Staring Down the Enemy

UPDATED 01/23/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/23/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

John Chancellor had it all figured out. After a distinguished 43-year career as a TV journalist—culminating in his job as anchorman, then commentator on the NBC Nightly News between 1970 and 1993—Chancellor looked forward to sharing a comfortable retirement with Barbara, his wife of 36 years, in their federal-style house in Princeton, N.J. Instead, last April, at 67, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer—a relatively rare but aggressive form of malignancy that struck 24,000 Americans and claimed 14,000 lives in 1994. "There wasn't a cloud on the horizon, and then this," says Chancellor, who had just finished narrating Ken Bums's Baseball documentary for PBS. "It made me mad and frightened—and that's a very toxic cocktail."

After collecting their thoughts, he and Barbara immediately phoned their three grown children—Mary, 43 (from Chancellor's first marriage), Laura, 37, and Barnaby, 35—and broke the news. Chancellor promptly underwent surgery, and between June and August last year was administered chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Buoyed by calls and notes from colleagues—including Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Peter Jennings—Chancellor says he was "feeling better in September, and suddenly Baseball was on the air. It was as though I'd been brought back to life."

Born in Chicago, Chancellor attended the University of Illinois and was a cub reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times before joining NBC News in 1950. A foreign correspondent and host of the Today show in the early '60s, he has covered four wars and interviewed every U.S. President since Harry Truman. Chancellor spoke about his cancer battle with senior writer Peter Castro.

I BEGAN TO GET THE STOMACH-aches last April—sharp, annoying pains that came after meals. I immediately thought it was an ulcer. So when I went to the doctor two weeks later—I was working against deadline on a book project—I was smiling, because I thought that getting an ulcer after retirement was, in a mordant way, kind of comic. The old guy never takes a sick day in 40 years on the job but gets an ulcer in the throbbing heart of Princeton. The doctor performed an endoscopy, which entails being anesthetized and having a tiny camera put in your stomach by sticking a tube down your throat. He took one look and knew right away that I had cancer. Because I was still woozy, Barbara got the diagnosis first. So when I got home she said, "Well, I've had a talk with the surgeon." And I said, "Yes, so have I." Being the kind of people we are, we didn't have a big emotional scene and just went on about our business that night. But obviously we were scared to death.

I was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove the tumor at Princeton Medical Center seven days later, so for a week I sat around the house and brooded. I didn't go stand out on the cliffs staring at the Atlantic or make out my last will and testament; at the time, doctors couldn't tell how big the tumor was, and a sensible, or at least hopeful, person like me thought, "Well, they'll get it all." But the tumor was situated so that it was impossible to remove all of it. Doctors did, however, remove half my stomach. They had to leave some of the diseased tissue and told me in terms of recovery I'd be under a statistical shadow for some time to come. That's when the really deep notes on the organ began sounding in my head. I thought, "Oh, God, this can't happen to me. I'm going to die."

I also had to deal with feelings of guilt. Had I smoked or drunk too much, or not exercised or prayed enough? Cancer didn't run in the family, and I wondered, "Why me?" I never thought my number would come up—I thought I'd die in bed at a great age surrounded by sobbing great-grandchildren. But after a few days I realized that often cancer just comes. Dennis Potter, a wonderful BBC writer who died last year of pancreatic cancer, said of his illness: "Fate blew me a little kiss." And that was all. Pretty soon I got over the feeling that I was somehow responsible.

After two weeks of recovering from the surgery, I checked out of the hospital, went back home—and spent the next month regaining my strength for the ordeal I knew awaited me. On June 21 the chemotherapy and radiation treatments began simultaneously in Princeton. Five times a week I went to a local hospital for radiation treatments, which was like being in a toaster with the setting on dark. Chemo, meanwhile, required a pump strapped around my waist that dripped the chemicals into my bloodstream 24 hours a day. The treatments made me very ill. I was seriously nauseous, had terrible diarrhea and often refused to eat because I thought I was going to lose it all anyway. I had to hook myself up to an intravenous machine every night that pumped 800 to 1,000 calories—in the form of a chocolaty liquid—directly into my stomach while I slept, to compensate for all the food I was throwing up. Between May and early August, I lost 30 pounds. My doctors ordered me to have six meals a day and eat anything I wanted—eggs, bacon, cakes, pies, all the bad things I hadn't eaten in years. I discovered aisles in supermarkets that I had never visited before.

Still, I acquired a lassitude of the dead. I was so tired it was scary. I would sit on the couch and just keel over in the middle of conversations, then nap for an hour. When I did manage to stay awake, I'd sit in one spot and just feel sick for hours. It was hard to read, which was a severe penalty for me. And then there's the vertigo; the room begins to spin and you think you're going to be flung off the chair at the breakfast table. Fortunately my hair didn't fall out during the chemo. But it did stop growing, along with my nails, which was an eerie experience. I no longer had to go to the barber.

I got enormous help from Barbara. She ended up being best friend, nurse, cook, manager and housekeeper. I have one piece of advice for anybody who's going through this with a loved one: Keep your sense of humor. At the worst times, a cheerful face and a sense of proportion really helps you come through. Barbara was cheerful throughout—during the summer, when we didn't know whether any of this radiation or chemo would work, she never stopped smiling. I'd say, "I'm sorry I can't eat this food that you've slaved to make for me" or, "I'm sorry I have to go throw up again." I felt embarrassed, but she found ways of not making me feel shame. She's a pearl beyond price.

There was something else I learned that's important. I always felt that reporters were a special breed—that we stood outside society and looked in at it—and I allowed myself to believe that statistics affected everybody but me. When I got cancer, it robbed me of my self-anointed special status and made me an ordinary guy. And that was a real downer. I was one of the common herd.

While I'm feeling much less despair these days, it hasn't even occurred to me to declare victory; I don't know if I'll ever get to that point. Next month it all could start again—cancer can lurk in your body in ways that are undetectable. For now, I have to go for checkups every four weeks, which include blood tests, X-rays and CAT scans—something I'll have to do for the rest of my life.

Meantime, I've booked a couple of lectures—one this month in Hawaii—and as soon as I get last summer's mail answered I'm going to resume work on a book—a kind of eyewitness account of the effect television has had on American politics. Every day I feel a little better and hope to get back to the life I had before I got sick. Cancer is the single most frightening thing that's ever happened to me. But I'm not depressed by it so much as I am alerted by it. Cancer underscores your mortality—it's a reminder of how short a leash you're on. As I read somewhere, "You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans."

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