Political strategist TJ Ducklo, the Biden-Harris campaign’s national press secretary, is fighting two very different battles. The first is extremely public: the impending election showdown between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
The second, however, is more personal: Stage IV lung cancer. Ducklo has never smoked—about 90% of men with lung cancer have—and at 32 he is more than three decades younger than the majority of people who develop lung cancer.
The third most common cancer in the United States, lung cancer kills over 200,000 people in the United States annually. It tends to be asymptomatic until it reaches an advanced stage. By the time Ducklo learned the cause of the persistent cough, night sweats, weight loss and sustained fatigue he’d been experiencing since late 2019, the cancer had metastasized to his liver, gallbladder and bones.
He received the diagnosis in December, a month before the Iowa primary debate, when Joe Biden’s main opponent was Senator Bernie Sanders. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to do anything,” Ducklo told the monthly magazine Washingtonian. “You just lay around and think about dying.”
He began treatment almost immediately with the support of his parents, colleagues and Biden himself. (The former vice president lost his eldest son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.) When Ducklo’s boss, Katie Bedingfield, the campaign’s communications director, informed Biden about Ducklo’s situation, Biden asked for Ducklo’s parents’ phone number and called them up to offer some words of encouragement.
Fortunately for Ducklo, his tumors had mutations that made him a candidate for a targeted therapy, a newer treatment for lung cancer that has greatly increased survival rates. One week after the Iowa debate, CT scans showed that Ducklo’s lung tumor had shrunk by 60% to 70%.
Elated by the improvement, Ducklo returned to work full-time for the Biden campaign. His timing was fortuitous. Following Biden’s dismal showing at the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses (he came in fourth and fifth, respectively), campaign staffers were pessimistic about their candidate’s chances of success. But within two months, fellow moderate presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had dropped out and endorsed Biden, turning the tide in his favor.
Today, 10 months out from his initial diagnosis, Ducklo continues to work enthusiastically, giving interviews, attending events and strategizing over Zoom. His tireless work ethic initially caught some fellow staffers by surprise. “We were like, ‘Get off this phone! What are you doing?’” Symone Sanders, one of Biden’s senior advisers, recalled telling Ducklo during the early days of his treatment. But Ducklo believes his cause is bigger than himself. “It’s all on the line,” he said. “And my own—I’m not saying that my own health is more or less important, but I don’t want to live in a world where Donald Trump’s the president for four more years.”
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