Cancer a speed bump, not a roadblock, in White House aide’s dream career

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 6, 2013 

— Stage IV colorectal cancer was not part of the game plan that brought Michael Robertson from Fresno, Calif., to the White House.

Nor did Robertson’s career strategy anticipate the $900,000 in medical bills, or the physical agonies and mental doubts. Instead, the Bullard High School graduate selected his goals and stepped from one achievement to another until he was climbing the ladder of the Obama administration.

And then he got sick.

“I went to bed one night relatively fine,” Robertson said in an interview, “and I woke up the next day and I had a catastrophic disease.”

Following grueling treatments and multiple surgeries by Fresno-based physicians, Robertson appears to be cancer-free. He has gone public with his experience, blogging about his medical travails on the White House website this week as part of the administration’s larger campaign to promote the Affordable Care Act.

Technically, the Affordable Care Act did not immediately affect Robertson’s cancer treatment. Already protected by insurance, he had to pick up only about 1 percent of his medical expenses. Now that he has a pre-existing condition, though, the health care law means Robertson can still secure insurance in the future. More broadly, his is a cautionary tale about being ambushed by misfortune.

“It can happen to anybody,” Robertson said. “That’s what insurance is for.”

Robertson recently turned 37. He’s a trim, athletic-looking man with a full head of dark hair. His job, which carries the dual titles of deputy assistant to the president and deputy Cabinet secretary, puts him in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It’s part of the White House complex, adrenaline central.

“It’s a blast, an absolute blast,” Robertson said of his work. “It’s a vantage point over the executive branch that you don’t get in a lot of places . . . touching everything that goes on in the country.”

It’s also the kind of job that Robertson seems to have been preparing for his whole life.

The son of two Fresno teachers, John and Karyn Robertson, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. While in his third year at Golden Gate University School of Law, he began casting his net. He wanted to work in Washington, D.C., probably in the Senate. In late 2003, he learned about an up-and-coming Senate candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama.

“I started following him, monitoring him,” Robertson said. “I did a lot of research.”

Right after the 2004 Illinois Democratic primary, Robertson contacted the Obama campaign. When he graduated from law school, he moved to Chicago and started as a full-time volunteer. After Obama won, Robertson was hired for the Senate staff, eventually becoming deputy to the senator’s chief counsel.

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When Obama announced his presidential bid, Robertson joined the campaign team. After Obama won in 2008, Robertson joined the presidential transition team. He got a job at the General Services Administration, eventually becoming chief of staff to the $26 billion-a-year agency that oversees federal real estate and acquisitions.

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Along the way, Robertson earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University Law Center. He learned about the political hot seat, facing tough congressional questions about GSA spending. As Obama started his second term, Robertson moved up to deputy Cabinet secretary. His office helps coordinate the work of different executive branch agencies.

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In July 2012, Robertson and his then-fiancee were vacationing near Santa Cruz, Calif. He hadn’t been feeling well; he was fatigued, and suffering from upset stomachs and other symptoms he attributed to stress and long hours. Still, he wanted to get checked out. He went to one doctor, who referred him to a specialist, who brought in other doctors. Within two days, Robertson was told he had stage IV metastatic colorectal cancer.

Stage IV is the highest stage in cancer. Beyond that, there is nothing.

“You go through incredible fear, you go through moments of injustice, you go through ‘what does this mean?’ All this stuff,” Robertson said, but “I think I did pretty well in getting to, ‘OK what’s the plan,’ in part because the other stuff is too scary and too hard to dwell on.”

Robertson began a cross-country regimen. For his medical care, he stuck with the Fresno-area physicians he’d come to trust: oncologist Dr. Ravi D. Rao, with Saint Agnes Medical Center, and surgeon Dr. Susan Logan, with the University of California, San Francisco. He’d undergo treatments, then fly back to Washington for work, then fly back to California.

Robertson said the “source tumor” was about the size of a finger, while a liver tumor was the size of a baseball. Surgeons removed the tumors, while chemotherapy and radiation beat him up for his own good. Robertson endured the nausea, fatigue and other symptoms associated with the treatments, not all of which he fully expected.

“It’s just awful,” Robertson said. “They don’t tell you about the pain. If you ever see a cartoon where the cartoon figure sticks his finger in a light socket, that’s how you feel all the time.”

Robertson was last scanned for tumors in October. Doctors saw nothing. He’s now back to his 12-hour work days, helping Obama finish out the term, more aware than most that there’s both life and death outside of a political career.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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