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Layton put on a brave face as cancer pushed him from public view

For weeks, Jack Layton kept his new bout with illness under wraps.

Mr. Layton says he first noticed something was wrong – something beyond a previous cancer diagnosis and a hip fracture – during the final days of the spring session. Stiffness and aches began to surface in places they hadn't before.

But participants at the meeting of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities in early June recall him bounding up the steps to the podium, apparently hale and healthy.

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Less than two months later, his weight has dropped dramatically and the powerful speaking voice is gone.

Reporters wondered in the interim why he seemed to have all but disappeared from public view. His handlers said he was on vacation and there was no news on his health. But it is not like Mr. Layton to take long breaks. And it was especially puzzling given that his party had only recently been rewarded by voters with the job of Official Opposition.

His last public event was the annual Gay Pride parade in Toronto on July 3. It is something he has made a point of attending every year and, had he missed it, people surely would have wondered why.

Even as he rode the parade route sporting a cowboy hat with a multi-colored ribbon, his wife Olivia Chow at his side, the gauntness that was so startling at Monday's news conference was beginning to show.

Mr. Layton said he received just last week the results of the tests that found a new type of cancer – he has not specified what kind it is, only that is different from the prostate cancer that was diagnosed in 2009. But he clearly knew for weeks the findings would not be good.

Earlier, during the federal election campaign, he was determined not to make his health an issue, but faced repeated questions about it. He answered them all in virtually the same way: Things were going well in his battle with prostate cancer and it was not clear what caused his hip fracture.

He declined to discuss some details, like what pills he was taking, and chose his words carefully when asked about treatments. Toward the end of the campaign, he told The Globe and Mail's Jane Taber he was not undergoing treatment at "this present moment, right now."

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He spoke often of the need to keep working through health problems, invoking the decision of his father, Robert Layton, to leave politics during his own bout with prostate cancer.

"I just watched – my dad not being at work, not being engaged. You know it was just not the same guy. His quality of life really deteriorated," he said. "Nowadays the modern attitude toward cancer is … you get out there and you tackle it and you stay involved."

Mr. Layton nevertheless slowed the frenetic pace from previous campaigns.

The week before the vote, he was asked in a CTV interview whether voters should be concerned that, given his health, he might not be at the helm of the party in future.

"[Remaining leader is] certainly my hope," he said. "And all the people I know who have been cancer survivors, for example, or have had hip surgery, they're back at work, they're making their contribution. That's exactly what I'm doing."

If he was feeling any symptoms of what would turn out to be the new cancer, he gave no indication of it on the hustings.

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NDP president Brian Topp says it is a measure of the man that he waited until he could wait no more to step away from a job he loved – a job in which he felt he could lead his party to government given another couple of years. And he apparently did not tell even members of his own caucus about his new medical problems until he went public Monday with the bad news.

"It took me off-guard," long-time NDP MP Peter Stoffer said. "I was doing some lawn work … in my yard and I just finished taking the dog for a walk and I got a call from my office saying he's having a press conference at two o'clock and not knowing exactly what it was about, I called some colleagues and they didn't know either, so obviously we were all going to find out at the exact same time."

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