Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had surgery last month after a prostate cancer diagnosis, officials disclosed Tuesday, detailing for the first time what condition led to medical complications and a lengthy hospitalization that he kept secret from the White House, Congress and the American public for several days.
The condition was disclosed by the Pentagon in a statement by John Maddox and Gregory Chesnut, doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. They said that Austin, 70, was diagnosed with cancer in December after routine screening and underwent a “minimally invasive surgical procedure” known as a prostatectomy while under general anesthesia.
While the cancer was detected early and his prognosis is excellent, the doctors said, Austin developed complications that included nausea, and pain in the abdomen, hip and leg. He was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, and additional evaluation determined abdominal fluids had impaired the function of his small intestines, prompting doctors to drain his stomach with a tube through his nose, the statement says.
“He has progressed steadily throughout his stay,” the doctors said. “His infection has cleared. He continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process. During this stay, Secretary Austin never lost consciousness and never underwent general anesthesia.”
Austin’s hospitalization began on Jan. 1 and required about a week in intensive care. It was first publicly disclosed by the Pentagon after 5 p.m. Friday — four days later. An uproar ensued, beginning this past weekend, when it was learned the Defense Department failed to notify President Biden and the White House that Austin was in the hospital.
Asked Tuesday why was the secretary had been so reluctant to disclose the nature of his medical situation, the Pentagon press secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, said the matter was “deeply personal.”
Critics, including political allies, have chastised the administration for its secrecy, with many noting the calamity that could have occurred with the United States actively, if indirectly, involved in two wars and the recent rise in attacks on U.S. forces deployed in the Middle East. Internally, some frustrated officials have complained, too, saying the handling of the incident showed “unbelievably bad judgment” on Austin’s part.
Although the White House was informed of Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 4, no one there, including Biden, knew that Austin had cancer before now, said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. The president was informed by Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, officials said.
The White House also was not aware that Austin transferred his authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Dec. 22 as he underwent his prostate surgery, Kirby said.
White House officials have stated repeatedly in recent days that Austin’s job is not in jeopardy despite his failure to disclose a his illness — even in a personal conversation with the president over the weekend.
“We have complete confidence in the secretary,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters.
Biden remains focused on Austin’s recovery and looks to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible, officials have said. Kirby, on Tuesday, sought to keep the focus there.
“We all want to wish him the very best,” he said. “I mean, this is sadly, this is a disease that affects many millions of American men, particularly at that stage in life. And the key is early diagnosis. You know, early screening, I think, look, we’re all going to learn a whole heck of a lot of lessons from this past week. One of the lessons I hope that everybody takes away is the value of early screening.”
Prostate cancer ranks behind skin cancer as the most common form in men. Research has found nearly all men with early stage prostate cancer survive after 10 years regardless of how they are treated. Experts on prostate cancer treatment say the prostate can be removed with robotic equipment that does not require making a large incision. A surgery indicates the cancer has not spread and the patient has a strong prognosis, they said.
Parallel reviews launched by the White House and the Pentagon — into the delegation of authority across Cabinet agencies and the handling of Austin’s hospitalization, respectively — raised the possibility that officials may choose not to disclose additional details about the recent events while those investigations unfold. Already Ryder, in response to media questions Tuesday about specific aspects of what occurred in recent days, made reference repeatedly to the 30-day Defense Department review.
Fenit Nirappil, Missy Ryan and Marisa Iati contributed to this report.