State senator fights nasal cavity cancer

State Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, has been diagnosed with cancer of the nasal cavity.

Lee said in an interview to be broadcast Monday on the Reno news program “Nevada Newsmakers” that he has nasopharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma and is undergoing treatment.

“There’s a growth right behind the back of my nose, between my spine and the back of my nose. It means I am not able to breathe through my nose at all,” Lee said in the interview, his voice audibly affected by the tumor’s blockage of his nasal passages.

“It’s pushing against my spine, finding a place to live in my neck,” Lee said.

Lee, 52, said he is undergoing an intensive 100-day treatment program of chemotherapy and radiation. “I feel confident,” he said in the interview. “I’ve got world-class doctors.” He said he is being treated at the Nevada Cancer Institute.

Lee is seeking re-election this year to a second term in the state Senate. He previously served three terms in the Assembly and was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for state controller in 2002, losing to the late Republican Kathy Augustine.

Asked by program host Sam Shad whether he plans to continue running for and serving in office, Lee said, “We’re thinking by Thanksgiving and Christmas I’m on the mend. We’ll have killed this growth. They’ll go in and scrape out what’s left, and I’ll be back up and running. It’s already pretty much contained now. It’s just a matter of fighting it off.”

Lee couldn’t be reached for further comment on Friday.

Considered a conservative Democrat, Lee owns a plumbing company and is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His Senate district, which includes Nellis Air Force Base, is heavily Democratic: 53 percent of the registered voters are Democrats, while just 28 percent are Republicans.

Last year, Lee considered leaving the Legislature to run for North Las Vegas mayor, which will be an open seat in 2009 balloting. But he said in January he preferred to remain in the Senate.

On the November ballot, he faces an unknown Republican, Ron McGinnis, and an Independent American Party candidate, Lance Hinton.

Cancer prognosis tends to vary widely between individuals depending on various factors including age, gender and lifestyle. About 35 percent of people diagnosed with tumors of the nasal passages survive for at least five years after diagnosis, according to the Merck Manual of Medical Information.

In the television interview, Lee said he first thought his health might be awry about a year ago, during the 2007 legislative session, when he experienced symptoms that seemed like allergies. He later felt tightness in his neck and went to several doctors before being diagnosed with cancer.

Lee said support from his wife, children, extended family, friends, business partners and church would see him through his illness.

“I’m in the best shape anybody could be for this,” he said, his voice breaking. “I have courage. I’m ready to use that courage.”

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ or 702-387-2919.

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