The Honorable Mark White Cancer & Life
Mark White was the 43rd governor of the great state of Texas from 1983 to 1987. He became a cancer survivor at the age of 67 in 2006. Kate Allen Stukenberg sits down with the former governor for a candid conversation about being diagnosed with cancer, telling his family, and what happened next.
How did you discover you had cancer?
I was in Germany and I had coughed up some specks of blood two days in a row. When I came back, I went to the doctor. The doctor did a chest x-ray, but didn’t see anything on the x-ray so he wanted to do a cat scan. He gave me a cat scan, and when you do that it goes down a little lower than a lung x-ray does. The doctor called, at the time I was out shooting skeet with some friends and one of my children was with me, and the pathologist apparently spotted it from across the room, it just kind of stood out, and I was told that I had a tumor on my kidney and it was most likely cancerous. Well, the [kidney tumors] almost always are. My skeet shooting deteriorated quickly (laughs). I went home and had a conversation with one of the doctors here in the medical center. Ultimately, I sat down and got on the Internet to determine what in the world kidney cancer was – I had never heard of it, from anybody or anywhere. Come to find out, it is relatively rare, and only thirty to forty thousand people a year are diagnosed with it. If they catch it early, it is good, and if they catch it late, it is bad. Mine was caught mid-way. Then I got on the Internet again to see how you go about treating it and where is the best place. I went through a list of various medical centers that I was familiar with and called some friends who were familiar with others and I wound up contacting people as far away as the University of Washington, New England, Boston, New York’s Sloane Kettering, the Cleveland Clinic, Loma Linda in California, Dallas, Houston’s M.D. Anderson, and the National Cancer Institute. Everyone that reviewed the pathology said the best place is right here in Houston at M.D. Anderson.
Do you have a family history of cancer?
Yes, but not that [kidney cancer]. My mother died of breast cancer and they discovered that in a very late stage and after that she lived for about another three months.
How did your diagnosis affect your family?
Well, it was a shock to everybody. I didn’t tell the kids until just before the operation.
Why did you decide to delay letting them know?
Oh, we waited through Christmas.
Funny thing happened, we were out in Hunt, Texas with friends Larry Johnson and Dick Rogers and their families. We went out to the shooting range and I had been out shooting a pistol, which I do with two hands extended. I suspect that’s probably what caused cramping in my back. I had awful cramps and I didn’t know if I was having a heart attack or what I was having, but this was before anyone knew that I had this kidney cancer and so they drove me to the hospital. It was between Christmas and New Years. We go to the hospital and the first thing they give you is an x-ray and a cat scan. So I said to the doctor, “Okay doctor, don’t make any announcements when you come out of here about anything you find. Just whisper it in my ear.” He came over and he said, “You have a tumor on your kidney and it’s cancerous.” I said, “I know, but don’t tell any of these other people because they are not suppose to know yet. I haven’t even told my kids.” So we kept it a secret for the rest of the holidays. It’s a little hard keeping it a secret.
After the holidays, and your family knew, what happened next?
So I wind up going to M.D. Anderson, and going through their kidney unit and their urology unit. They have two ways to operate on you, one is to have an open surgery, and the other is laparoscopic. I chose laparoscopic with doctor Surena Matin. I think he essentially was kidnapped from Cleveland Clinic and brought down here – he was their new guy in the laparoscopic field, and apparently, once you get to doing it one way you don’t really transition over to doing it another way. I had the surgery in the first part of January in 2007. I also decided to participate in post-surgery treatment. They don’t do chemo in that sense of the word, for kidney cancer, it just doesn’t respond to it apparently, but they did have a clinical trial. I took the trial medication, and did not know if I got a placebo or what, but the pills made all your hair turn white. None of my hair fell out, but all the hair on my body just turned white. They really don’t know if the medicine is effective yet, but they used it for primary late stages, and it may increase your life span – months rather than years.
The treatment was successful, but at some point you found out that the cancer had returned. How did that happen?
At the time of the operation the cancer did not appear to have metastasized, and didn’t show any evidence in the lymph glands but apparently it had metastasized. About at this very time a year ago, I had just had one of my normal check-ups, which are about every six months, and they spotted it on my adrenal gland, which is right next to the kidney. I had another surgery. They removed half of the adrenal gland, which is what gives you that burst of energy when you are frightened. Now I am down to half an adrenal gland so now I get half a burst. It gives me an excuse to be lethargic, but my wife says I have been that way all my life. I don’t know if I can blame it on the gland though.
How did the treatment impact you?
You know every time I go to M.D. Anderson I always feel very, very fortunate. I always feel like I’m the lucky one and everybody else seems to be in worse shape and having more difficult treatments and having more pain or more anguish. However during the clinical trial period, for what seemed like three or four months, not only did my hair color change but also the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet became so sensitive- to the point that they reduced my medicine a little bit. It was kind of painful to walk. It was one of the side effects of the medicine that let me know I was getting the real stuff.
What helped you emotionally and physically to face your diagnosis and treatment?
It was not easy. It reminds you of your mortality. I read the bible frequently – more frequently.
What did you learn from your cancer experience?
Life is precious, it’s not predictable and every day is special.
Did your experience make you more aware of your diet and exercise?
You can scare me, but you can’t scare me into not eating (laughs). I did lose some weight, and then I gained back a good bit because I don’t exercise as much. It makes you feel lethargic and at some stages I feel like I have to eat more to get more energy, and then if you don’t exercise you wind up gaining weight, which is what I’ve done. I’m mentally committed to, well, let’s just say, if I’m not going to change what I eat, I want to change how much I eat. That’s hard for a kid who was brought up in the clean plate club. Believe it or not I was as skinny as a rail — all the way through until after I got married. I guess I started gaining weight after I quit smoking.
When did quit smoking?
Back in the fall of 1967.
Why did you quit?
The excuse I gave was to save enough money to get on a hunting lease but I quit because I thought they were killing me. I had a constant cough. It was in the fall and it turned out I was allergic to cedar. I was living in the middle of a cedar thicket and the smoking aggravated the situation and made it more difficult to breath- it was just awful. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I smoked two or three packs a day. Every moment I wasn’t eating I was smoking. I went to bed one evening and puffed one more time, put it out, and said I’m never going to pick up one of those again.
Do you have any advice to offer others diagnosed with cancer?
Well, I think you rely upon your friends and family for support and that’s important. Your church is important and your religion is important. I guess really everybody should be aware but not dwell on the fact that you are not going to live forever. Some people are lucky enough to know when they are going to die, while some others get no warning at all. So for those of us looking for frequent repentance, having some predictability has some advantages.