What started out as an elective medical procedure has ballooned into a significant political debate with implications for the upcoming presidential election cycle.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been embroiled in a controversy over his health — specifically that he was hospitalized shortly after the New Year, but did not inform the White House that he was.

The 70-year-old Defense Secretary — who is second to President Joe Biden in the military chain of command — was hospitalized on January 1, but the Pentagon did not inform the White House or Congress for most of the week. 

The delay in communication — and subsequent lack of information to the public — about Austin’s condition has spurred a political fallout, including backlash from Republicans regarding Biden’s stance on matters of national security.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center officials noted that Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2023 after undergoing regular prostate specific antigen (PSA) surveillance.

On December 22, Austin was admitted to the medical center to receive a minimally invasive surgical procedure, known as a prostatectomy, which is a treatment for prostate cancer. During a prostatectomy, a surgeon removes the prostate either partially or completely.

Then, on January 1, Austin returned to the medical center complaining of nausea and severe abdominal pain. An initial evaluation concluded it was a urinary tract infection, according to the statement. On January 2, Austin was transferred to the ICU “for close monitoring and a higher level of care.”

In the ICU, doctors identified abdominal fluid collections that were impairing his small intestines, which was treated with a tube through his nose to drain his stomach, though it was not clear what the issue was.

“He has progressed steadily throughout his stay,” the statement read. “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.”

Clinical treatment becomes political debate

The controversy stems from the murkiness around the situation, however. The White House was reportedly not informed of Austin’s prostate cancer diagnosis or of the procedure, during which he was under general anesthesia, until much later.

“Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until [Tuesday] morning and the president was informed immediately after,” White House spokesperson John Kirby told Reuters.

The resulting reactions were mixed, with some of the most harsh critics — many of them being Republicans — taking to X to call for Austin’s resignation.

Former President Donald Trump posted on Truth Social that Austin “should be fired immediately for improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty. He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was, or might be.”

Still, others brought questions about medical ethics to the debate, arguing that the public doesn’t need to know the details of an official’s private health issues.

Medical ethicist Keisha Ray told NPR that there needs to be a separation between workplace ethics and the medical ethics of privacy.

“We are all entitled to being able to hold onto our health information, that’s the basics of medical ethics,” Ray said in the interview. “There may be political and diplomatic reasons to keep health issues private, that they can be used against you, used against a country. But we want to make sure that people reveal their health status when they want to, and not when they’re forced to.”

Road to recovery awaits

While shining light on a mystery that enveloped D.C. in recent days, the Walter Reed statement still has left some questions unanswered. It appears Austin is in the hospital recovering, though even that is unclear.

However, medical experts told The New York Times that it appears the hospital stay was spurred by complications from the prostatectomy, which is not an usual incident given how common prostate cancer is.

The disease is the most common form of cancer among men in the U.S., with one in every eight men diagnosed. That rate is even higher among Black men, with one in six Black men diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime.

According to the American Cancer Society, if it’s caught early, the five year survival rate is quite high. Localized and regional prostate cancer both have a 99% five-year survival rate, while distant — meaning it’s spread to other parts of the body — has a 32% five-year survival rate.

The long-term prognosis for prostate cancer remains promising, with a 98% 10-year survival rate and 95% 15-year survival rate. Many patients who are diagnosed early, in the local and regional stages, will be cancer-free after just five years.

As Austin recovers, there may be one slight silver lining amid the controversy: It’s another public reminder for men to undergo early screening for prostate cancer.

“Despite the frequency of prostate cancer, discussions about screening, treatment, and support are often deeply personal and private ones,” the Walter Reed statement said. “Early screening is important for detection and treatment of prostate cancer and people should talk to their doctors to see what screening is appropriate for them.”

For a January 2024 health update on the Royal Family, click here.