WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry is scheduled to have his cancerous prostate removed today at Johns Hopkins Hospital. If his operation and recovery go normally, the disease is expected to have no significant impact on Kerry's ability to campaign, his aides and doctors said yesterday.
Kerry, a 59-year-old senator from Massachusetts, is considered one of the leading contenders for the 2004 nomination. He first gained national attention more than three decades ago as an organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and has been a member of the Senate since 1985.
Dr. Patrick C. Walsh, chief urologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, will perform the two-hour operation. Walsh said that the senator's cancer had been diagnosed at an early stage and that Kerry would have a 95 percent chance of being cancer-free a decade from now.
Kerry said he expects to resume his campaign schedule two weeks after the surgery. "I feel absolutely terrific," he told a Capitol news conference, carried live on cable TV, after returning from Baltimore, where he had gone for preoperative treatment.
Kerry added that he considered himself fortunate: "I'm in a position where I'm going to be cured."
As a candidate for the nation's highest office, Kerry said he felt that he had "a special level of accountability to the American people" for his health. His office released a chronology of his recent medical examinations. It showed that he learned on Christmas Eve that a biopsy performed Dec. 20 at Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that he had cancer.
More than a month later, on Jan. 30, a run-down-looking Kerry was asked twice by a Boston Globe reporter whether he had a medical problem. Kerry told the reporter that he did not. Separately, his staff also denied that Kerry was sick.
Asked about that yesterday, the senator said he had declined to reveal the cancer diagnosis at the time because he had not yet informed every member of his family about his condition. Also, he said, his doctor was away, and he had not made a final decision on a course of treatment.
Pressed to explain whether his response to the earlier questions about his health might raise doubts about his honesty, Kerry said: "I could parse the word sick. I'm not going to." He added that he wanted to be able to make an announcement about his condition on his own timetable.
Among those Kerry consulted about the disease was former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who abandoned his 2000 Senate campaign after announcing he had prostate cancer. Giuliani eventually opted for radiation treatment rather than surgery.
"I'm convinced that [surgery] is the right choice for me, based on my age," said Kerry, because it would enhance his chances for a long-term cure.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men after skin cancer. Over the past decade, the number of deaths from the disease has declined. In 2001, about 31,500 American men died from the disease.
Kerry said his father died of prostate cancer in 2000, at age 85. The disease was diagnosed when his father was in his 70s, he added, but could have been present earlier.
Walsh said Kerry's family history "does not have any negative impact on how he's going to do" after surgery.
He predicted that Kerry would have a 90 percent chance of recovering his sexual function after removal of his prostate, a small, walnut-sized gland at the base of the urethra.
The Baltimore surgeon estimated that Kerry would have only a 1 percent chance of experiencing a severe problem with urinary incontinence, which, along with impotence, is among the side-effects of prostate removal.
Kerry is the latest prominent patient to be operated on by Walsh, considered one of the world's leading prostate surgeons.
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and former Baltimore Orioles executive Larry Lucchino, now president of the Boston Red Sox, are among those who have gone under Walsh's scalpel in recent years.
Perhaps the best-known prostate cancer survivor in government and politics is former Sen. Bob Dole, 79, who had his prostate removed in 1991 and earned the Republican presidential nomination five years later. Dole, whose wife, Elizabeth, is now among Kerry's Senate colleagues, became a leading advocate of blood-testing for prostate cancer, as well as a pitchman for the drug Viagra, which is used to treat impotence.
Kerry is not the only Democratic hopeful now to have his presidential plans interrupted by an unexpected medical problem.
Two weeks ago, Florida Sen. Bob Graham had open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve. He is recuperating at his daughter's home in Northern Virginia.
Graham, 66, is expected to form a presidential campaign committee later this month. He won't make a final decision on whether to become a candidate until mid-April, an aide said.
According to early polling, Kerry is running at or near the front of the Democratic pack in several key primary states and has assembled a large campaign staff.
The senator joked at the start of his news conference yesterday that "they told me they're going to take my 'aloof gland' out tomorrow. So I'm feeling better," a reference to his reputation for standoffishness.