‘I feel good. I’m alive’: Two years after diagnosis, Harry Reid says he’s cancer free

Harry M. Reid has a message for these incredibly bleak times: Keep fighting.

Last summer the former Senate majority leader hid from the obvious fact that pancreatic cancer was on the verge of defeating him. “I wasn’t willing to acknowledge that I was about to get hit by the Grim Reaper,” Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday in a 45-minute telephone interview.

Instead, under an experimental treatment, Reid has been declared in “complete remission” and cancer-free. He does therapy workouts with a trainer four times a week, including 20-minute walks with the help of a cane in his neighborhood outside Las Vegas. His hair is even starting to grow back.

One year later, his world has been transformed, he said. “There’s no comparison to how I feel — I feel good. I’m alive.”

The 80-year-old former amateur boxer long ago turned fighting into his political call sign. He titled one of his books “The Good Fight” and, on the day Democrats elected him leader, he declared that he knew how to dance and how to fight. Over 12 years as leader, eight in the majority, he danced and boxed his way to a vast legislative legacy.

But his latest steps might prove to be even more lasting.

“Consider the senator the first astronaut to the new universe,” said Patrick Soon-Shiong, a cancer specialist who credits a new drug treatment with saving Reid’s life.

Soon-Shiong, a South African of Chinese descent, has spent the past decade working on alternative cancer treatments, other than the standard heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation that ravage a patient’s body.

Reid is one of four patients who joined his compassionate-use program for patients suffering from certain forms of pancreatic, breast and brain cancers — basically, those who have run out of options.

“The prognosis for these patients, sadly, is months,” Soon-Shiong, adjunct professor of surgery at UCLA, said in the conference call with Reid.

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They might seem to have nothing in common, but for their shared dislike of authority figures. Reid famously punched his future father-in-law in the face when he refused to let his daughter marry him, eloping to Utah not long after.

Soon-Shiong has run into trouble at various medical destinations along the way, including MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and at Northwestern University. Years ago they wanted to use his cancer drug, Abraxane, at high doses that would create the same effect as chemotherapy.

He returned to UCLA and kept working on using Abraxane and therapies at lower doses, focusing on what he called the “triangle offense” of igniting three “killer cells” to attack tumors. The final cell is ignited through an IV therapy in a way that, Soon-Shiong contended, allows the cells to locate and continue fighting the cancer.

“Find me, kill me, remember me,” he said.

Reid reached out to Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, about his new doctor and received a warning that Soon-Shiong was unconventional. He didn’t mind and, besides, he had just about run out of options.

“I saw him the next day,” Reid said.

After surgery in May 2018, Reid underwent a brutal slate of chemo and radiation that crushed his body. Doctors would not even allow Reid to take a short flight to Phoenix for a memorial service for his old friend, the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), that August.

Reid told the New York Times in late 2018 that his diagnosis was “you’re dead,” further feeding fear among former colleagues he might soon die. He fought through most of 2019, but the standard cancer treatments left his already hunched back even more curled up, requiring a wheelchair to get around in public places because he had lost his balance.

Many Democrats privately viewed the weeks leading up to his state’s critical Feb. 22 presidential caucus as a farewell tour of sorts. He received a standing ovation at the Democratic debate and doled out his political wisdom to any reporters who made their way to his office inside MGM’s Las Vegas headquarters.

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