Ferraro Battles Cancer With Once-Barred Drug

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was the first woman to be nominated on a major party's presidential ticket, a three-term U.S. congresswoman and a two-time Senate candidate. But now Geraldine A. Ferraro is facing the toughest battle of her life--with an incurable form of blood cancer.

"Thank God for thalidomide," Ferraro said Tuesday in revealing her disease, multiple myeloma, during an interview on NBC-TV's "Today" show. The 65-year-old Ferraro said the drug, which caused horrendous birth defects in women taking the drug during the 1960s, has put her cancer into remission.

Looking strong and sounding confident, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate from Queens said she plans to testify this week before a U.S. Senate panel on the need for more research into the disease. Ferraro also voiced the hope that, with her progress in staving off the cancer, she could be a role model for other patients.

"This is a race I may not win, but I've lost other races before, so it's not the end of the world," she said Tuesday. "I will help raise awareness. I will help raise money. I will beg people to go out and get themselves checked."

Ferraro told of how a routine medical checkup three years ago turned into a personal nightmare when doctors found that her white blood cell count was slightly elevated and then discovered she had an incurable blood cancer. Multiple myeloma, which erodes the bones and suppresses the immune system, kills half of those with the diagnosis within five years.

At first, Ferraro said, she was like thousands of other patients--facing the difficult task of telling her family and putting her personal affairs in order. John Zaccaro, her husband of 40 years, at first refused to believe the diagnosis. It was even harder dealing with her three grown children, said Ferraro, who prides herself on an inner toughness.

"I'm very close to my children. It was very difficult," she added, her voice quavering. "I didn't want to tell them before Christmas. I didn't want to mess up the holidays. We were away, we spent time together . . . and then when we came back, I sat them down one at a time and told them."

The news was bleak, but there was a ray of hope: Thalidomide, a drug that once was taken off the market because of its grotesque side effects, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 to treat leprosy. But it has been widely prescribed by doctors to retard the growth of end-stage cancers, including multiple myeloma. So far, it has enabled Ferraro to avoid such painful treatments as chemotherapy or stem cell transplants.

Her initial medical success also may be because her cancer was diagnosed relatively early, said Ken Anderson, one of Ferraro's doctors, and Kathy Giusti, president of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. "She's going to do well, very well for months or years, although I can't say she will be cured," Anderson said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center in Manhattan. "She has little if any myeloma now. It hasn't slowed her down."

Giusti focused on the need for more scientific study, saying: "When thalidomide stops working for Geraldine, what's the next treatment for her? If we keep pushing the research, it will all happen much faster."

Asked how she has coped, Ferraro responded: "Day to day. You know, I live in New York City. When I run out to get a cab, I'm not quite sure I'm ever going to live to take a ride in it. You never know what life has in store."

For now, she's looking ahead to practical changes. Ferraro, who initially disclosed her condition in an interview with the New York Times, said she and her husband soon will move out of their four-story Queens home and find an apartment in Manhattan. Given her gradual bone deterioration, Ferraro said she would find it increasingly hard to climb the stairs at home.

She also has started giving her husband lessons in preparing breakfast and making sandwiches. "I want to make sure that John can take care of himself," Ferraro noted with a laugh. "You know, you always anticipate in a marriage that the wife is going to be the one to survive the husband."

Above all, Ferraro said, she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her. "I don't want anybody to treat me any differently. I don't want a big C on my face, because that's not me. I'm still going to do what I do."

Ferraro, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Senate nomination in New York in 1992 and 1998, is a Fox News commentator. She also works as a consultant helping companies deal with the U.S. government.

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