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Viva Las Vegas
Jan Jones fights cancer, GOP in run for Nevada governor.

By STEVE FRIESS

Jan Jones lies.

It's not a completely unexpected concept for a politician, and perhaps not even all that surprising for a woman who is mayor of Las Vegas, the booming southwestern city built on slot machines and often dubbed as Sin City.

But in this case, it's understandable and completely forgivable. The mayor will be out on the stump, offering her thoughts on education or crime or the environment, and someone will ask the question. Or she'll just be finished helming another rollicking city council meeting, and an audience member will approach her. Or maybe she'll be trying to steal away for a quiet dinner out with her new husband, and someone will stop by the table.

"How do you feel?" they typically want to know, looking over her almost waifish 5-foot-3 frame intently to detect any sign of physical weakness.

Yet the mayor never gives, never lets her 1,000-watt grin fail her. "Great!" she exclaims convincingly as her tiny hand she firmly clasps the hand of a friend, a constituent or a potential voter. The only outward evidence of her health challenge is the thinning of her champagne-tinged blonde tresses, but few are familiar enough with that mane to notice and a skilled stylist has covered it up anyway. "I feel great."

Most of the time, she's telling the remarkable truth. Despite her lumpectomy and her months of radiation and chemotherapy, Jones feels at least OK. But, she confides, occasionally she feels "just so nauseous. But they don't need to know that."

It's especially important now for Jan Laverty Jones to project the image of health, vibrance and energy that has served as her most enduring political attribute. She's not just any big-city mayor or any breast cancer survivor. Just four months after surgeons removed a fast-growing, if minuscule, carcinoma from her left breast and amid on-going treatment, Jones chose in May to volunteer for the political fight of her career.

At age 48, she filed for the Democratic nomination for governor of Nevada. Among her rallying cries: "If I can beat cancer, and I have, I can certainly beat a Republican."

* * *

On the grim January day when cancer first introduced itself to Jones, her thoughts could not be farther away from a run for the statehouse in Carson City. The Democratic powers that be in Nevada had already begged her to oppose well-financed, well-organized Republican candidate Kenny Guinn for the open governor's seat. As recently as November, Jones announced publicly she wouldn't do it, that she preferred to concentrate on her relationship with her boyfriend Richard Schuetz and her two teenage daughters. She'd already seen her second marriage crumble under the weight of her mayoral service.

The lump was found through a clinical breast exam, too tiny to be detected by the mammogram she also underwent that day. The doctor assured her it was probably nothing, but took a biopsy anyhow. Within hours, he offered a different answer. In coming days, further tests would show her 1.1 centimeter tumor was fast-growing, was estrogen and progesterone-negative and had an S-phase of 20.

For the first time in Jones' six-year reign as mayor, city business became irrelevant to her. She was momentarily dazed by the sudden and surprising turn of events: "I think I felt sorry for myself for about 15 hours. I thought, 'How could I have cancer? I'm the healthiest person I know. I've never been sick a day in my life.' I never even thought of breast cancer before."

Indeed, there is no known history of cancer in her well-to-do California-bred family. She'd made many speeches on health care reform over the years, especially during her failed first campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994, but had never mentioned breast cancer. And she thought she didn't know anyone who had endured the disease, although she quickly learned after her diagnosis how many women friends had simply dealt with it quietly.

The mayor, known for a flamboyant and blunt style that perfectly suits a flashy town like Vegas, would be anything but quiet. Three days after her diagnosis, spokeswoman Cathy Hanson announced the diagnosis to the local media. Hanson stressed the importance of early detection and regular examinations, a theme Jones and Schuetz would harp on regularly in subsequent appearances and writings. "She expects to make a full and quick recovery," Hanson stated confidently.

In private, Jones didn't quite know what to expect. Schuetz devoured books and Internet data on breast cancer, but his research that led him to conflicting conclusions about Jones' prospects and drove him from hope to despair and back again. "What you find is, after a while some of the information is too much information and you get to the point that it frightens you instead of educates you," Jones says.

The couple didn't just analyze; they traveled to clinics in Houston, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., before settling on L.A. surgeon Armando Giuliano at the Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Breast Cancer Center, part of St. John's Hospital. The surgeon was able to get clear margins around the tumor, removing it and determining the cancer did not appear to have spread to her lymph nodes. She was sent home with orders to undergo by August six weeks of daily radiation and nine chemotherapy sessions over seven months.

A week later, Jones was back at city hall helming a council meeting. The following month, she proved her fitness to a curious Las Vegas public by allowing TV cameras to film her running in spandex on her treadmill, a cell phone firmly planted against her ear to reflect how busy she was. She appeared on local plenaries about women's health issues in subsequent weeks, and by April she was in Washington, D.C. at Vice President Al Gore's request to run with him in the annual Race for The Cure fundraiser. Schuetz wrote a lengthy two-day, first-person series for the Las Vegas Sun newspaper detailing his experience as a man standing alongside a breast cancer survivor.

Also along the way, Jones and Schuetz wed. Schuetz, a gaming industry consultant who met Jones when he ran a casino resort and approached her about improving crime conditions around the property, had proposed around Christmas. A day after Jones' cancer diagnosis, the couple decided to marry the following weekend. Before an intimate crowd of 25 in their home, Schuetz slipped on her lanky finger a wedding ring inscribed, "In sickness and in health." Explains Schuetz: "I wanted her to know I'd be with her always on this thing. We'd go through this together. And we could never tell what the next day would bring, so we had to do it now."

* * *

Cancer wasn't merely a detour in Jones' career; it may have driven her to run for governor. As the May 18 filing deadline loomed, Democratic Party operatives continued their pursuit of the one politician in the state they believed could seriously challenge Guinn. Jones flirted with the prospects publicly in media interviews, then would play coy. But when a Democratic poll taken the week before the deadline showed she actually led Guinn statewide, Jones left town for her son's college graduation in Tucson to think it over.

She returned as a gung-ho candidate, becoming the first American woman ever known to run for governor and also undergo breast cancer treatment at the same time. With little serious Democratic competition, she revived interest and provided spark for a dull governor's race that much of the media had written off as a Guinn cakewalk. "Cancer's impact was teaching me you better not wait for the right time because there may not be a right time," Jones says. "I decided I could take care of both my health and my campaign at the same time without either suffering."

Still, Jones' first stop on the campaign trail was a California clinic for six weeks of radiation treatment. After that, her chemo appointments every three weeks also would interrupt the flow of her stumping efforts, forcing her to pause and overcome the nausea she claimed publicly was no worse than morning sickness during pregnancy thanks to an anti-nausea drug she used. Privately, she could barely read the word "chemotherapy" in a magazine story with feeling sickened, and her staff learned not to schedule her for much on "chemo weekends."

Yet Jones was never the traditional candidate anyway. In 1991 when she entered politics, she had no experience with public policy or giving election speeches. Her prominence in Las Vegas arose from a series of hokey but amusing TV ads she starred in for her then-father-in-law's car dealership chain, for which she served as an executive during much of the 1980s. Jones as pitchwoman donned bizarre outfits, including an infamous Little Red Riding Hood get-up, and appeared with a prominent Las Vegas Strip drag performer as she tried to convince the masses that her dealership's prices were the cheapest.

Jones, more regularly seen in designer outfits and stylish haircuts, blitzed the political scene and enchanted a bored populace seeking something different. She became the first female mayor or Las Vegas City Council member, ushering in a new era in a town generally dominated by white male Mormons, and proceeded to run the city as if it were the business she left behind. She fast became one of the state's most popular figures, and remained such despite her 1994 gubernatorial primary loss to incumbent Democratic governor Bob Miller and a slew of ethics controversies that continue to swirl around her.

Whether she can beat Guinn this fall is a looming question -- mid-summer polls showed her lagging by between 10 and 20 percentage points -- and whether her experience with breast cancer will have any impact remains a huge curiosity for political watchers. Guinn's campaign manager, Peter Ernaut, announced early in the campaign, "If any staff person makes her health a political thing, they'll be out the door the next day."

That's the right response, says political analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report, who is tracking the race from Washington, D.C. "An opponent would be insane to try to raise this as an issue," Cook notes. "People either will have reservations or they won't and that's based upon their knowledge about the disease and what they read and hear about in the media. No campaign consultant in the world would advise to bring this up."

But Guinn's top opponent, former movie producer Aaron Russo, didn't hesitate to suggest that voters may wonder whether Jones would survive a four-year term as governor. "My understanding of cancer is you never know whether you've beaten it or not," Russo says. "My concern is that running a campaign will put stress on her. I don't know why a person who has cancer would run this campaign."

Jones calls Russo's comments "stupid" and says she'd gladly tell reporters why she's running if they would stop asking her about her cancer. "If you keep asking people if it's an issue, pretty soon it will be an issue," Jones complains over an enormous lunch of an egg salad and a turkey-roast beef sandwich minutes before dashing off to her eighth chemo date. "I've been really open about the breast cancer, but it does get to the point that I have other things to talk about. How are we going to educate the children in the state of Nevada? Who is going to make sure there's affordable, safe child care? What are we going to do to continue health care reform and hospital reform? How are we going to diversify the economy so we can stop depending solely on the gaming industry?"

Russo and others suspect the Jones campaign has conducted polls on whether the cancer can be a liability or even an asset. Not only does Jones deny it, but no research firm anywhere has conducted any known research on the impacts of disease on the political viability of candidates. Instead, the best available information comes from women like Long Island county legislator Barbara Johnson and Vermont state legislator Karen Kitzmiller, both of who have won more than one election after being public about their protracted bouts with breast cancer.

Kitzmiller, 50, underwent a liver biopsy in Election Day 1996 as she was being re-elected to a fourth term. She cheers Jones' effort, noting, "All sorts of people will see her as a role model, an inspiration. That's all good. I don't see a downside. I know I'm much more well-known all over the state than I ever was." And Johnson, who took out full-page newspaper advertisements to update constituents on her thrice-recurring cancer, knew of Jones' candidacy because her son spotted an item on the Internet. The 54-year-old has had virtually no negative reaction, aside from some anonymous grumblings from Democratic operatives concerned that her death would cost them a seat in the Nassau Legislature. She advised Jones to view the situation as a campaign bonus: "This cancer is a hot issue because it's your wife and mother. All her constituents will respect her for being upfront with it."

Jones believes the fixation on her cancer is part of a sexism in the media and the public about male and female health issues. Months before the mayor's disclosure, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller disclosed he had prostate cancer and received scant questions about whether he could execute his duties. But Miller was not running for office, and in Illinois in 1994 both the quadruple-bypass heart surgery of incumbent GOP Gov. Jim Edgar and the breast cancer diagnosis of Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Penny Severns received similar media play. Edgar won the race handily, but few believed either side's health issues were particularly influential.

Indeed, these recent anecdotes are more indicative of what politicians, male or female, are willing to risk disclosing than any shift among public perception. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Kennedy both went to great lengths to hide debilitating physical problems, and Democratic presidential aspirant and cancer survivor Paul Tsongas as recently as 1992 felt the need to appear in a TV commercial in a Speedo and dive into a swimming pool to prove his physical competence. After that race, it was revealed Tsongas did not completely disclose that his cancer had returned. He died of treatment complications in 1994.

Ironically, cancer has given Jones the best attention she's received in her campaign. Dogged by complaints pending before the state Ethics Commission in the thick of the election season, Jones' discussion of her health paints her as courageous, determined, honest and human. Women voters in particular are likely to admire her, says Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist Jon Ralston. "It's the best press she's gotten in the governor's race that's been even remotely positive," Ralston notes. "It's generally a positive because she's using the story she has to tell, and it makes it more difficult for anyone to attack her for missing meetings or not staying up on her duties as mayor."

Like Kitzmiller and Johnson, Jones says she's willing to use her gubernatorial powers to fight breast cancer, although she noted the real funding is handled on a national basis. Instead, she knows her experience in the health care system was eased by her wealth and prominence, and that most women must fidget in the waiting rooms for interminable spans of time instead of seeing nationally known specialists. She believes all patients should enjoy her luxuries. "I can be involved with reforms that make sure women with cancer are treated a lot more humanely. It's a very traumatic time, and it doesn't help being treated like a number and being made to wait for hours in waiting rooms or having treatment denied because of finances."

* * *

Mostly, Jones tries to separate the personal and the political, but she's not particularly convincing. She's well aware of the precedent she's setting, of the importance her candidacy has taken on among many women who have faced breast cancer. At least one campaign aide has wondered aloud whether Jones would be the first U.S. governor to be a cancer survivor, though that seems unlikely.

"Your running for office will save women's lives," her husband predicted confidently around the time she decided to run. "If you accomplish nothing else, it will teach women the importance of early detection and that you're not at death's door."

It's a credo that Jones fully believes: " I'm aware of an image I can project for other women with breast cancer that it's a treatable disease. You can live, you can be vital.

"Heck, you can even run for governor."

###

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