Norm Coleman: 'I hope to keep livin' until the clock runs out'

Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in the lobby of his Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News File

This coming Monday, former U.S. Senator and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman will undergo surgery to remove some of his lung.

He has cancer again. It first showed up in his tonsils nearly five years ago. He beat it. Then it came back in his lymph nodes and his lung, and when it showed up it was a stage IV tumor. After an intense round of radiation and chemotherapy, the cancer was beaten back for a second time. But a couple of months ago it reappeared in Coleman's lung.

Anyone who has cancer or who has had cancer knows it can be a roller coaster of physical and emotional ups and downs. MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Coleman before he goes into surgery at Mayo Clinic.

Because cancer is such a roller coaster, how are you keeping your balance?

Faith. Family. Friends. It is a roller coaster, and I like to be very open about that. I'm in the best shape of my life. I do 100 pushups every morning. I do 50 sit-ups. My doctor said she's done a thousand of these lobectomies, and she said I may be the healthiest person she's operated on. I'm in really good shape for somebody who's going to be turning 70 in August.

There are moments ... there's a lot of fear. There are a lot of times that you're really shaken. But [I have a] great sense of faith, and I've been watched over. So you just put it in God's hands and do the best you can to enjoy every day and every moment.

Many people who are living or have lived with incredibly serious health problems, almost each has told me that counterintuitively their disease has been a gift ... not the physical aspects but other gifts that present themselves emotionally or spiritually.

Yeah I got a story. I'm at LaGuardia Airport not too long ago and I'm heading back to St. Paul Minneapolis and there's a woman there with a little kid, probably about 3 years old. And I can tell the kid has cancer.

In the past, I would have probably said a little prayer, felt sorry for the child and the mom. I went up to her. "Mom, how are you doing?" They were a Minnesota family actually being treated at Sloan Kettering and they were heading down to Mayo right afterwards to get radiation treatment.

And so I spent about a half hour talking to her about where to stay and what the radiation is like. And she gave me a big hug afterwards and thanked me. I really think God put me in that place at that time to have that conversation that I never would have had. I thought that was a gift.

Steve Jobs once said "death is the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity because it is life's change agent. It is our time frame of what we have left to do in this world." So what do you really need to do ... want to do? What's on the agenda whatever time is available to you?

Death is God's term limits. You know I don't have a bucket list. I live life every day. I work as hard as I can, continue to make a difference, and make sure that my family is provided for. I've loved everything that I've ever done. I mean this may sound strange, I worked for 17 years in the Minnesota attorney general's office. Who would have thought I'd be there 17 years? When I first got hired, anyone that was there 17 years was old and about to retire.

But I went from there and I got to be mayor of St. Paul. Wow. That was the best job in the world. What could be a better job than being mayor of St. Paul? I got to drop the puck opening night when the Wild played. Then I get elected to the United States Senate representing Minnesota. Who would have thought, you know, one of eight kids from Brooklyn, New York, ends up being the United States Senator from Minnesota.

And then my post-Senate career, I believe I've continued to make a difference. I'm national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. I'm chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network. I lead the government relations practice at an international law firm. In the last three months I have been to Shenzhen, China, Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Morocco, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jerusalem on two occasions, as well as places throughout the U.S. So I'm livin' life, and I just hope to keep living it until the clock runs out.