Civil Rights Icon Rep. John Lewis Reveals Cancer Diagnosis

Worrisome news for an American icon.

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Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was among the young leaders of the Civil Rights Movement along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, announced over the weekend that he is being treated for Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer:

Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon known for promoting voting rights, announced Sunday that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it as he has fought for racial equality and other human rights throughout his life.

Lewis (D-Ga.), who has served in Congress since 1987, said doctors detected the disease this month during a routine medical visit and subsequent tests. He said he later received confirmation of the diagnosis.

One percent of patients live five years after a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. The average patient with that diagnosis lives for about a year. Pancreatic cancer was the third most common cause of death from cancer in 2019, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“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,” Lewis, 79, said in a statement.

Lewis said he planned to return to Washington to continue working and undergo treatment over the next several weeks. He said he might miss some votes during that time.

“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” Lewis said. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

Lewis has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” His storied national legacy dates back to the fight for African Americans’ civil rights, when he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and was beaten by pro-segregationists after he sat in bus seats reserved for white people on the Freedom Rides.

As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was among the “Big Six” leaders who organized the March on Washington in 1963. In a speech there, he criticized the government for not doing more to protect black people in the South.

“Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?” Lewis asked

A spokesperson for Lewis has said the congressman was arrested 40 times for various protests during the civil rights era. He has been arrested several other times since, including in 2013 at a rally for immigration reform.

On what became known as Bloody Sunday in 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led about 600 silent people two-by-two from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery in a demonstration for voting rights. About 150 state troopers and other law enforcement met the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and ordered them to disperse.

Before a two-minute warning ran out, law enforcement injured 58 people with clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. Lewis’s skull was fractured in the attack.

A cancer diagnosis isn’t something I’d wish on anyone, but Lewis is one person who clearly doesn’t deserve it. From the early years of his life, he’s given much for his country and become a living icon because of it. Pancreatic cancer is a nasty diagnosis largely because it is generally not detected until it’s in its later stages and in danger of spreading to other parts of the body. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with the disease some 20 years ago, underwent treatment, and is still with us and is in seemingly good shape. Granted, Ginsburg was younger then than Lewis is today, but here’s hoping that he’s able to overcome this just as he’s overcome so many other things in his lifetime.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. CSK says:

    There are in fact some promising new protocols for the treatment of this disease. I hope for the best outcome for Rep. Lewis.

  2. @CSK:

    Alex Trebek was diagnosed with the same thing last March and his treatment appears to be going pretty well.

  3. Slugger says:

    My sincere best wishes to Rep. Lewis for more years of health.
    All of us are mortal creatures and are on the stage for a limited amount of time. We should identify ourselves with goals and causes that will outlast us. For most of us, these goals will be humble and personal which is appropriate. For John Lewis, he will be remembered as a worker for a great cause. This triumph of his spirit can not be taken by any illness.

  4. Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I have personally witnessed up close both a bad and a good outcome of this diagnosis. I certainly wish the good one for everyone impacted by this.

  5. CSK says:
  6. PJ says:

    There are different pancreatic cancers.

    There’s the one that will kill you within months, and then there’s the one that Ginsberg had, that gives you a very good chance of survival. Unless you do what Steve Jobs, who had the same as Ginsberg, did and try alternative medicine…

  7. CSK says:

    Still no word of sympathy or concern, or even of acknowledgment from Trump. Why am I not surprised?

  8. Pylon says:

    @CSK: I’m eagerly awaiting a tweet that somehow makes this about Trump.

  9. al Ameda says:


    Still no word of sympathy or concern, or even of acknowledgment from Trump. Why am I not surprised?

    I think we all know that it is very likely that the Lewis estate is going to owe Trump big time.

    Honestly, John Lewis (((whew))). Is there a man alive who imbodies both the horror and the hope of America since 1965? A life truly lived to the fullest, in service to our highest ideals.

    All my best wishes are with Mr. Lewis. God speed.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: How in the hell does that work? I would think that alpha particles would get stopped by the skin (given that a sheet of paper blocks most of the little buggers.) Unless they use some sort of needle probe into the tissue?


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