Lloyd Austin: Pentagon reveals US defence secretary had prostate cancer surgery

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin suffered a complication following a surgery to treat a prostate cancer diagnosis in December, officials said.

The infection led to Mr Austin being admitted to hospital on 1 January and then to the intensive care unit.

President Joe Biden only learned about the diagnosis of prostate cancer on Tuesday, the White House said.

Mr Austin, 70, faced criticism after it emerged senior officials did not learn of his hospital visit for three days.

He has since apologised for not “ensuring the public was appropriately informed”.

The defence secretary sits just below the president in the chain of command for the US military, and is one of the most important members of the president’s Cabinet. The lag in notifying the White House raised potential national security concerns and issues of transparency within the Biden administration.

The Pentagon confirmed Mr Austin remained hospitalised on Tuesday. A spokesman did not provide an update for when he would be discharged.

“Secretary Austin continues to recover well and remains in good spirits he’s in contact with his senior staff and has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DoD his day to day operations worldwide,” the spokesperson told reporters.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, the White House faced repeated questions from journalists about the handling of Secretary Austin’s hospitalisation.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said President Biden was informed “today” about the diagnosis of prostate cancer.

“Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning,” he said.

While he emphasised the president’s initial reaction was concern for the secretary’s health, Mr Kirby acknowledged the communications were “not optimal.”

“This is not the way it is supposed to go,” Mr Kirby said.

Mr Biden and Sec Austin have not spoken since their last interaction over the weekend, according to Mr Kirby.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin
Image caption, The Pentagon had not previously revealed why Lloyd Austin was in hospital

Mr Austin caused controversy when he reportedly failed to alert the White House and top Pentagon officials to this January hospital stay. Mr Austin’s deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was not informed of his hospital stay despite being asked to assume some of his responsibilities.

At a Tuesday briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj Gen Pat Ryder did not provide an explanation for why Mr Austin did not disclose his condition sooner.

“I don’t have that specifically,” he said, but noted that a prostate cancer diagnosis was “deeply personal”. Mr Ryder said notification procedures about the hospital stay were under review to “make sure we’re doing better next time”.

The Pentagon had said this failure occurred because a key staff member had the flu.

On Tuesday, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients directed members of the president’s Cabinet to provide notice when they cannot perform their duties.

Doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the nation’s top military hospital, provided the first full timeline of Mr Austin’s diagnosis, treatment, and hospitalisation on Tuesday.

A check-up in December 2023 “identified prostate cancer which required treatment”, Dr John Maddox at Dr Gregory Chestnut wrote.

Mr Austin was admitted to the nation’s top military hospital on 22 December 2023 for a “minimally invasive surgical procedure” to remove the cancer. He was under general anaesthesia for this procedure.

He returned to Walter Reed on 1 January 2024 after experiencing “complications” from the procedure, and an evaluation revealed a urinary tract infection. He was transferred to the intensive care unit the next day for further treatment, including for “abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines”.

Dr Maddox and Dr Chestnut said that during this January stay, Mr Austin “never lost consciousness and never underwent general anaesthesia”.

The doctors wrote that Mr Austin infection has cleared and “he continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process”.

Doctors emphasised that cancer was caught early and said that his “prognosis is excellent”.

Prostate cancer affects millions of Americans, and about 1 in 8 American men will develop the condition in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

African American men are at particularly risk of the disease. They are more likely to develop the cancer than other men, and about twice as likely to die of the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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