Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon who has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district since 1987, has been battling pancreatic cancer even as he continues his duties as a lawmaker.
Rep. Lewis publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in late December 2019. He has not made any public statements about his health since then, and his congressional office has not released any updates about how his treatments are progressing. Heavy reached out to the media relations office of the congressional black caucus for an update. We have not heard back.
Tonight, Rep. Lewis is getting a brief break from Capitol Hill and his cancer treatments as he accepts the NAACP Chairman’s Award at the 51st NAACP Image Awards.
Here’s what you need to know.
Rep. Lewis: ‘I Have Never Faced a Fight Quite Like the One I Have Now’
Rep. John Lewis already has a powerful legacy as a fighter for equal rights. During the 1960s, he participated in the Freedom Rides to protest against segregation at interstate bus terminals. He was arrested for sitting at white-only lunch counters. He helped organize the March on Washington in August 1963 and, at 23 years old, was the youngest keynote speaker at the historic event. Rep. Lewis is also known as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young Jr., and Roy Wilkins.
Rep. Lewis alluded to his personal history when he announced his cancer diagnosis on December 29, 2019. He wrote in a prepared statement, “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” For Rep. Lewis, a Stage IV diagnosis means cancer has spread from the pancreas to other organs.
Rep. Lewis explained that his cancer was discovered in early December during a “routine medical visit.” He said the Stage IV diagnosis was “reconfirmed” through follow-up tests.
The congressman explained that medical advancements would allow him to continue his work on Capitol Hill. “While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance. So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”
Rep. Lewis’ Chemotherapy Treatments Take Place In Washington, Allowing Him to Continue Working On Capitol Hill
Rep. John Lewis calls Atlanta home, but he chose to undergo chemotherapy treatments in Washington, D.C. in order to be close to work. As referenced at the beginning of this article, Rep. Lewis has not been releasing updates on his health status.
But his longtime friend, former Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, says Rep. Lewis is handling the treatments well. The two have known each other since at least 1960. Young told Atlanta-based CBS affiliate WGCL-TV in late January 2020 that the congressman typically needs one day to recuperate following a chemotherapy session. Young said a staff assistant informed him that Rep. Lewis manages to get back on his feet and back to work two days after a session.
Young confidently told the news outlet, “I don’t think he’ll be leaving us soon. Pancreatic cancer used to be a death sentence, but we’re all going to die of something. I think there’s a spiritual: ‘I keep so busy serving my master, I ain’t got time to die.’ And John’s that same type.”
Young also spoke out the day after Rep. Lewis announced the diagnosis. He said the congressman was “not likely to get depressed and discouraged. He’s been through things that were more dangerous than this.”
Rep. Lewis Celebrated His 80th Birthday On February 21, 2020
Rep. John Lewis celebrated a major milestone, his 80th birthday, on February 21, 2020. He received an outpouring of support from friends and well-wishers.
One of the most high-profile birthday wishes came from President Barack Obama. The former commander-in-chief wrote to the congressman, “Happy birthday to one of my heroes — someone who believed our right to vote was more important than his own life. Thanks for making good trouble for 80 years, @repjohnlewis.” He also shared a photo of him and Rep. Lewis hugging.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shared public birthday wishes. Senator Amy Klobuchar posted a photo beside Rep. Lewis and wrote, “Your continued fight for equal protection and justice under the law for all Americans inspires me and our country every day.”
The Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, praised Rep. Lewis as “one of Georgia’s greatest sons.” He wrote that the congressman’s “integrity, grit, and relentless passion are an inspiration for people across the globe.”
Reverend Al Sharpton referred to Rep. Lewis as a ” true American legend and a personal hero” of his, adding that he has always caused “good trouble.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called Rep. Lewis the “Conscience of the Congress” in her birthday wish. “Every day, your courage inspires us all to fight for freedom, justice and a more perfect union.”
Rep. Lewis took to Twitter to express thanks for the “kind birthday wishes. Each day on earth is a gift we must use to continue building the Beloved Community.”
Rep. Lewis Faced a Health Scare In 2018 When He Fell Ill On a Plane
Rep. John Lewis had to be rushed to the hospital on July 28, 2018, prompting national concern over his health. He had been traveling to Atlanta for an event but did not show up for it. He became ill during the plane ride and had to be taken to a hospital once the plane landed. His office said at the time that he was admitted for “routine observation.”
The following evening, Rep. Lewis was released from the hospital with a “clean bill of health.” Spokesperson Brenda Jones said at the time there was “no cause for alarm” but did not share specific details about why the congressman had needed to be hospitalized.