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Why Stroger hid cancer

Friday, July 06, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger knew as far back as April 2006 that he had cancer, but he chose not to tell Democratic Party leaders even as they installed him as their candidate for president.

Stroger conceded Thursday that he knew he had prostate cancer "around April or May" last year but didn't even tell his mother until after he had successful surgery, let alone party or county officials.

The disclosure during a Thursday teleconference with reporters surprised many, but Stroger dismissed criticisms that he should have been more open with the public about his illness, since the cancer "wasn't truly life-threatening" and would "not affect my performance as the president," he said.

"It's not like a brain tumor that grows very quickly and you don't know what's going on," he said, adding that the cancer covered just 5 percent of his prostate and was slow-growing.

Yet Stroger, 44, is now pleading with men over 40 to have regular prostate exams, hoping that an early diagnosis -- like his -- will help prevent deaths, especially among African-American men, who have the highest prostate cancer rates.

But standing in the way of making that an effective message are the stumbles Stroger continues to make in building bridges of trust with the public, other elected officials and his own staff.

That's especially a weakness given the level of distrust many felt in the wake of the devastating stroke suffered by his father, former County Board President John Stroger.

With a an election approaching, the public was initially told the elder Stroger would be fine, his recovery was routine, and he'd soon be back running county government. None of that was true, but John Stroger was re-elected. When the truth came out, an interim board president was appointed, then party bosses slated Todd Stroger to run for his dad's position.

Though the situation is different now with Todd Stroger, similar lines initially were used to describe the younger Stroger's health.

He blamed much of the public backlash against him on a faulty PR strategy, something that he said "I am fixing ... so they have the facts straight."

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who was jockeying to replace John Stroger last summer, said he doubts an earlier disclosure of Todd Stroger's cancer would have affected the race, as party bosses "pretty much set the pace."

Todd Stroger said he doubted party leaders would have kept his cancer diagnosis a secret, even if he'd asked them to be quiet about it.

He cited his father's health in deciding not to tell his mother, Yonnie, about his diagnosis until two weeks ago, after his surgery and after she returned from vacation, not wanting to further burden her.

Asked about his father's current health, he said that while John Stroger took "a turn for the worse" last year, "his condition hasn't improved any," though "he's stable."

As for his own health, Todd Stroger said "everything looks good" and that he spent more than a year researching the disease before deciding on having his prostate removed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

He opted against having the surgery at Stroger Hospital -- the county facility named after his father -- because the head of urology at Stroger recommended Northwestern and Dr. William Catalona as being "the best at doing this type of surgery."

Stroger said he has been undergoing regular prostate exams since his late 30s, given that African-American men are more likely to have the disease and that his father also had prostate cancer.

Stroger said that while he has had PSA blood tests every six months, it was an annual digital exam that provided the warning signs about his diagnosis.

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