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For months, almost no one knew Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had cancer

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

For months, almost no one knew Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had cancer” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For more than four months, the mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city let few people know he had been diagnosed with bone cancer. Not even his 35-year-old daughter was aware.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner publicly revealed his diagnosis during a Q&A after his annual State of the City address on Nov. 2 — months after an oncologist told him in June he had osteosarcoma. Turner had gone to the dentist with a toothache, which turned out to be from a tumor growing on his jaw.

Turner is now “cancer-free” as of last week, he told The Texas Tribune and Houston news station KHOU Tuesday in his first interview about the diagnosis.

Turner’s announcement came as a shock to the public, though he believes there was speculation at Houston City Hall that the 68-year-old former Democratic state representative had been dealing with some kind of health issue. As he underwent treatment, Turner lost at least 15 pounds.

Sitting in the audience for Turner’s speech that day was his daughter, Ashley. At that point, Turner had told her only that he had a growth on his jaw and that doctors needed to remove it. But she didn’t know it was cancer, Turner said Tuesday.

“She came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Dad, you didn’t prepare me for this one,’” Turner said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t know I was going to talk about it.’”

Turner hadn’t planned to disclose his condition that day but decided to do so in the spur of the moment, believing the story would encourage others to seek medical help if they’re feeling unwell — especially men who might be more hesitant to go to the doctor.

Osteosarcoma is a fairly uncommon form of cancer — with about 1,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The cancer is most common in children, teenagers and adults under the age of 30, with 1 in 10 cases each year appearing in people over the age of 60.

Turner said surgeons removed the portion of his jaw where the growth had appeared and replaced it with a section of his right leg bone during a procedure in June, just a week after his diagnosis.

Turner stayed in the hospital for eight days. He missed City Council meetings in June and July but he continued to conduct city business and communicate with his staffers and department directors from his hospital bed, he said.

After the surgery, Turner had to undergo six weeks of radiation treatment in August and September. Most weekday mornings at 7:30 a.m., Turner would have to don a radiation therapy mask to make sure his head stayed still during the treatment. The mask made him claustrophobic, he said. He couldn’t see while wearing the mask, but he could hear — so Turner, a Baptist, asked the technicians to play gospel music.

“Every day I came in, they turned to the gospel station, turned it up loud and I made it through,” Turner said. “It was faith that brought me through.”

In charge of 21,000 municipal employees and a $5.7 billion budget, Turner would still attend City Council meetings and show up at City Hall on days he had radiation treatment — in part, he said, as a coping mechanism. Over the summer, the fight between the city and the Texas General Land Office over the city’s share of federal recovery funds from Hurricane Harvey was flaring up once more, and the City Council was redrawing its district maps.

Turner said he sometimes had to work through the exhaustion from the radiation. His doctors would chastise Turner after seeing him on TV on days he was undergoing treatment, he said.

“To be at home and just be sitting around watching television, that’s not my cup of tea,” Turner said. “As long as I was in a position to function and do my job, from a mental and emotional point of view, it was good for me.”

Still, Turner kept the exact nature of his illness a secret from the public, trusting only a select few with the knowledge, including his chief of staff. Most of his staff didn’t know, he said.

“I didn’t need any people coming up and saying, ‘Mayor, are you OK?’” Turner said. “That wouldn’t have done me any good.”

The day after he revealed his diagnosis, Turner received a consolatory letter from President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer.

“While everyone’s battle with cancer is different, Jill and I understand how hard it can be — both for you and for your loved ones,” Biden wrote in a letter provided by Turner’s office. “Know that you are not alone in this fight.”

Now in remission, Turner plans to serve out the remainder of his term, which concludes at the end of next year. He has hit his term limits and hasn’t ruled out a run for some other office. But first, he plans to finish writing a pair of books — one he says will be autobiographical in nature and the other about “leadership under major crisis.” Turner was mayor during Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think when you face these moments, you recognize that time is limited, that we are finite creatures,” Turner said. “We will not be here forever. So it does cause you to really say, ‘OK, what do I want to accomplish and let’s move forward and get it done.’”

Disclosure: Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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