Her Toughest Fight
Now Ferraro, 65, is once again facing a daunting challenge and meeting it with pioneer spirit. On June 19 she disclosed that since late 1998 she has been battling multiple myeloma, an as yet incurable cancer of the bone marrow that suppresses the immune system and, until recently claimed the life of three-quarters of its victims within five years. "This has been the toughest day I had since the day I was diagnosed," she told PEOPLE the day the story broke. "I have had friends calling me in tears all day."
In recent months Ferraro has pursued an innovative course of treatment: daily doses of thalidomide, the once controversial drug that was yanked from the world market in the 1960s after being linked to birth defects in Europe and Canada. Now approved for treating AIDS, leprosy and several types of cancer, it has helped bring ferraro's cancer under control—though for how long is uncertain. "Thalidomide has an evil past and a bright and promising future," says her physician Dr. Ken Anderson of Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He adds that Ferraro has "little if any detectable myeloma now. What it means is that she will do well for many months or years."
Ferraro first learned she was ill in December 1998 after a routine physical. Her husband, John Zaccaro, 68, was with her when she received the diagnosis. "His first reaction was denial," Ferraro says. "Now he is totally convinced that he can simply will me to stay alive." At the time, the pair decided to wait until after Christmas to tell their children. Then Ferraro broke the news to Donna Zaccaro-Ullman, now 39, a TV producer; John Jr., 37, a lawyer; and Laura Anne Lee, 35, a pediatrician. "This has brought us together more," Ferraro says of her close-knit family.
Ferraro was treated initially with high doses of steroids to reduce tumors in the bone marrow. At this point, Ferraro, who swims and walks on a treadmill regularly, is in no pain. She does, however, need more sleep than she once did and admits she finds it "hard to get going in the mornings." Tired or not, she has decided to speak on behalf of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation before a Senate committee on June 21, hoping to raise research funding and awareness of the disease, which kills 11,000 Americans each year.
Absent a cure, Ferraro knows that her prospects are grim. "The disease is uniformly fatal," says Anderson. Ferraro and her husband are in the process of selling their two-story brick home m the Forest Hills Gardens section of Queens and are looking for a one-floor apartment in Manhattan, since she anticipates not being able to navigate steps. Yet Ferraro remains philosophical and determined, "I truly believe that a person's outlook when they find out they have a terrible disease can influence their diagnosis," she says. "You can actually improve your chances if you stay upbeat—or at least hopeful."