Docs: Herman Cain's Cancer Is Not Disqualifying

herman cain debate new hampshire
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Herman Cain participates in a presidential debate sponsored at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
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Herman Cain was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in March 2006.  "I had it in my colon and my liver — stage IV," the GOP presidential candidate said in a speech last year. "And to quote my first surgeon: 'That's as bad as it gets.'" His second surgeon gave him a slightly rosier outlook, telling Cain: "You have a five percent chance of even being alive three years from now."

At the time, the pessimism was warranted. "Five or six years ago stage IV colon cancer was a lethal disease," says Luis Diaz MD, an assistant professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins. But Cain took advantage of cutting-edge advances in surgery and chemotherapy — treatments that have since become standard — to aggressively treat the disease over the course of nine months. He underwent two rounds of chemo and a six-and-a-half hour surgery that removed 30 percent of his colon and 70 percent of his liver. 

Today, Cain is the GOP's implausible frontrunner. But is he a dead man walking? Should his cancer history disqualify him from running for the nation's highest office? 

Not at all, says Diaz, who has treated similar cases with "very good results."

Today, Cain insists, he's a healthy man. As he told Good Morning America: "Two months ago, I went to see my oncologist in Atlanta, got a full-scale check-up, CAT scan, X-rays, all of the various blood tests, and he put it in writing that, after five years, I am now totally, 100 percent, cancer-free." Cain has vowed to make some of his health records public.

Having already survived five years, Cain's prognosis for another five years of survival is "definitely greater than 50 percent and likely much higher than that," says Diaz. The oncologist hesitated to offer a more definitive prognosis without first seeing Cain's lab work, but says that the Republican is likely now "as normal and healthy as someone who doesn't have cancer."

A second oncologist contacted by Rolling Stone largely agrees. "Most recurences happen within the first two years or so," says Christina Cellini MD, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center. After five years, she says, doctors begin talking about patients like Cain as "cured." 

The longer Cain remains disease free, both doctors say, the better his prognosis gets. And even in the event that Cain's cancer returns, says Diaz, "it's likely to be in one spot that you can cut out relatively easily." In other words, says Cellini, any return of the disease could likely be "managed" with further surgery or chemotherapy.

The Johns Hopkins doctor calls Cain a "poster child" for modern colon cancer treatment, but adds that Cain should continue to receive a full workup every six months to a year to make sure that "nothing scary" pops up. "He's still at risk," says Cellini, "but there are no limitations on what he can or cannot do."

Diaz is adamant that Cain's cancer treatment — as the candidate has publicly described it — should not scare away voters. From cardiac disease to the kind of systemic afflictions that dogged JKF, he says, "other presidents and presidential candidates have confronted more serious medical issues."