Cardinal Roger M. Mahony disclosed Thursday that he has prostate cancer and will undergo surgery next month.
Two surgeons who stood by Mahony’s side during a news conference said they are “extremely optimistic” that the 62-year-old archbishop of Los Angeles will recover fully from the operation. They said they expect him to live at least 16 more years, the average life expectancy for men his age whose prostate cancer has been diagnosed in its early stage and treated promptly.
“This treatment plan would give me the best hope for a virtual cure of the prostate cancer and would ensure that my life span would proceed forward normally,” Mahony said.
Doctors said Mahony’s overall health is “excellent.”
“He was fortunate to have the cancer diagnosed at what we believe to be an early stage and expect that he will have a smooth and rapid recovery and be able to complete his service and mission to the archdiocese of Los Angeles,” surgeon Donald G. Skinner told reporters.
The operation is scheduled for June 15 and is expected to take about 1 1/2 hours. Two days after the operation, doctors said, they will have a better idea of whether the cancer has spread. But at this point they said they believe it is confined to the prostate. They expect the cardinal to be able to return to work by the second week in August.
Mahony’s announcement during a televised news conference at the USC-Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center came three months after the cancer was detected during a routine annual physical examination in February.
But until Thursday, Mahony’s condition was known only to two priests and episcopal confidants: Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik, who is Mahony’s secretary, and Msgr. Terrance L. Fleming, vicar-general of the archdiocese. Mahony did not tell members of his family or even Pope John Paul II until hours before Thursday’s news conference.
Facing reporters in a priest’s black suit and Roman collar and wearing a silver pectoral cross, Mahony--who became archbishop in 1985 and was elevated to cardinal by the pope in November 1996--said that he hoped word of his early diagnosis and planned treatment would encourage all men to have annual physicals.
Mahony appeared to be taking a page from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who before dying of pancreatic cancer in November 1996 reached out personally to other cancer victims and was widely viewed as a model of courage and fortitude.
“I want to encourage other men who are presently in various states of prostate cancer treatment, and I want to assure you of my very special prayers,” Mahony said. “Now that I too am a prostate cancer patient, each one of you has a special place in my daily prayers and Masses that Christ the healer will be strong in your own lives.” He also asked for their prayers.
Mahony visited Bernardin shortly before the Chicago prelate’s death.
Like others when informed they have a serious illness, Mahony said his reaction was one of “natural shock.” After the doctor’s visit, he said, he drove alone from the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles.
“I really had time to reflect upon it. But from very early on there was the assurance that this was detected so early, that the possibility of treating it successfully was so encouraging that I was really thanking God all the way back downtown,” Mahony said. “So it was really a prayer of gratitude.”
Mahony also offered assurances that the operations of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, with an estimated 4.5 million Catholics, would go on as usual.
He appeared to take special pains to say there would be no interruption of the project to build a downtown cathedral, the estimated cost of which has risen to $163 million. Mahony joked that the first thing he thought of when he was told he had cancer was that he wanted to live long enough to see the completion of the Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of Angels. It is expected to be completed sometime after the start of 2000.
Money still is being raised for the cathedral’s construction. Mahony has spearheaded that campaign, and his doctors’ public prognosis for a full and complete recovery should reassure donors that the cardinal will see the project through to its conclusion.
A city official who is close to the project predicted that it would be significantly harder for the archdiocese to raise money for the cathedral if the cardinal were on the sidelines.
“He’s the one who picked the architect, he’s the one who picked the location,” the official said. “It’s his baby, even though it’s for everybody. He is the dominant force.”
Mahony was clearly upbeat during the news conference and at times left reporters laughing, as when he explained why he chose to have surgery instead of radiation treatment.
He noted that many men opt for radiation therapy instead of surgery because they don’t want to hinder their sexual performance. But as a celibate priest, Mahony said, that was not his concern. In any case, he said that often men who initially choose radiation must ultimately undergo surgery.
“I figured, ‘Why do all of that? Why not just have the prostate out?’ ” Mahony said. “Of course,” he added with a grin, “I’m not married, so I don’t have to worry about a sexual life, a spouse, Viagra, all those things.”
(Viagra is a new drug to help men overcome impotence and is in demand worldwide.)
When the laughter died down, Mahony added: “It was obvious that sexual performance was also one of the reasons a lot of men chose the radiation route over the surgery. But I was not bothered by it.”
Mayor Richard Riordan, the cardinal’s longtime friend and supporter, expressed his sympathy for Mahony and wished him a quick recovery.
“While I am sad over the news that Cardinal Mahony has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, I am thankful that his condition was detected early enough for treatment,” Riordan said in a statement. “I admire his courage in fighting his cancer and in encouraging all men to undergo a physical examination in order to safeguard their health.”
An estimated 184,500 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year in the United States, and about 39,200 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. The five-year survival rate is 100% when the cancer is confined to the prostate gland at the time of diagnosis and 94.1% when it has spread to nearby lymph glands.
Times staff writers Thomas Maugh, Jim Newton and Larry Gordon contributed to this story.