Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block disclosed Tuesday that he has "high-grade, fast-moving" lymphatic cancer and will undergo chemotherapy, but intends to stay on the job and run for reelection next year.
Although he described himself as "stunned" and "somewhat devastated" after the diagnosis was made late last week, Block concluded an emotional news conference by saying, "Don't count me out, I give you that assurance."
Block, 68, said he will begin chemotherapy today at USC's Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. He said it will last from 18 weeks to six months.
But Block, tears occasionally welling in his eyes, also said, "If my illness were such, or becomes such, that I can't do the job in a manner in which it really needs to be done, then I would not hesitate to step aside."
As the sheriff spoke, many senior members of the department, which he has served from raw recruit to commander in chief for 37 years, stood by with grim expressions.
Block said he intends to undergo the chemotherapy every third Friday. "That will give me the weekends to accommodate any reaction that I might have to the treatment, and hopefully each Monday I will be able to be back and go about my duties," he said.
But he added that he will go forward with plans to take a vacation from Aug. 9 to Sept. 7.
"It is my intention to continue to carry out my function as sheriff as vigorously as I can, recognizing that I'm not a superhuman being, and there will be times I am certain I'll be a little under the weather and perhaps not as vigorous as I might otherwise be," he said.
When he is not available, Block said, Undersheriff Jerry Harper, 52, will be in charge. Harper was promoted to the No. 2 job in the department earlier this year after serving as one of two assistant sheriffs.
Two and a half years ago, Block underwent an operation for prostate cancer. There has been no recurrence, and he said his doctor has told him his current cancer is not related to the earlier one.
The sheriff said he first noticed a lump on his left shoulder, between his neck and shoulder blade, about a week after a physical examination had indicated he was in good health.
"I sought a medical review of that and it turned out that lymphoma was the diagnosis," he said.
Block said he has "absolutely no pain" at present.
"I feel extremely well. . . . The only evidence that I have of a problem is that I do have a swelling in one spot on my left clavicle area."
There was one flash of humor during the news conference, when the sheriff, who is largely bald, made a joke about the chemotherapy he is about to undergo.
"I didn't want any of you folks to see me somewhere else with less hair than I have now and to wonder what suddenly happened," he told reporters. "One of the side effects that they told me will occur virtually without question is the fact that I will lose the hair that I have, and it will grow back but not in greater abundance than I have now."
But for the most part, Block was solemn, speaking in a voice that quavered slightly at times.
"There is no right time for this sort of thing," he said. "It's somewhat devastating personally, not because necessarily of my reelection plans, but I'm an individual who has always kept very busy, very aggressive, very hands-on, in whatever responsibility I've had in this department.
"And, of course, that has some kind of emotional impact . . . and the one caution I've received from my staff is to think about Sherman Block, the individual, and my personal family, and I'm doing that," said Block, who is married and has two children. "But at the same time, I still have a department to be responsible to and I intend to do that."
Block said his plans to run for a fourth term "are going forward without interruption." But political consultant Alma Fitch, who ran the sheriff's last campaign, said Tuesday that no fund-raiser has yet been scheduled and that she sees no need for him to begin campaigning for months.
Joseph Cerrell, another well-known consultant who has been friendly to Block, said the sheriff's health is certain to be an issue in a reelection campaign.
"I feel he would have been challenged regardless," said Cerrell, citing the recent defeat of two Los Angeles City Council incumbents and voter approval of term limits. "This just increases the potential.
"But never underestimate Sherman Block," Cerrell added. "For a guy who was a deli counterman at Canter's to become the sheriff of Los Angeles . . . shows that he's a helluva politician."
Block said that he had informed the five members of the County Board of Supervisors of the cancer diagnosis and that all had expressed support and compassion.
All the supervisors--who would have to appoint a successor if the sheriff were forced to step down before the end of his term--publicly expressed their good wishes Tuesday.
Board Chairman Ed Edelman said Block's "leadership is more valued than ever in this critical budget time, and I'm sure my board colleagues join me in sending our hopes and prayers for his complete recovery and rapid return to full-time duty."
Supervisor Gloria Molina, an occasional critic, called the news "pretty sad. But he's a tough guy. He's tough enough to beat this."
Doctors who are experts in the treatment of Block's type of cancer who were contacted Tuesday said lymphoma is considered one of the most curable forms of cancer.
Block said his doctor had assured him that his cancer "responds very well to appropriate treatment." He added that although the doctor had not given him any percentage chance of a cure, "it's his belief it is in fact curable."
Times staff writers Frederick M. Muir and Richard Simon contributed to this story.