Cancer doctors at the University of New Mexico say it’s not uncommon for advanced lung cancer patients like House Speaker Ben Lujan to work full time and fight the disease for years after diagnosis.
Lujan, 76, surprised New Mexico lawmakers Tuesday with his announcement that he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2009 and has since been privately undergoing treatment at UNM while serving as the state’s speaker of the House and narrowly winning re-election for his Santa Fe district in 2010.
“I have many patients with stage 4 lung cancer who are working full time and leading productive lives. You can live for years with stage 4 lung cancer. Your life doesn’t end at that point,” said Dr. Richard Lauer, executive medical director at the UNM Cancer Center.
Lauer declined to talk about Lujan’s case specifically, citing federal health care privacy rules, but he said the stage 4 cancer Lujan described in his public statement Tuesday is an incurable diagnosis where cancer cells have spread, commonly to the brain, liver or bones.
Modern treatments allow many patients to continue with their daily routines without nagging cancer symptoms, Lauer said, but living and working for years after diagnosis, as Lujan has, is no easy feat.
“Anybody who faces this kind of low and continues to function is worthy of respect. They should be complimented for overcoming this adversity and still functioning in society,” Lauer said.
Although cigarette smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, longtime colleagues say Lujan was never a smoker during his 37-year tenure in the state House. Lujan in his statement said he believes the cancer stems from his exposure to asbestos as an ironworker at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“I have never seen him smoke,” said former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, D-Albuquerque, who served alongside Lujan for nearly 30 years. “There were a lot of smokers (in the Legislature), and he was not one of them.”
Lung cancer patients who don’t smoke can often better fight their cancer because their overall health is better than a smoker’s, and the forms of lung cancer that affect nonsmokers are sometimes less aggressive, said Dr. Julie Bauman, an assistant professor of oncology at the UNM School of Medicine.
“It is very clear that nonsmokers survive stage 4 lung cancer for a longer time than smokers do,” Bauman said.
Lujan has declined to comment on his condition after his initial announcement. He had said the cancer treatment at times required him and his wife, Carmen, to drive to Albuquerque daily to receive chemotherapy treatments at the UNM Hospital before returning home the same day to work with the Legislature or manage his close 2010 re-election campaign. Lujan said he will not seek re-election in 2012.
House Democrats have said they expect Lujan to be at his speaker’s chair nearly every day of this year’s 30-day session, although party leaders are encouraging him to take time off for recuperation during some of the Legislature’s routine daily business while commending his tough spirit.
“I can tell you that he has been engaged,” said House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants. “He’s been working hard.”