Jim Ryan illness injects delicate issue into race

Friday, November 16, 2001

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Jim Ryan faces months of uncertainty as he battles cancer for a third time, and so do the people watching his campaign for governor.

His opponents must decide whether to raise the issue of health and, if so, how to do it without being insensitive. Voters must decide how to weigh a candidate's health when casting their ballots.

The Republican attorney general said Thursday that his health is "a legitimate question" for voters.

But political experts say his opponents would face a tremendous backlash if they openly tried to capitalize on the issue. That does not mean voters won't be thinking about it, for good or bad.

"People will be sympathetic but still wonder if he is able to do the job he is running to do," Evanston-based pollster Richard Day said. "I can't imagine seeing a political commercial against him about it, but I can imagine a commercial for him that mentions it: 'He's a tough guy, he's battling."'

Ryan, 55, announced Wednesday night that surgeons had removed a small nodule from just behind his right earlobe and discovered that it was non-Hodgkins B-cell lymphoma.

That is a slow-growing kind of cancer that experts say can be treated without causing major side effects. Ryan said he will be treated with drugs for a month and then, for three or four weeks, get daily doses of radiation behind his ear.

He sought to reassure voters that he is healthy enough to be an effective governor. Ryan said he would have dropped out of the race if his doctors felt the campaign was endangering his health.

"I'm not reckless. I want to be governor, but I'm not reckless," Ryan said during a news conference. "I do not believe that my life is threatened by my continued service."

Survived cancer twice

Ryan has survived cancer twice before, and he said no voter has ever suggested he should not run for office.

One of his opponents in the GOP primary, Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, has survived cancer herself. When she began her campaign in 1998, Wood was still wearing a wig after losing her hair to chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Wood said she expects all the candidates to get more questions about health as they conduct a "pretty grueling" campaign.

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