Here’s what just about everyone has been wondering about Chelsea Clinton, not to mention another story that gained legs in the wake of the revelation that she was newly single.
First, let’s get one thing straight: The disease that finally took Chelsea’s mother, Hillary Clinton, down was not cancer. It was a chronic inflammatory condition that killed thousands of Native Americans, according to doctors who treat the illness. So Chelsea is, in fact, not the only famous person to die of colon cancer.
Then there’s the reason this particular story became news in the first place. Chelsea underwent two days of chemo, and both the New York Times and Daily Beast reported that this was not effective, though some medical experts disputed that contention.
Though she canceled her book tour, Chelsea Clinton has also insisted that there was nothing to be alarmed about, noting that her “bundled responses to chemo are nothing out of the ordinary.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Clinton said that her immune system “went out of whack” and that her ribs were bruised. “The effects of the procedure were awful,” she said. “I couldn’t remember where I put the brush or put the clothes on, but I wasn’t really surprised that it didn’t work.”
Treating and curing colon cancer is not a one-size-fits-all approach — the disease is of particular interest to oncologists because it typically begins with polyps or spots, which indicate the disease’s maturation. The first thing doctors do with such lesions is remove them, and then check whether all of the tissue that had been removed was replaced — whether or not they found lesions in the process. When doctors can’t find any evidence of cancer, they wrap up surgery by administering chemotherapy. (Since it is technically not cancer, doctors have a much easier time being lenient in terms of alternative treatments.)
As The New York Times reported, “breast cancer is more treatable, but colon cancer is the second-most common cancer in the United States, and the faster the body responds to the chemo, the more patients will benefit.” It is not clear, though, whether or not that race plays a role in the different responses.
Clinton seems to have had the symptoms for months — but the chemo didn’t work. Still, her doctors say that every aspect of her health is fine.
“She had a CT scan and received chemotherapy, which has so far been effective,” Dr. Albert Lai, the gastroenterologist who treated her, told the Associated Press. “While she’s disappointed, she knows it did not fully cure her.”
Dr. Jerrold Fursman, chief of gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where Chelsea spent several weeks, explained to The New York Times that treating colon cancer involves more than lobbing chemo at the lesions. The best approach is to stop the growth of new cells and treat the polyps or spots that already have a tumor — in fact, those tumors often metastasize into the rest of the body. He believes that Chelsea did so, at least partially, and is cautiously optimistic.
“If the chemo attacks the cancer, the polyps will die and then the rest of the bowel should be fine,” he said. “It’s like throwing the final punch.”
But as Chelsea’s new book, Over It, shows, she dealt with other failed treatments for cancer, too, at first. Many patients can achieve a remission after a year’s worth of treatments. The most common hope, Fursman explained, is that patients will have too many metastases to find a cure.
And while cancer treatment is all about prevention, diagnosis can be part of the problem, too. As with Clinton, it’s not surprising that a relatively common disease (nearly one in three Americans is estimated to have the disease) gets sudden notoriety. The other maybe more ironic parts of this story revolve around Chelsea’s acute expectations. After all, doctors who specialize in women’s health have known about colon cancer for centuries, yet it often gets left out of the discussion.
Losing Hillary Clinton makes the emphasis all the more acute. The former secretary of state not only is a world-famous politician, the mother of an American president and a friend of Chelsea, but also the wife of a future president, of whom Clinton famously said in 2008, “I’m not running for president.”