Jack Layton's health: more of what he's said

With an election all but inevitable, the NDP leader's health is a legitimate issue

As a reporter, I’m used to posing unwelcome questions. It’s often a fun part of the job. But I felt uneasy, when interviewing NDP Leader Jack Layton for this story, asking him repeatedly about his health. It felt like prying, even though this seemed so clearly a matter of legitimate public interest as we headed into a very likely spring election campaign.

Apparently, I’m not the only reporter who feels this way. When Layton took questions in the foyer of the House earlier today, CBC’s Laurie Graham prefaced her query about his health by saying, “It seems very personal, and I apologize for that.” Then Graham asked if Layton—who was diagnosed with prostate cancer early last year, underwent treatment, and then had hip surgery early this month—is still being treated for cancer. His answer:

Well, I work with my doctors on an ongoing basis like most people with cancer to monitor the situation. They’re happy with how things are going. And like so many people with cancer, you go off to work every day and provide for your families and get the job done. And I draw a lot of inspiration from Canadian people who are in that situation, hundreds of thousands of them, probably.

I reported in Maclean’s on the gist of Layton’s answers about his health. But with an election all but inevitable now, I thought there might be interest in a fuller transcript of that part of our exchange. We spoke in an NDP meeting room just off Parliament Hill on March 11, and I asked about his health before moving on to other questions:

Q. How did you break your hip?

A. I don’t know and the doctors don’t know. When I first began to feel the pain they did an X-ray and they literally could barely could see any fracture. They said it might be a fracture, why don’t we just take the weight off it and see if it heals up. Unfortunately, the bone was not able to handle the fracture. It just got worse. And before you knew it the only option was surgery. It wasn’t going to heal itself.

Q. Are you’re up to campaigning?

A. Of course if we have a campaign I’ll be starting in the recovery cycle from hip surgery. But we all know people who have gone through hip surgery, and they universally tell you that the first week or two is difficult because the tissue is healing up—you’ve had surgery.

Q. What did the surgeons do, put in a pin or something?

A. That’s too much detail.

Q. You don’t want to get into that?

A. No.  I will probably fire off the security. There’s metal in there now and I’ll have to show them a picture. I played a lot of squash for a lot of years. Could that have been the origin of the problem? Who knows? It’s like your favourite old car. A part will wear out. So there’s metal in there.

Q. Is the hip problem unrelated to your cancer?

A. They don’t draw a link because they literally can’t figure out how it happened.

Q. So you’re good to go on a campaign?

A. Yeah. Actually, you make major progress in that first week [after hip surgery]. I’m already way ahead of where they would have expected me to be. The physiotherapist—what did she say?—‘You’re a prodigy.’

Q. Before your hip problem you were getting over prostate cancer treatment. When were you in treatment?

A. Well, I was diagnosed on Feb. 2 [2010], so a little over a year ago.

Q. And has the cancer treatment gone well?

A. It has gone very well. For people who follow this sort of thing, my PSA is virtually undetectable and it has remained at that level. So that’s why we have a high level of confidence about where we are on that.

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