Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has lately found himself fielding questions from colleagues and others about his health and changes to his appearance.
His face has grown bloated and puffy, and he’s gained a significant amount of weight.
In a bid to quell concerns, he’s going public in a deeply personal interview with The Globe and Mail, explaining that he has a rare skin disease that requires strong steroid treatment.
Mr. Flaherty said he is reluctant to speak about his health, but is taking this step to assure Canadians that neither the disorder, bullous pemphigoid, nor the medication is undermining his ability to do his job as federal treasurer.
“Of late, I’ve been getting too many questions about my appearance and the weight gain,” he told The Globe and Mail.
The 63-year-old Whitby-Oshawa MP spoke in his Parliament Hill office on Wednesday, and was clearly uncomfortable divulging a private matter.
“Most people are quite cautious about what they say, but a few people have said to me, ‘Do you have cancer? … What’s going on? Are you going to die?’ That kind of thing,” he said.
“And, obviously, I am not. I mean, I will die eventually, but not over a dermatological issue.”
Pemphigoid is a rare blistering skin disorder that can produce lesions on parts of the body. The Finance Minister is being treated with prednisone, a strong steroid.
Mr. Flaherty said he informed Prime Minister Stephen Harper of his condition and treatment late last year before Christmas.
“I won’t talk about the nature of my conversations with the Prime Minister privately, but I spoke to him about my health and the change in my appearance and [said] that this was a passing thing and it did not affect my ability to do my job. Because his concern is always the capacity to perform,” Mr. Flaherty said.
Mr. Flaherty’s changing appearance has been the subject of speculation on Parliament Hill for months. He has at times seemed flustered at news conferences and in Question Period, which is out of character for the career politician, who usually speaks clearly and confidently.
He said the prednisone has led to side effects that include facial swelling, bloating, puffiness, difficulty sleeping and significant weight gain. He described himself as a “classic case” in this regard.
“I’ve had a couple of stakeholders say, ‘You’ve put on a lot of weight; you should get more exercise,’” he recalled. “I don’t talk to them about this.”
Pemphigoid is a rare autoimmune disease. According to William Zrnchik, the CEO of the International Pemphigus and Pemphigoid Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., many of the people who live with the disease say its flare-ups can be connected to stress.
Until now, those close to Mr. Flaherty have simply said the minister was tired due to his heavy travel schedule. The minister has travelled abroad frequently in recent years. He has played a senior role in international meetings of the G20, a body that took on greater prominence after the recession of 2008-09.
“I would like those people who have been concerned about my health to be reassured that it is a skin problem that is getting better and will pass with some more time, and that my ability to do my job is not affected by this condition,” Mr. Flaherty said.
He said he developed the condition in January, 2012, and that it took nine months for doctors to correctly diagnose it and start proper treatment.
“I can’t do a cause and effect, but I had knee surgery a little over a year ago, and then after that I developed a dermatological condition,” the Finance Minister said.
Early drug treatment proved ineffective, but by September, 2012, Mr. Flaherty said, his doctor settled on the stronger medicine he’s using now.
It’s been “relatively effective, not perfectly effective,” he said.
While not commenting on Mr. Flaherty directly, Jan Dutz – a physician with the University of British Columbia’s Department of Dermatology and Skin Science – told The Globe and Mail that the side effects Mr. Flaherty reports are common with that medication.
The Finance Minister acknowledged he’s also being asked about a Jan. 25 interview in Davos, Switzerland, on Bloomberg TV in which he appeared red faced, sleepy and spoke in a distorted voice.
He said he was still exhausted after an overnight flight to the World Economic Forum two nights earlier, and the impact of the medication, which leaves him less well rested. “One sleeps, but it’s not as refreshing as it otherwise would be,” the minister said.
His staff later added that Mr. Flaherty also had flu.
Mr. Flaherty’s schedule the day before the Bloomberg interview included a full day of meetings immediately after a red-eye flight from Canada. He had a glass of wine at dinner with his wife, and then a beer while meeting with the Irish Prime Minister and Finance Minister afterward.
He chalked up his thick-tongued voice in the TV interview to a “side effect of the meds.” Other side effects of prednisone include dry mouth and mouth sores.
Asked to describe his drinking habits, Mr. Flaherty said he limits himself to one or two on doctor’s orders.
“I drink socially. Since I’ve been on my medication, I drink less, because I have to listen to what my doctor tells me when he says it’s okay to have a glass or wine or two – or a beer or two – but that’s it.”
The minister said he’s not making plans to retire just yet. He wants to stay on until the federal budget is balanced again. The Conservatives are vowing to have Ottawa’s books back in the black by 2015.
“I am a pretty tough guy. I’m an old hockey player,” Mr. Flaherty said.
“This will pass and it’s much better now than it was before, so I have more confidence now that this will pass,” the Finance Minister said.
“I don’t have any problem doing my budget work, which I have been doing, including all the month of January. I would still like to stay until the budget is balanced.”
He said he would like to see the restraint plan sketched out in the 2009 budget bear fruit.
“And I would like to see it through. That’s maybe just my personality, but I would like to see the Alpha and the Omega.”