Serving in Congress is a tough job for anyone, but you’ll never hear Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher – a self-described workaholic – complaining.
“You know me … I’m going all the time and I don’t stop,” he says.
Until now. Fulcher has been diagnosed with renal cancer and he’ll be going through rounds of energy-zapping chemotherapy. He’ll stay engaged with his job and the political turmoil that goes with it, but he will have an additional focus for a while.
Beating cancer. For now, he might be doing less traveling and voting by proxy – a relatively new rule that he has railed against.
“But as (Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy told me, if anybody has a good excuse for voting by proxy, it’s me,” Fulcher said. “Overall, I need to do a better job prioritizing,” he said.
Fulcher has had one round of chemotherapy, which he describes as “willingly having poison kicked into my system. Since round one, there are days that I’ve been dragging and other times that I don’t feel much different. Doctors have told me that my cognitive skills are there, but physically I won’t be able to do as much. I’m still learning.”
After his diagnosis, Fulcher told only a few people about his cancer – his family, the three other members of Idaho’s congressional delegation and Gov. Brad Little. Fulcher entertained the notion of not making his diagnosis public, but only briefly.
“Constituents deserve to know, and they have a right to know. If I were on the other side, I’d want to know,” Fulcher said. “I released a statement within about 72 hours of the diagnosis.”
The cancer, he said, was discovered during a routine physical examination and basically came from nowhere. There was no family history of cancer. “I’m young in my 50s (59). I’m very active and play sports on a routine basis. I have no idea of what the cause might be; it just showed up. It probably was a stroke of luck that it was caught when we did.”
Fulcher just happened to mention during his examination that his energy was not at its typically high level, a revelation that probably saved his life. From there, a few tests were taken, and the cancer was discovered.
One thing for sure is that Fulcher will not drown in self-pity. He’s more likely to look at the lighter side, with his self-depreciating sense of humor.
He opened our conversation with this: “My life was not complicated enough – the partisanship, the conflicts, the worldwide drama, the spending we’re going through and all the debate – it just wasn’t quite complicated enough. So, I needed something else to make it more interesting.”
He later added that when he loses his hair, “I’m not going to be one who stands in front of the mirror watching it fall out. I will take it to the cue-ball stage. If you think I’m ugly now, just wait until I’m bald.”
At another point, he said, “You’d be gratified to know that I’m not going to get any dumber.”
Of course, neither cancer nor what he’s going through in general are laughing matters. But his spirits are high, with a lot of help from his family, friends and colleagues.
“When going through something like this, you find out who your friends are – the people who have your back.” Fulcher said. “I haven’t made it a point to go out and be best pals with anybody, because that’s not my job. I haven’t asked for sympathy, or any kind of help. But word does circulate, and when you start getting a string of texts and phone calls from colleagues, you realize that they really do care.”
Topping the list of supporters are the other three members of Idaho’s congressional delegation and the governor. “To a person, they have said they will be there if I need anybody to stand in for me – whether it’s a hearing or attending an event. I may need to take them up on that at some point,” Fulcher said.
“This sucks. It is not insignificant and it is not fun. But this is happening for a reason, and I need to learn something from this. I’m going to be OK, and when this is over, I will be a better legislator and a better person.”
He also says he will have a greater appreciation for others battling with cancer.
Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org