons for the dysfunction he sees on a daily basis in Congress and how the money and corruption there have put our republican democracy at real risk. As he puts it, after 10 years on the job, "I am shocked every day" by how little gets done there.

"The idea was to announce sometime in April," Bennet said. "That was the plan. We hired some staff. We interviewed people for positions in New Hampshire and Iowa. And then I went for the physical. In my last physical, my PSA was high. They did a biopsy, and it was clear. But this time, it was not clear.

"That was two to three weeks ago. I was in San Francisco. Then the question became: Is this still something I wanted to do? I could answer the question in two ways. Maybe this would be a good time to give it up and go do something else. And the other was whether I could continue to run. I found myself hoping that I could run. That's what the doctors have said. That's what John Kerry and others learned."

One in nine men is diagnosed with prostate cancer over a lifetime. About one American man of every 41 will die from the disease, which is the second most common cause of cancer deaths among American men. In 2019, the American Cancer Society estimated that 174,650 men would be diagnosed that year and 31,620 would die.

"I'm 54," Bennet said. "That's relatively young. It seemed to make sense to have the prostate removed... I'd be recuperating for seven to 10 days and would need some rest after that. The hope is then I'll be cancer-free and able to move on. If I'm not cancer-free, then I'd have to make another decision."

And then to show he's in run-for-president condition, Bennet went full wonk on health care, an issue he has been passionate about for at least as long as the 10 years he has been in the Senate.

"In all honesty, I know nobody likes being told they have cancer, but I see myself as actually having been lucky," Bennet said. "It was detected early. It is highly treatable. I have insurance through Kaiser Permanente. I feel lucky that the doctors found it. I feel lucky that I'll probably be OK.

"The reason I wanted to share this is that I didn't want anyone to make it other than what it is — a brief healthcare speed bump. Having said that, it is a reminder of how important it is for people to have health insurance and to have primary care checkups."

He adds, "I don't want to be hysterical, but if it was left in me undetected, it could kill me. It won't because I have insurance and decent medical care. The idea that the richest country in the world hasn't figured out how to have universal health care is beyond embarrassing. It's devastating."

Bennet watchers have noticed — actually, couldn't miss — the new passion he has been showing on the Senate floor and in TV interviews. There was the viral video, breaking C-SPAN video records, of his now-classic takedown of Sen. Ted Cruz. More recently, on the Senate floor, he spoke emotionally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's latest nuclear-option scheme, a procedural move to short-circuit debate on some executive and judicial nominations.

"The integrity of our rule of law demands that we escape this spiral of retaliation over judicial nominees," he said, "not hasten it... The partisan temper that is destroying this place needs to come to an end. And we need to make sure that between now and whenever that happens, we don't take down the rest of government with us."

Bennet's fervor has been a warm-up for the big run, but the emotion, as NBC's Kasie Hunt put it, seems authentic coming from a normally mild-mannered senator.

Of his run, Bennet says, "I wouldn't do it if I didn't think I had a chance to win. I think, like everyone else does, it's a long shot. But I think everyone in the field is a long shot."

Bennet notes that former President Barack Obama was also once a long shot, whose run seemed crazy. The chances for Bennet, of course, are even slimmer. But if it turns out that in a few weeks people are telling him he's crazy to run, that would be the best news Bennet could hope for.

This article originally appeared in The Colorado Independent.

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