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Kennedy's Political Future Uncertain

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. Doctors in Boston released grim medical news about Senator Ted Kennedy today. He has a malignant brain tumor. The tumor was discovered in tests after Kennedy had two seizures over the weekend. The prognosis is uncertain. For more, we turn to NPR's Congressional correspondent, Brian Naylor, and NPR's medical correspondent, Richard Knox. Hello, both of you.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Hi, Michele.

RICHARD KNOX: Hi.

NORRIS: First to you, Rich. We're hearing this described as a malignant glioma. Tell us what exactly that means.

KNOX: It's the most common type of adult brain cancer. About 10 to 15,000 Americans get this diagnosis every year, which makes it a fairly rare cancer, but it's the most common adult brain cancer. It arises from cells called glial cells, also known as astrocytes. These aren't the brain cells that think and communicate. They are - they support those cells. And there are several different types. Some of them are relatively benign and treatable. The most aggressive is called glial blastoma. These days, genetic tests are done by doctors to try to figure out, you know, just exactly what they're dealing, because that has a big implication for treatment. These tumors grow at different rates. Grades three and four are really aggressive and difficult to treat, and we really don't know at this point what type Senator Kennedy has.

NORRIS: Brian, Senator Kennedy is a large, almost iconic figure on Capitol Hill. What was the reaction there today?

NAYLOR: Well, there was a lot of sadness, a lot of offers of prayers. You know, he's an extremely familiar figure on the Hill, whether he's walking his dogs or chairing a committee hearing. And he has a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle. One of them is Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): We've been a very active and successful team, where we covered the universe from the left to the right. And all I can say is that he's a great legislator. He's a great human being, a person who always has that sense of humor. And that'll pull him through, between you and me. And I'll be praying for him, too.

NAYLOR: Perhaps his best friend in the Senate, Michele, is Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who had to fight back tears as he spoke with reporters this afternoon.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): He's just very confident. He's a strong guy, and has a great heart, and we're confident he's going to be back here. (unintelligible)

NORRIS: There were a lot of emotions on Capitol Hill today. Brian, if Senator Kennedy had to step down - and again, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves - but if he did have to step down, what would happen?

NAYLOR: Well, unlike in many states, where the governor would appoint a replacement, in Massachusetts, there would be a special election within 145 to 160 days to fill the vacancy. But as you say, that's a long way off. What is a pressing, more immediate concern is what happens in the Senate in his absence. He's been involved in negotiations with Republicans on a number of bills, and that, for the time being, are in limbo.

NORRIS: Now Richard, that's the political prognosis. What about the medical prognosis?

KNOX: Well, generally, for gliomas, the prognosis is not good. But we really do have to be careful, here, at this stage. As I said earlier, we don't know what type and grade of glioma the senator has. A more favorable type might respond to treatment so well that he could, you know, outlive the cancer. On the worst end, a glioma is among the worst kind of cancers you can get, and it can kill within a year. But, you know, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. The doctors haven't said so far what kind of treatment Senator Kennedy will get. They say it will include radiation and chemotherapy, and usually, this is done over a period of months. They didn't mention surgery. Often surgery, in these cases, is difficult, and it's never curative. It's often hard to find the edge of these tumors. They're kind of diffuse, and it's not easy to take them out. And doctors worry a lot about damaging healthy brain areas. The patients need to think and see and speak and so on.

NORRIS: And there's also this concern about swelling as well. Richard, was this tumor discovered early or late? Do we actually know that?

KNOX: Well, a number of people have been asking today, you know, is that good sign, that he has been so active and healthy lately? He's been out campaigning. He's been on the Senate floor. And, you know, just before he suffered the seizure on Saturday, he was on Cape Cod playing with his Portuguese Water Dogs. And does this mean that the cancer may have been caught early? Unfortunately, no. It doesn't necessarily mean that. Gliomas can grow quite large before they cause the first symptoms. So I think we really don't know if it was caught early, and hopefully it was.

NORRIS: And a good sign that he's up and walking around the hospital. At least that's what the family's reporting.

KNOX: Yes, absolutely a good sign.

NORRIS: Brian, there were lots of tributes today, a lot of people stepping to the podium to say that they're - the Kennedy family is in their prayers. Ted Kennedy is clearly a giant in the Senate. You get a sense that this is already taken on almost a historical tinge, that this is a big moment in the Senate.

NAYLOR: Well, he's been here, you know, for 45 years, longer than any other senator, except for Robert Byrd. And you hear him, the last couple of days, referred to over and over again as an icon. And I think that's how his colleagues see him. He's been involved in just about every major piece of legislation to come out of Congress in the last five decades. He's been a, if not the leading liberal voice of that time. He's campaigned for countless Democrats, most recently Barack Obama. And, you know, he's also been a lightning rod for Republican critics - you know, you're a Ted Kennedy liberal. But at the same time, he's respected and admired by them, and has worked to cross the aisle with many of them. You know, I think, Michele, when he first came to Washington in 1962, he was seen as something of a dilettante, the president's little brother. Today, he's seen as a major, maybe historic figure in the Senate.

NORRIS: And it should be noted that the Republicans were among the first to take the microphones to give the family - to let the families know that he is in their prayers. Thanks so much to Brian Naylor in Washington and NPR's Richard Knox in Boston. Thanks to both of you.

KNOX: Thanks.

NAYLOR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.
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