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Surgeon General Keeps ‘Living And Working’ Amid Cancer Fight

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Health
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Hundreds of activities are planned around the globe Thursday in recognition of World Cancer Day, but for Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong, the international "holiday" is personal.

Diagnosed with colon cancer last year, Armstrong spoke candidly Wednesday about his experience with cancer and chemotherapy in a lengthy interview with The News Service of Florida in an effort to raise awareness about the disease, treatment and early detection.

"It made sense to have this conversation now," Armstrong said during an interview in his office at the Department of Health headquarters in Tallahassee. "I'm not a fan of celebrating disease. … I would prefer that tomorrow be 'World Cancer Cure Day.' But it is what it is. And I think it's an opportunity to really push this message out."

About 100,000 Floridians each year are diagnosed with cancer, according to Armstrong.

Calling the discussion about his personal health "difficult," Wednesday's interview was the first time the state's chief health officer has spoken in great detail about his condition and treatment.

"In the end, health is really personal. It's really personal. It's about what individuals hope to achieve in life," he said.

Armstrong underwent surgery in September --- a day after a colonoscopy revealed he had the disease --- to remove a cancerous segment of his colon and reconnect his bowels.

"I have some experience with this, as a surgeon. I have taken care of people with this disease and I've also taken care of a number of post-operative patients. So I knew what I had to do to get well as fast as I could," he said. "I was fortunate to have no complications. And I had hoped that would be the end of the story. But that wasn't the end of the story. It turns out I needed chemotherapy."

Armstrong said he is now midway through 12 cycles of chemotherapy, which began in November and is expected to be completed in April.

Armstrong said that, as a doctor, he is familiar with the science behind the side effects of chemotherapy, which can include fatigue, nausea and numbness.

"For me, I can understand them because I'm a physician and I know the anatomy. I get worried for those who don't have this background, because, candidly, they're kind of scary. There's some unpredictability associated with it," he said. "If you choose to focus on the side effects, you're not living. So my choice is to move through the side effects and keep living and working."

Another side effect of the treatment is sensitivity to cold liquids, Armstrong said.

"It is like drinking broken glass. There's no other way to describe it," Armstrong said. "Again, if you don't understand what's going on I think that could be really, really frightening. The good news is it subsides after a few moments. And then, clearly, you drink lukewarm water."

The side effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, Armstrong said.

"So you just have to deal with that and just keep looking forward to what I think will be the middle of April as the time when I can celebrate the conclusion of this particular phase. And then, obviously, keep living and stay on the path of a survivor," he said.

Armstrong, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott as secretary of the Department of Health (and Florida surgeon general), said he considers himself "lucky" that the cancer was "found before it could have been much different" and that the chemotherapy hasn't altered his appearance.

"I'm very fortunate. It's not that way with a lot of people on this regimen. But I can tell you that the inside feels it, so I know it's working. I believe that I will be a cancer survivor," he said. "There is always uncertainty. I think part of this challenge is managing uncertainty with optimism. That's my approach."

Armstrong said he was moved by the "amazing faces of courage" of cancer patients and cancer survivors.

"I realize that most people don't want to talk about cancer. I know why. It's very difficult because it is really, really personal. But I realized that people who are receiving treatments for cancer and survivors of cancer have an important message. Cancer's not going to define us. So we're going to continue to live, and we're going to continue to work," he said. "I think it's important to share thanks with all the friends, families, colleagues, employers around the state who have helped people getting cancer treatment to get through it."

Armstrong also used his personal experience as a jumping-off point to deliver a public health message: "Screening for cancer matters."

Screens are available for breast cancer, prostate cancer and skin cancer, and colonoscopies --- suggested for people over age 50 --- are used to detect colon cancer.

"Colonoscopy has certainly made a difference in my life. I think that's an important story that we need to get out there," Armstrong, 52, said.

People with family histories of cancer or symptoms of the disease should be screened earlier, Armstrong said.

Armstrong also encouraged diners to stay away from charred foods, which are high in carcinogens.

"If something is burned, you really need to cut the burned part off," he said.

Armstrong, who is married and has a 13-year-old son, said that living with cancer has heightened his compassion, stamina and courage.

"People want to live long with the quality they deserve. They want to have more birthdays. They want to have more anniversaries. They want to see more graduations. When you have an illness like this, you really see that. You live it," he said. "My goal is to have more birthdays, more anniversaries and to watch my son grow up."