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Jack Layton's new battle: All the signs were there

NDP Leader Jack Layton pauses at a new conference in Toronto on Monday, July 25, 2011.

CP/Nathan Denette/CP/Nathan Denette

Two striking things about Jack Layton's new bout with illness are how quickly it seems to have taken a toll and how effectively he kept it 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. 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.

In retrospect, we should have seen the signs.

His last public event was apparently 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 - one different to the prostate cancer that was diagnosed in 2009. But he clearly knew for weeks the findings would not be good.

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 Mr. Topp says Mr. Layton felt he could lead his party to government given another couple of years.

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So he did not quit. He just bowed out temporarily. 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 when contacted by the Hill Times newspaper. "I was doing some lawn work today 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."

Reporters who watched him on the campaign trail this spring remarked at the way the crowd and his party's good fortunes seemed to revive him. Fresh from surgery to repair a fracture hip, he moved from crutch to cane to dancing a jig in the space of five weeks.

When The Globe and Mail's Campbell Clark asked him about the prostate cancer, Mr. Layton said having a serious disease makes one focus on the things that are important.

"Although I would say the birth of my grand-daughter was more powerful, as a motivator, than the cancer was," he said. "And you know trying to make a better - I always talk about trying to make a better world. That's Tommy [Douglas]rsquo;s expression. And I just think immediately about her. And when I see all these young kids at the rallies. There used to be young kids at the rallies in the past, but it has more meaning for me now."

When asked if he didn't think he needs to devote more time to his personal life, Mr. Layton said the job of Leader has given him the life he had always wanted. "As long as the good lord gives me the health to do it, and the good party decides that I should keep on. Those are my two conditions. I enjoy what I'm doing."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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