Lawmakers and activists around the country voiced their support for longtime Congressman John Lewis after he announced Sunday that he is battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The 79-year-old civil rights icon and Georgia representative said he plans to continue serving his district while undergoing treatment for the advanced disease.
“I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life,” Lewis said in a statement. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”
Lewis’ doctors discovered the cancer during a routine checkup this month, Politico reports. Lewis said he was “[clear-eyed] about the prognosis,” noting that doctors gave him “a fighting chance” on beating the disease, according to The New York Times. Pancreatic cancer is the country’s third leading cause of cancer deaths.
“I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the beloved community,” Lewis added. “We still have many bridges to cross.”
Lewis has served Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987. He first came into prominence during the civil rights movement as a student activist and one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. An advocate of getting into “good trouble,” he subscribed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s practice of nonviolent resistance, suffering brutal beatings and enduring jail time for his activism. As the Times reports, Lewis was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966, taking part in the lunch counter protests, the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala.
The last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis has been looked to as the “conscience of Congress” for decades. Many of his colleagues wrote messages of support to him on social media. Former President Barack Obama wrote, “If there’s one thing I love about @RepJohnLewis, it’s his incomparable will to fight. I know he’s got a more of that left in him.”
Bernice King warned against eulogizing Lewis too quickly—“Let’s not bury him in response to a diagnosis, no matter how dire,” she wrote.
Lewis struck a characteristically resilient, forward-thinking note in his statement on Sunday.
“I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon,” Lewis said. “Please keep me in your prayers as I begin this journey.”