Cancer doesn't slow Jack Layton

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Sun Media, Friday, June 4, 2010

Just before Christmas, Jack Layton learned he had prostate cancer in the same way his father did.

“The doctor called with a PSA report, the same way my dad heard about it,” Layton said the other day. “Exactly the same cancer, at the same stage my dad had it, and he beat it.”

In fact, Layton added, “I had the same doctor, John Trachtenberg, at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Toronto, a huge innovator in the field.”

His father, Bob Layton, a Mulroney-era Conservative cabinet minister and caucus chair, eventually succumbed to “two other p’s, Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia,” but he beat the third one, prostate cancer.

“It isn’t something we had to be educated about,” the NDP leader said in his sixth-floor Centre Block office.

While he won’t discuss whether he’s taking radiation or chemotherapy — “That’s between me and my doctor” — the rest of his illness and hopefully recovery is being lived out in public. He has become the poster boy for prostate cancer, which is to men as breast cancer is to women with early detection being the key to a cure.

In an extraordinary gesture of solidarity at the end of March, MPs of all parties wore smart blue ties and scarves to the House and joined in touching tributes to Layton.

“Wasn’t that something?” he asked. “Looking across the House and seeing the sea of scarves and ties. MPs do relate to one another in ways that aren’t always understood.”

Instead of curtailing his schedule, Layton has kept it up, to the point where it’s been noted he’s in the House much more than Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff. He’s maintained his tour schedule with only one wrinkle, having nothing to do with his illness. He asked for more downtime in Toronto on weekends, “so I could see more of my first grandchild,” Beatrice, who has her first birthday in two weeks.

Part of his prescribed routine is staying fit. “Fortunately,” he said, “I was already going to the gym, every day.”

In spite of his treatments, Layton said, “I’m not feeling fatigued at all.” And he noted that routines have evolved from the time of his dad’s illness when patients were told to rest and recuperate. Now it’s about fitness as part of the path to recovery.

“The point being,” said Layton, “stay at work, carry on with life, stay engaged, stay fit.”

The entire country has noted that Layton has lost weight, undoubtedly as a result of treatment, but also as a result of diet.

“I’ve lost 15 pounds,” he said. “I’ve gone back to the weight I was at when I was on the Quebec swim team.” It isn’t widely known that in his days growing up in the Montreal suburb of Hudson, he was a competitive swimmer.

His wife, Toronto MP Olivia Chow, won her own battle with thyroid cancer five years ago and she is in charge of the diet. The idea is weight loss and lowering his cholesterol levels, so no more red meat and dairy, and this is a guy who admits he enjoyed nothing more than a big steak.

And he said he has a new appreciation of life and his loved ones.

“It’s like going to digital TV,” Layton said. “Everything is in sharper relief, or sharper colours, as part of the joy of life.”

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