No Such Thing as a Bad Day with Hamilton Jordan

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Former Carter White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan has battled three different types of cancer. Join him when he talks about what has kept him going through it all.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Greetings and welcome to WebMD Live! Our guest this evening is Hamilton Jordan, author of "No Such Thing as a Bad Day." Jordan is a three-time cancer survivor and former Carter White House Chief-of-Staff. We will be discussing his personal battle with cancer.

Moderator: Welcome Mr. Jordan!

Hamilton Jordan: It's good to be here.

Moderator: I was curious about the title of your latest book "No Such Thing as a Bad Day." How can you, of all people, proclaim such a thing?

Hamilton Jordan: Well, I was counseling a young man who had a brain tumor, and I called him one day, and I asked him, "Are you having a good day?" and he said, "Well, my wife is 32 yrs. old, my kids are 4 and 6, and my doctor tells me I have about two months to live. There's no such thing as a bad day."

Hamilton Jordan: It was that attitude about life that I've tried to reflect and write about in my book.

Moderator: Have you always that attitude?

Hamilton Jordan: No. I've not always had it, but I've certainly had it since I've had these several cancers.

Moderator: What was your first cancer?

Hamilton Jordan: The first was lymphoma. Which I will always believe I got from exposure to Agent Orange, when I was in Vietnam.

Hamilton Jordan: I had a sports injury which disqualified me from the military draft, and I went to Vietnam as a volunteer, and Peace Corp type organization. While working in Vietnam, the war was everywhere, I was exposed to agent Orange, which scientists later believed causes this type of lymphoma that I had.

Moderator: Has it been found to cause any other cancers?

Hamilton Jordan: I can't say definitively, but there's an inordinately large number of Vietnam veterans who have the same type of lymphoma that I have, and it's been demonstrated that it's linked to Agent Orange.

mold28_webmd: Why did you decide to such a radical procedure like having your prostate completely removed. Did you even consider seed implantation?

Hamilton Jordan: Well, the decision as to what to do when you have PCa is a tough one, and respect the fact the different decisions of different men. Because I believed my prostate cancer was confined to my prostate, I did a lot of research, and concluded that for me, the surgical removal of the prostate was the best choice. I didn't make that decision lightly. I studied a lot of the literature, and talked to a lot of people.

Moderator: What was your reaction to your first diagnosis of cancer?

Hamilton Jordan: When you have a diagnosis of cancer, or any serious illness, your choices are basically to be passive, and kind of accept whatever is offered you, or to be active and to learn about your disease, and understand your options, and be an active partner with your doctor. That's the course I took with all three of my cancers.

Hamilton Jordan: It's an interesting thing. We know more about our cars and computers than we do our own bodies. Very few of us would buy the first car we saw, or marry the first person we have a date with, but oftentimes people with a serious disease will accept the first treatment offered by the first doctor. I think that's sometimes a mistake.

Hamilton Jordan: Well, when I had my first cancer, there was no internet, so most of it was literature. Although there was MedLine service, and the cancer institute had a service but it was looking at literature, and calling knowledgeable people, hospitals and centers, and describing my situation, and asking them how they would treat me. Asking how broad their experience was with the disease that I had, asking tough questions about statistics. I'm not a different case. Most medical centers prefer to talk to doctors, and not patients. You have to be persistent and tough-minded. You're fighting for you life. You have to be tough; you cannot be passive.

Moderator: Did you ever consider any alternative therapies?

Hamilton Jordan: Alternative therapies mean different things to different people. I did a lot of things to supplement my treatments. Visualization, various things, but I was always careful that these things I did did not undermine my basic medical treatment. If you're going to go to the trouble to go through chemo, as I did with my first cancer, it's foolish to simultaneously be doing things that undermine the effectiveness of the chemo.

Hamilton Jordan: After my prostate cancer, I had to wait 5 weeks for my surgery. It drove me crazy to think that I'd sit around for five weeks doing nothing, while the cancer might be spreading through my body. A molecular biologist who is a friend of mine, sent me a study of green tea, which demonstrated that there's a very low incidence of PCa in areas of Asia, and many believe it is because of green tea. A friend sent me 70 lbs. of green tea. When I read the study closely, which had been done on mice, I determined I had to drink about 10 gallons of green tea a day to be on the same scale as mice. I only drank 5 or 6 cups a day leading up to my surgery, but it gave me a feeling that I was doing something to fight the cancer. By the way, after my surgery was over, my friend sent me more information, which indicated I'd been drinking the wrong kind of green tea.

Moderator: What motivated you to keep fighting during your first bout with cancer?

Hamilton Jordan: Self-preservation. People often tell me how brave I am. Hell, all I'm doing is fighting for my life, like anyone else would do. I'm not -- I don't consider myself brave, just very, very lucky and blessed. Not depression. Anybody that faces a life threatening illness goes through fear, anguish, you worry if you'll see your kids grow up, but no, I tried to use all of my emotional and spiritual resources to focus on the disease, on being cured and well.

Moderator: Can you briefly go through your "Top Ten Tips for Cancer Patients"?

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 1: Be an active partner in the medical decisions that are made about your life!

Hamilton Jordan: Don't be passive. Learn about your disease, and participate in the decisions that are made. First of all, I researched my options, and with two of my three cancers, I refused the first treatment offered and went to other doctors and medical centers for other treatment. If I had accepted the -- for example with my lymphoma, if I would have accepted the first treatment offered, I'd be dead today. It was assumed that I only had a mass in my chest. I later learned that the lymphoma was all through my body.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 2: Seek and know the truth about your illness, and prognosis.

Hamilton Jordan: If you don't have the facts, and don't know the truth, you won't make good decisions. It takes courage to ask questions about statistics and your prognosis. You need to know where you stand. If you don't know the truth, you are not likely to make good decisions about your treatment.

Hamilton Jordan: With my lymphoma, the hospital where I first went did not do a procedure called lymphangiogram. Because it was considered an old fashioned test. But it's the only way to look internally into the lymphatic system. Without the lymphangiogram, I was a stage 1 lymphoma patient, and would have received radiation. When I insisted on going somewhere to have this old fashioned test, I learned I had lymphoma throughout my body. I was a stage 4 and needed industrial strength chemotherapy.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 3: Get a second opinion. 

Hamilton Jordan: As I said earlier, we wouldn't buy the first computer or cell phone we looked at. Shop around when your life is at stake. Someone tells you you have a serious life threatening disease, you want to have that confirmed by someone else. I got second opinions on all of my cancers.

Hamilton Jordan: Most good doctors do not mind a patient getting a second opinion. If your doctor objects to you getting a second opinion, get another doctor. Prostate surgery is a very delicate, and major surgery. You don't want someone doing that surgery that has not done it 100s of times, and who does it regularly. You don't want to be the 10th person that someone does a surgery on. This is true with all types of surgery. You want a surgeon who is very skilled at the surgery, and who does it every week, and maybe every day. When I had PCa, I shopped around for people who had the broadest experience with this surgery.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 4: Determine upfront how broad or narrow your physicians' experience is

Hamilton Jordan: That's the point I just made. If you have something that your doctor says, I've never seen this before, get another doctor. You want your doctor to be very familiar with your disease.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 5: If you have a poor prognosis, or a rare form of cancer, try to get to a center of excellence.

Hamilton Jordan: If your doctor doesn't believe he/she can cure you, you won't believe you'll be cured. If you're given basically a death center, or if your doctor says this is very rare, you want to go to a center of excellence where these cancers are treated, and they have a broad experience with it.

Hamilton Jordan: With my first cancer, I went to the National Cancer Institute, and participated in a clinical trial for lymphoma. With my skin cancer, I had it treated locally because it was at very early stage. With my PCa, I went to Johns Hopkins University, which has one of the best urology departments in the world. It has nothing to do with me having been in politics. Everyone can get to a center of Excellence. Boston, Texas, New York, on and on. These places are scattered all over the country. It's just a matter of being referred there by a doctor. Sometimes there are economic decisions here. But generally insurance covers these treatments at these centers. Not always, but sometimes it does.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 6: Do not allow your caregivers to project their values, goals, and expectations onto you.

Hamilton Jordan: In my book I tell the story of a 68 year old man who was diagnosed with PCa. And this man is in very good health other than the PCa. His 35 year old doctor reasoned that since his life expectancy was only five or six years, that he recommended that the man do nothing for his PCa and told him it would take the PCa four or five years to kill him. This man wanted to live to be 80 or 85. he didn't accept that. He had his prostate removed, and many years later he's in good health, and probably will live to be 80 or 85. Don't let your doctor project his/her expectations in life out on you.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 7: Understand the economics of cancer care.

Hamilton Jordan: You don't want to be in a situation where your doctor wants to run $150 test that your insurance doesn't cover, but it contains critical information for making your diagnosis or deciding treatment. You need to understand what your insurance covers, and let your doctor know what you're willing to do to supplement that coverage to get a good diagnosis, and the best possible treatment. If your doctor says that he wants to run another test, but insurance won't pay for it, find out what it is. Why does he want to run it? Find out the cost, and determine whether you should pay it yourself. It might save your life.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 8: Ultimately, find a doctor that you trust and believe in.

Hamilton Jordan: We touched on this earlier. If your doctor doesn't believe they can cure you, you won't believe it. If you don't believe you will be cured, you probably won't be. Find a doctor with a fighting spirit, and that thinks that they can cure you. You tend to find doctors that reflect your own attitude. I always found doctors that liked the fact I was aggressive and going to fight for my life. They didn't object to my asking a lot of questions.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 9: Treat your mind as well as your body.

Hamilton Jordan: We don't -- just because we can't quantify, and don't understand the power of the mind, to deal with disease, it doesn't mean that attitude and the will to live is not a powerful, powerful force in the course of an illness.

Hamilton Jordan: Consequently, once you've found a good doctor and decided on a treatment, it's your job to try to keep a positive attitude, and a strong will to live. That's not easy to do, but it's important to do. The people that have that fighting spirit are the ones that outlive their prognosis and beat the odds. Those people who don't have the fighting spirit, and expect to die, are usually the ones that do.

Hamilton Jordan: Tip No. 10: Your attitude and beliefs are your most powerful weapon against cancer. I believe that deeply. There have been studies that show when you are happy and engaged and positive, your immune system is at its strongest. When you are depressed or unhappy, your immune system is weakened.

Hamilton Jordan: Cancer to some extent is only possible because of the failure of the immune system. Every day, all of our immune systems kill viruses, germs, even cancers. so it's very important in fighting cancer, going through surgery, or chemo, or illness it's very important to keep your immune system strong.

mold28_webmd: This is a great book! Could you tell us a little about your Uncle Clarence and what sort of impact he had on your life and treatment??

Hamilton Jordan: Although my book is about cancer, the theme of it, I write about growing up in the segregated south. I had an uncle named Clarence Jordan who, obviously against the wishes of his family, started an interracial commune in South Georgia in the 1940s when Martin Luther King was only 7 yrs. old.

Hamilton Jordan: Clarence and his family were outcast, shot at, and burned out, but he put his own and his family's lives at risk for his beliefs. One of the last things he did before he died was to basically start the organization now known as Habitat for Humanity.

Hamilton Jordan: I write about Clarence and the impact he had on attitudes in the South, how he was treated by his own family during this difficult period of time. Never thought about that. Most people that were around Clarence were in awe of him, because he had not material possessions, he lived very modestly. Ironically, the Baptist religion was the basis for his life, yet at the same time, the Baptists in the South were the leading opponents for integration. I always admired Clarence, but I never thought about him in terms of my own illness.

wabe_grb_webmd: I enjoyed your book. I'd like to know some more about Camp Sunshine. Did it help you through treatment to be a part of this organization?

Hamilton Jordan: In 1980, my wife Dorothy, started Camp Sunshine, which was one of the first camps anywhere for children with cancer. It's a nonprofit camp. Ironically, this was several years before I had my first cancer. We started with 38 kids, and today we have a year-round program that serves about 500 children with cancer. The high point of our year is the summer camp for these kids. It changes their lives.

Hamilton Jordan: It's very powerful for a child who is newly diagnosed with cancer to go to Camp Sunshine to have a friend or counselor who has the same cancer they had, who has been cured or had a limb amputated, or are bald, it has a powerful effect on the attitudes of these children.

wabe_grb_webmd: Can you talk about some of the complementary therapies you mentioned earlier. I have never met anyone who has used them.

Hamilton Jordan: I think anything that you can do that makes you feel like you are contributing to your own good health is a positive thing. Whether it's exercise, diet, green tea, or visualization. The only caveat is it makes no sense to do anything that undermines your chemo or radiation or surgery. You have to use common sense.

Hamilton Jordan: I think there were two effects. The actual effect, and then there's the peace of mind, or satisfaction of knowing you're doing something. It's like the placebo effect in medicine. The placebo effect is well documented. Patients oftentimes feel better even though they've been given a dummy pill because they think they've been given the pill and should feel better. It's the power of attitude for the impact of the disease. The will to live is a powerful, powerful thing.

Moderator: I imagine that your position as Chief-of Staff during the Carter Administration opened avenues of treatment not available to everyone. Can your experience be equated to the average cancer patient?

Hamilton Jordan: That's not true. I went to the National Cancer Institute and participated in a trial that was available to anybody anywhere. In fact, most clinical trials in this country are not filled. With my 2nd and 3rd cancers, I got the treatments that anyone else could get that had the perseverance to find the treatments, and good insurance. I've always had good health insurance. It was not pulling strings or getting special treatment, it was doing what almost anyone with good insurance can do. Certainly a person being at National Cancer Institute, anyone can do that.

Moderator: You have been working to increase funding for basic cancer research. How is that going?

Hamilton Jordan: It's not going well. We have an epidemic of cancer in this country. Forty percent of the people alive in the U.S. will have cancer in their lifetime. As a nation, we're doing damn little about it. We spend about 25 billion dollars on the CIA, and about 14 billion dollars on the space program, 9 billion dollars to have safe air travel, and spend less than 3 billion a year on a disease that will strike 40% of us. It makes no sense. Scientists will tell you that the best young researchers are not going into cancer research, because there's not enough funding. This is a huge challenge for our country, to get serious about cancer. One out of every 2 men in our country will have cancer in their lifetime, and one of every three women. That percentage will grow to 50% by the year 2010.

Moderator: Do you think this issue going to be addressed in the upcoming presidential election?

Hamilton Jordan: I hope so. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore both lost sisters to cancer. So they've been personally touched by this disease. I hope they'll both get serious about funding more aggressive cancer research.

Hamilton Jordan: There are so many promising treatments and therapies, our country's investment in cancer research has been modest, but paid a rich dividend for cure. The cure rate is almost 50%.

Hamilton Jordan: But we need to do much, much more.

Hamilton Jordan: We've got groups that are going to. I met with Gore a couple of years ago about this, but we've got groups working on this in a national level.

Moderator: Does the word cancer get any easier to hear now that you've survived multiple cancers?

Hamilton Jordan: It's just been a part of my life. I don't run from it. For people who have lived through cancer and lives through it, it's a blessing because it gives your life a sense of purpose and fulfillment that you might otherwise not have. I'm not sure if cancer hits only good people, or cancer turns people into good people.

Hamilton Jordan: There's a lot we don't know about cancer. There's a school of thought that excessive amounts of fat in the diet has something that contributes to both prostate and breast cancers. I don't know if that is a fact, but some people believe that. Scientists are really starting to look at nutritional values.

Moderator: Well, our time is about up. Mr. Jordan, do you have any words of advice for those struggling with a cancer diagnosis?

Hamilton Jordan: Just don't give up. Be active in your own medical care. The goal is to stay alive long enough that if you have something that's difficult to cure, a lot of things are right around the corner. My daughter has juvenile diabetes, and I'm absolutely convinced in the next three to five years there will be a cure for that. Even if you have a brain or lung tumor, one of the cancers that are tough to get rid of, the goal is to fight it and hang around long enough for one of these young scientists to come up with a cure. That is happening every day. Don't give up.

Moderator: Thank you for your time, Mr. Jordan. Our guest this evening was Hamilton Jordan, author of "No Such Thing as a Bad Day." Jordan is a three-time cancer survivor and former Carter White House Chief-of-Staff. We have been discussing his personal battle with cancer.

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