Nine was the magic number.

Nine was the number of laps around Duke University Hospital's surgical ward the doctor treating former East Bay Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher for cancer said she must walk in a single day if she wanted to go home.

With Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" blaring through her iPod earbuds, Tauscher had just finished her second excruciating lap when she looked up.

"A woman had lapped me," said Tauscher, now the undersecretary for arms control and international security. "She was a heart-lung transplant patient. She lapped me! Heart and lung transplant? Big deal!

"I did the third lap in a half-hour," Tauscher said triumphantly.

It has been seven months since surgeons rebuilt Tauscher's cancerous esophagus, and the 59-year-old top diplomat looks divine.

Seated at a downtown San Francisco restaurant on a cool, summer morning this week, Tauscher is a slim brunette, a return to her natural color after years as a blonde, sports a dress size from her younger days and says she feels better than ever.

She was in town for meetings and to deliver a speech on nuclear weapon nonproliferation to the Commonwealth Club in Lafayette.

"I went through a period where people didn't recognize me," Tauscher said. "I would almost be on top of people I had known for a very long time, and they wouldn't see me. Then I would smile, and they would say, 'Is that you?' They were shocked. People expected me to look ill."


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It was spring 2010 when Tauscher began experiencing a strange swallowing sensation. Bulky food hit what felt like a "speed bump," she said.

But she was busy. She worked in March and April on the strategic arms reduction treaty, or START, with Russia. In May, she flew repeatedly between New York and Washington, D.C., as she helped negotiate a nuclear nonproliferation deal at the United Nations.

Tauscher returned home from Pakistan last summer and saw she had lost 7 pounds in 10 days.

Her doctor said the odds were 100-to-1 that it was anything serious. But the endoscopy told a different story.

She walked into the room after the test and saw her teary-eyed husband, Jim, and an ashen-faced doctor.

"Something tells me you are not a Las Vegas handicapper," Tauscher joked.

The doctors had found a large cancerous tumor lodged in her esophagus near her lungs.

It would be OK, Tauscher repeatedly reassured her shocked and frightened parents, siblings, 20-year-daughter, Katherine, and friends.

"When my sister got breast cancer, I was so mad at God," she said. "Why did He give it to her? He should have given it to me. I could handle it. So, when I got cancer, I perversely thought, well, OK, that means it is not someone else. I could get rid of it."

In trademark Tauscher style, she attacked the cancer eating away at her body in much the same way she once went after key legislation. She studied it, consulted the experts and decisively embarked on an aggressive treatment regime of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

"It was as though eradicating the cancer was a bill she introduced in Congress," said longtime friend David Bowlby, a former staffer who founded a Contra Costa-based communications company. "In the process, she took a very difficult and trying situation and turned it into something that is inspiring all of us and gives us all hope as we move through our own lives."

President Barack Obama had appointed the seven-term congresswoman to the high-ranking post in mid-2009.

On the day she learned her diagnosis, she met and consoled her distraught boss and close friend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

No, she didn't need a leave of absence, she told Clinton. She wanted to work.

Even Clinton had to be impressed with Tauscher's iron will.

When the undersecretary felt spunky, she hosted meetings at her house, including a visit from Russian diplomats.

Her chief of staff brought to the hospital any paperwork she had to sign.

She conducted diplomatic business for hours and hours on the telephone from her hospital bed with a raspy and breathy "Marilyn Monroe" post-pneumonia voice, she joked.

The U.S. Senate ratified START while she was in Duke Hospital, and she fielded progress and congratulatory calls from Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass.

Two months after her esophageal surgery, she boarded Clinton's plane for an international security conference in Munich, where Tauscher delivered a speech on behalf of the United States. She went to Moscow two weeks after Munich and has since traveled on international business to Moscow, London, Paris, Brussels, Romania and Vienna.

During the hourlong San Francisco interview over eggs and coffee, Tauscher sounds like the same woman who took the East Bay by storm when she came out of nowhere in 1996 to unseat incumbent Republican Bill Baker.

She's still extraordinarily witty and warm. And, as always, she speaks effortlessly and enthusiastically about her work.

But opening up about her personal battle with cancer is fresh territory.

"Putting yourself out there is disconcerting, but as long as my story remains a good news story, or even if doesn't, I hope I can help people realize that having these types of checkups is important," she said.

She urges people to see their doctors. Recurrent gastrointestinal grief may be a sign of a more serious problem, no matter how many television ads one sees for antacids or your lifestyle choices.

She is not nor has she ever been a smoker or heavy drinker -- two groups of people at higher risk for contracting esophageal cancer -- but it happened anyway.

Tauscher admits she is a lucky woman.

She received the best modern medical treatment money could buy and is now cancer-free. She has everything to live for -- family, friends and an incredibly high-stakes job.

Her upcoming travel itinerary includes a trip to Moscow, where she will continue her work on Obama's plan to reduce the world's nuclear weapons arsenal. And she will return to Geneva later this year and engage in global talks on strategies to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks.

If these do not prove sufficiently challenging, there is always Afghanistan, South Korea and Iran.

"Bad things happen to everybody," Tauscher said. "I didn't consider what happened to me be the worst thing, nor did I consider it something that would defeat me. It was a speed bump in my life."

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773.