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Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker being treated for kidney cancer

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker waits for election results Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at the Holiday Inn. (Forum file photo)

FARGO – Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has been battling kidney cancer and undergoing radiation treatment over the past several weeks.

After radiation treatment for renal cell carcinoma, Walaker, 73, experienced weakness and was hospitalized, city spokeswoman Karena Carlson said in a news release Friday.

He’s now recovering at home and is expected to return to his normal mayoral duties within seven to 10 days.

Walaker, who won his third and final mayoral term in June, does not plan to resign, said City Commissioner and Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney.

“He’s planning on being back in the saddle in two weeks (or) 10 days,” Mahoney said.

Renal cell carcinoma, or RCC, is the most common kind of kidney cancer in adults, and for those in stage 4, the five-year survival rate is less than 10 percent, said Dr. Anu Gaba, chairwoman for cancer services at Sanford’s Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo.

Radiation treatment is not used to cure renal cell carcinoma, Gaba said. Instead, it helps manage symptoms, typically of patients in stage 4 when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Gaba stressed she is not Walaker’s doctor and does not know his prognosis or treatment regime.

It’s unclear what stage the mayor’s cancer is in. Information released by the city on Friday states only that Walaker has made “significant improvement” and is recovering at home.

Health was an issue

Walaker won re-election this summer, easily beating former City Commissioner Brad Wimmer.

Walaker believed Wimmer was purposely highlighting his age and health in his campaign messaging, though Wimmer denied his “Fargo Fit” campaign was a slight against the mayor.

During the campaign, Walaker said he had recently experienced simultaneous tooth and sinus infections that made it hard to eat and caused him to lose about 60 pounds. Despite that, he said his health was “probably too good.”

But City Commissioner Mike Williams said he was somewhat suspicious.

“I just had noticed his energy level’s been down, and you know he lost a bunch of weight,” Williams said. “I’d ask him how he was and he’d talk about his tooth and stuff like that … It seemed like there was more to it, to me.”

Mahoney said he has talked to Walaker almost every day since he started treatment.

While Walaker has been notably absent from recent public meetings, Mahoney said the mayor has been active behind the scenes, including completing the city’s 2015 budget.

“So far, he’s very much a part of everything,” Mahoney said. “It’s just that I think he wanted the public to know something’s going on.”

Mahoney, who is also a surgeon at Essentia Health, said he also doesn’t know the mayor’s prognosis.

“I know who his specialists are, and all I’ve done around that is just asked that they take good care of him,” he said. “As far as I know, he’s been doing well with therapy. That’s what I’ve been told.”

City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik, whom Walaker endorsed in the 2012 election, said the news came as a “huge shock.” She was informed of the mayor’s cancer battle a couple of days ago.

“I know he hasn’t felt up to talking to people,” she said. “So I haven’t even reached out at all, just wanted to give him time to recover.”

Williams and Sobolik both wished the mayor a speedy recovery.

“We’ve worked together now for eight years, and we’ve got a lot done together,” Williams said. “So we want to keep working and we need him healthy to do that.”

Fargo’s City Charter states that any member of the City Commission may resign by filing a written resignation with the city auditor.

If a vacancy occurs on the board, the commission must call a special election to fill the unexpired term unless there is going to be a citywide election within the following six months. Mahoney, as deputy mayor, would fill the role in the interim.

Walaker is asking that the media not contact him until he returns to his mayoral duties, Carlson said in a news release.

RCC hard to spot

Renal cell carcinoma is difficult to spot in early stages because there usually aren’t any sysmptoms, Gaba said. Patients sometimes have blood in their urine, or pain or a mass in the abdomen.

“A person could have it and not even know they have it,” Gaba said. Somebody with RCC could go a year or two without knowing, she said.

The No. 1 method of treatment for RCC in stages 1, 2 or 3 is surgery – removing the affected kidney, Gaba said. Radiation is “typically not” used in stages 1, 2 or 3 of renal cell cancer, she said.

“Maybe in stage 3, maybe if there’s residual cancer after the patient’s been operated upon and there’s suspicion that maybe some cancer’s been left behind, then maybe there could be a consideration for radiation,” Gaba said.

Those with stage 1 RCC have a five-year survival rate of 90 to 95 percent, Gaba said. Those odds dwindle in later stages. Patients in stages 2 or 3 have a 50 percent to 70 percent survival rate.

If RCC metastasizes and spreads to other parts of the body, like the lungs or bones, then it has reached stage 4. At that final stage, the five-year survival rate drops below 10 percent. Gaba said with treatment, someone in stage 4 RCC could live another two to two-and-a-half years.

Generally, radiation is used for controlling symptoms in RCC patients once the disease has reached stage 4. It could also help shrink a tumor, but it’s not used for curing the disease, Gaba said.

“So if you’re having pain due to cancer, whether it’s in the kidney or elsewhere, then you would use radiation,” Gaba said.

Carlson said the information released Friday was all that Walaker wanted to be released. She did not know if the mayor has had surgery, targeted therapy or chemotherapy.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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