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Video: Geraldine Ferraro’s cancer battle

By
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updated 8/31/2007 8:24:15 AM ET 2007-08-31T12:24:15

Nine years ago, Geraldine Ferraro was given three years to live — five at the most. Today, the death sentence imposed by multiple myeloma has been lifted, and the former Congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate is living a full and active life.

"I feel great. I really do," she told TODAY’s Jamie Gangel in an interview taped just before her 72nd birthday. "I'm in remission now. I'm on a maintenance medication. that really just allows me to continue my life and enjoy it, and it's fabulous."

Myeloma is a blood cancer that affects more than 50,000 Americans. Ferraro owes her health to treatments developed since she was diagnosed that control the disease without the side effects of traditional chemotherapy.

She showed Gangel a sample of Velcade, the medicine that has saved her. It was approved about three years ago. It is one of a number of new drugs that is bringing the disease, which attacks the bone marrow that manufactures blood cells, under control.

"It did not exist when I was first diagnosed," she said. "This is what makes it a chronic disease now rather than a death sentence."

Treatment too expensive for some
What bothers Ferraro is that the advanced treatment that has given her a new lease on life is not available to everyone with myeloma, a blood cancer that affects more than 50,000 Americans. While she continues to work and enjoys seeing her grandchildren grow up, for others who can not afford the expensive treatments, myeloma remains a death sentence.

Each injection of Ferraro’s drug costs more than $1,000.

"It just is a very, very expensive thing to do, very expensive thing to do, and that's the one thing that bothers me," she said. "Having to come in twice a week, that doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that what's available to me is not available to every person who has cancer in this country and it should be. It should be."

Ferraro has helped pioneer the new treatment, which is in keeping with her life. Born in 1935 in the Hudson River town of Newburgh in upstate New York, she lost her father when she was eight and was raised by her mother, who was a seamstress. At a time when very few women did such things, she became a lawyer, putting herself through Fordham University law school by teaching elementary school in New York City. Only one other woman was in her graduating class.

She married John Zaccaro, a New York real estate agent. She maintained a private law practice until her three children were all in school, then joined the Queens County District Attorney’s office as an assistant in 1974. In 1978, she ran successfully for Congress, winning re-election in 1980 and 1982.

In 1984, while serving her third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, she was picked by Democratic Presidential candidate Walter Mondale to be the first woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket. Mondale was crushed in that election by Ronald Reagan, who carried all but two states in being reelected to his second term as President.

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She twice ran for Senate, losing primary elections in 1992 and 1998.

President Clinton appointed her an ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; she also was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was president of the International Institute for Women’s Political Leadership.

Now, she hopes that she will inspire other cancer patients to keep fighting and for everyone to work to raise funds for research into cures.

"I think if you spend the money and have enough doctors working on this thing, it’s not luck, it’s investment," she told Gangel.

When she was diagnosed with myeloma, she worried that she would die before her grandchildren were old enough to remember who she was. Now, her doctor teases her, she can worry about paying their college tuition.

"Whatever you want. I will do that," she said, enjoying the thought. "Be more than happy to do that. You know, I don't know if I'm going to make it to 80, but if I do, you're going to see one happy celebrating when I do."

For more information on multiple myeloma and research to find a cure:Multiple Myeloma.

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