WASHINGTON — In January, Mark Takai, a first-term congressman from Hawaii who was fighting pancreatic cancer, made national headlines when he embraced Vice President Joe Biden at a Democratic retreat — and gave an emotional endorsement to the vice president’s cancer research initiative.
On Wednesday, Takai died at home in Honolulu at age 49, just two months after he was forced to give up his bid for re-election, his office announced.
He had only been diagnosed in October.
The death of Takai — a Democrat who had served as a state legislator and a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard — was a sad reminder of the power of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. More than 70 percent of pancreatic cancer patients die within the first year, and just 8 percent live as long as five years, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
“The Takai family thanks the people of Hawaii for their support during this difficult time. Information regarding a service will be available at a later time. The Takai family politely asks for the continued respect of their family’s privacy,” his office said in a statement.
Takai’s diagnosis at such a young age had stunned his friends in Hawaii, who were looking forward to him having a long career in Congress.
“It made me think of all the sacrifices Mark has made,” Col. W. Rusty Spray, past president of the Hawaii National Guard Association and a longtime friend of Takai, said in an interview with STAT before Takai’s death. “I’m reading online that the five-year survival rate is like 6 percent. And his kids are small.”
“Now, we’re trying to reach out to Mark to make sure he has everything he needs.”
As recently as February, Takai’s doctors had cleared him to run for re-election, despite his battle with cancer. But by May, it was clear that Takai’s cancer had spread and he was in no shape to continue, and he withdrew from the race.
“I had envisioned a long career in the US House of Representatives, building up the seniority and influence that were key to Senator Inouye’s ability to deliver for Hawaii. But as often happens, we find ourselves on a different journey than what we had planned,” he said at the time.
Takai became an enthusiastic supporter of Biden’s cancer research effort. When the two met at the retreat for House Democrats, where Biden had come to talk about the initiative, Takai posted a photo of the meeting on his Facebook page and quoted what he had said to the vice president:
“Aloha, Mr. Vice President. One in two men and one in three women in the US get cancer. In October, I found out that I had cancer.
When my wife met you for the first time at the Freshmen Orientation she loved you. After the State of the Union, when President Obama said that you were taking the lead on this fight, both my wife and I loved you even more.
On behalf of those fighting cancer right now and our families all over the country, I thank you for giving us HOPE.
Thank you, Mr. Vice President!”
Now, Takai is being remembered as an affable, hard-working politician who had a bright future ahead of him.
“The guy was always even-keeled. He would never get upset. He would always treat people right,” Spray said.
Even as Takai’s health was deteriorating rapidly in recent weeks, Spray recalled, he was willing to talk on the phone to give advice on organizing a Hawaii National Guard Association conference — something that used to be Takai’s job when he was the group’s president.
“Here’s a guy who’s dealing with pancreatic cancer, but I had to call him and say, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I have questions,’” Spray said. “He sounded really weak, but he still called me back.”
In a statement, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said Takai had “confronted his diagnosis with the spirit we all hope we would share when facing such an awful disease.”
“As we mourn the loss of our friend, we draw fresh resolve to find cures,” she said. “We are deeply grateful to Congressman Takai’s family for sharing this great man with us.”
Takai is survived by his wife, Sami, and two children, Matthew and Kaila.