Bill Brand, Redondo Beach’s 61-year-old mayor, is never one to remain idle.
Two weekends ago, for example, the longtime surfer escaped to Orcas Island, in Washington, absorbing nature and relaxing among wildlife.
Back in town on Tuesday, Aug. 20, he oversaw another marathon City Council meeting lasting past 11 p.m. And that Thursday, he saw the Rolling Stones, the legendary rockers he grew up listening to, at the Rose Bowl.
“Jagger is unbelievable,” Brand said. “He’s 76 and performs like he did when I first saw them in 1973. The only differences are wrinkles and hair dye.”
It was an impressive string of activity — especially since Brand is fighting stage 4 lung cancer.
The disease required him to spend Wednesday — the day between the council meeting and the Stones concert — getting spinal radiation treatment to fight the cancer, which has already resulted in a small brain tumor.
It has been more than two months since the mayor lost consciousness on an airplane heading to a conference in Mexico. That was the first sign of the brain tumor, roughly two centimeters in diameter, doctors would discover was a result of lung cancer.
Brand, who never smoked aside from a brief period in high school, is among a growing number of nonsmokers stricken with lung cancer each year.
While the brain tumor will likely vanish, according to doctors, the lung cancer remains a threat.
And so, like millions of other Americans who receive news of a life-threatening disease, Brand has had to quickly adjust to a new reality. It’s a life change many can’t even imagine.
Brand has adapted, it seems, relatively well — even keeping up his task as the elected leader of Redondo Beach. Modern medicine, in many ways, has helped.
In mid-June, for example, Brand received a targeted radiation treatment on the brain tumor from Dr. Karen Sokolov, a radiation oncologist at City of Hope in Torrance.
The treatment was so effective in attacking only the tumor and not the rest of his brain that Brand appeared back on the dais just a day later to conduct a city council meeting.
And that, for Brand, was significant.
The people’s work goes on
That’s because missing a meeting, for Brand, is virtually unheard of.
Brand served eight years as a councilmember before being elected mayor in 2017. In all that time, Brand can count on two hands how many meetings he has missed.
Still, that doesn’t mean his perspective hasn’t changed: He has, in fact, begun to see the bigger picture, Brand said recently.
And while some choose to retreat into solitude with such a prognosis, Brand's resolve has strengthened, especially when it comes to his political debates.
“It’s engaging and challenging and fun and frustrating,” Brand said about his work as mayor. “My passion hasn’t waned, and I enjoy working with the staff and my colleagues and members of the public.
“It gives you purpose,” he added. “And I enjoy it.”
As for his biggest political goal — seeing a park at the site of the AES power plant — Brand said it feels more urgent.
There was no bigger fight for Brand during his more than 12 years as an elected official than the AES power plant. Early in his political career, Brand fought a plan to replace the current AES power plant with a newer version. That plan was ultimately scrapped, and next year the plant will close entirely — with the new owner proposing a 25-acre park.
If that happens, it’d be a major victory for Brand.
“Another thing about lung cancer, a lot of people don’t know about is what being exposed to smoke and pollutants do to you, what long-term effects they have,” Brand said. “My biggest argument against the power plant is that it is exposing people to an increase in carcinogens.”
Since his June cancer diagnosis, Brand has been on leave from his job as crew chief for American Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. The mayor said he suspects he might have been exposed to air pollutants during his 40-year career there, but it would be difficult to know for certain what caused the cancer.
While Brand has alluded to his cancer to fight for his political goals, vis-a-vis the power plant, the mayor has another reason to be open about his diagnosis.
As the mayor and a public figure, Brand said he wanted to share his story publicly in the hopes that it helps others.
“I realized there are so many people out there who are dealing with life-threatening diseases that walk around scared and alone quite often,” Brand said. “These are things you don’t know about when you are healthy and everyone around you is fine, yet there are millions of people who find ways to live a semi-normal life.”
Since getting his diagnosis, Brand has availed himself of local resources and even visited with some alternative healers. At the Cancer Support Community of Redondo Beach, he said, he met a whole culture of people dealing with life-threatening and debilitating diseases.
“I’ve been exposed to so many people who don’t have the support base I have and the friendships,” Brand said. “It’s really something and they do it in such a graceful and uplifting way. It’s remarkable.”
Trying everything and following orders
Brand, meanwhile, said he has slowed down a little bit.
He can no longer enjoy a cold beer, for example, as doctors say they believe alcohol and excess sugars can feed the cancer cells. He has been following a keto diet, heavy on meats and vegetables, but low on carbohydrates. Brand, the consummate waterman, has also had to cut back on swimming and surfing, though he did get in the water recently. He calls it his therapy.
“I’m learning to live a life that’s less than what I used to have,” he said. “I’m not planning a ski trip this year. Let’s put it that way. You turn to other elements of life to look for fulfillment and purpose.”
As for alternative healing, Brand said, he’s willing to try pretty much anything. He visited recently with Amma, a spiritual healer from India known for her hugs, when she toured through Los Angeles in June. And he is planning to try something called crystal bowl sound therapy.
Brand, who was raised Episcopalian, attends St. James Catholic Church on occasion, but said he mostly finds spirituality in nature.
When meeting with Amma, as she extended her arms in a warm embrace, Brand tried to take in whatever healing powers she might have. Millions of people have flocked to her from around the planet.
“It’s a different kind of spirituality,” Brand said, “than the more traditional form that I was raised on and practiced my whole life.
“I’m open to most religions and spiritual thinking,” he added. “I find it relaxing, comforting and calming.”
None of that takes away, of course, from the incredibly high-tech treatment at the City of Hope in Torrance, where physicians such as Dr. Sokolov are on the front lines of the modern plague.
In Brand’s case, he represents a growing percentage of lung cancer patients who are nonsmokers. One study that looked at lung cancer patients in the U.S. over a roughly 20-year period, found the proportion of nonsmokers nearly doubled, from 8% to 15% during that time, Sokolov said.
“I think we need more cancer registry data to collect information on smoking to carefully examine the trends,” Sokolov said, “but there is some evidence to suggest incidents of lung cancer among never smokers is rising.”
Brand has been placed on a drug that targets a specific genetic mutation. Sokolov described it as turning off a switch. These targeted drugs, still extremely new in their usage, could take the place of chemotherapy depending on how well a patient responds.
“Unfortunately, lung cancer is just an aggressive disease,” Sokolov said. “It doesn’t overtake the horrible biology of this disease.”
Always the optimist, Brand has found the bright side to it all.
“What having this all of a sudden means to me personally is just realizing and being more thankful for what I’ve had,” Brand said, “and this is just another journey that I didn’t elect to go on like so many others out there.”
Then, like the veteran public servant he is, he turned his experience into a teachable moment.
“People should appreciate their health,” Brand said, “and take full advantage that they are healthy and make the most of their lives and their relationships.
“Because,” he added, “it can turn on a dime.”