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    Lawmaker battled cancer, now ouster

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 21, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- It was the first week of her first legislative session as a state lawmaker, and Sara Romeo had a headache that wouldn't quit.

    She laid down on the sofa in her 14th floor Capitol office, but just felt worse. Her colleagues needed her at a meeting but she couldn't get up.

    After an ambulance ride to a hospital, she learned it was no headache that was bothering her. She had a brain tumor.

    Romeo waited till the last day of the 2001 session to break the news to House members, and then went home to Tampa for surgery.

    The surgery was a success -- the tumor wasn't cancerous. But her medical problems weren't over. Next came breast cancer.

    The week before this year's session, Romeo found a lump in her breast. She had a lumpectomy, and was back at the capitol the next week.

    Now the freshman lawmaker is fighting to stay in office in the face of an attempt by the Republican-controlled Legislature to oust her through redistricting. Her House district has been redrawn to make it tougher for a Democrat to win.

    Colleagues are amazed Romeo missed just one week for surgery.

    "Honestly, I wasn't trying to be brave. It was just extremely important for me to do this job," she said recently between meetings.

    Through it all, Romeo endured the morning-to-night workdays typical of a legislative session.

    There were the breakfast get-togethers, 8 a.m. committee meetings, long sessions on the House floor and lobbyists at every turn. And that was before she went home to her Tallahassee condo to pore over complex bills and budgets, sometimes with a group of other female Democrats who formed a kind of study group.

    "It's incredible how much she has endured," said Rep. Susan Bucher, a West Palm Beach Democrat and friend. "There are a lot of stresses and strains here. And she hasn't missed a step."

    While other legislators went home last month, Romeo stayed in Tallahassee until Friday. At 8 a.m. five days a week, she drove herself to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment that had to be started and finished at the same place.

    "She's not going to admit it, but it's been hard," said her husband, Walter, who remains in the family's Lutz home with their 17-year-old daughter. Her two older children attend Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College and live at the family's condo.

    Doctors told Romeo there was no link between her two illnesses, and said they don't know why she was afflicted with either, particularly since her family doesn't have a history of cancer. Romeo, 52, had never even been to a hospital except for the birth of her children.

    "It was a double whammy," said House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, whom Romeo confided in before she went public with her illnesses. "Just as you think you are getting over something, you get clobbered again."

    People often shy away from talking about personal problems, and Romeo was no exception.

    "I was really hesitant," she said. "But I felt like if I hid it that it wouldn't come to any good. I'm in a position to advocate that you shouldn't take your health for granted. You have to be your own health-care advocate."

    Romeo was astounded by the response. The e-mails and letters poured in, and the phone rang constantly. Some people just started conversations with her in Capitol elevators or walking down the street.

    "People relate to her," said Pat Kemp, Romeo's legislative aide who helped care for her during the past year. "She has the same kind of problems and issues that most of us do."

    Though the 2-inch tumor at the back of her head wasn't cancerous, the procedure left her deaf in her left ear for three months. The 4-centimeter lump in her breast, however, was cancer that had been growing undetected for years.

    Romeo has become vocal about breast cancer and can recite statistics from memory. She says she feels obligated to encourage women to get tested. She spoke on the House floor in February to help pass a bill creating a license plate to fund breast cancer research. And she plans to join a survivor group at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where she had both surgeries.

    Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women, after skin cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts there will be about 203,500 new cases in the United States this year, and that about 40,000 women will die of the disease.

    "I feel like we need to protect our women," Romeo said. "We need to speak out."

    Romeo approaches her illnesses the way she approaches her legislative duties. She is meticulous in her research and tries to always know what she is up against. And she remains so upbeat it doesn't seem real.

    Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, calls Romeo a cheerleader because she always chants "Go Democrats" at the start of every Democratic caucus, no matter how defeated the rest of them feel.

    "I can never complain about anything because Sara overcame it all," said Joyner. "It just gave us all a new outlook on life."

    Romeo ran in 2000 on education reform, and she has earned high scores from environmental groups. She serves on a health committee and says she would like to focus on that since she can bring a different perspective about issues such as inadequate HMOs and the nursing shortage.

    But before that she has to get re-elected.

    Romeo, who grew up in Hillsborough County and jokes that she is related to half the county, used to own a furniture store and art gallery in Ybor City with her husband. She ran a nonprofit arts program for children before running for election in 2000. She captured a previously Republican seat representing a district that runs north and east of Tampa by beating Temple Terrace surgeon Ed Homan.

    Now the Legislature has redrawn her district lines to make it more Republican.

    Homan is running again. Romeo has raised almost $30,000 and he has raised more than $60,000.

    She doesn't take the redistricting personally. House Democrats, angry at a redistricting plan that could cost several members their seats, voted in unison on one of the last nights of the session to prevent Republicans from considering a tax proposal meant to appease Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton.

    It was a fleeting revolt: the Republicans got the plan they wanted.

    "I don't think there was an agenda to hurt me," she said. "There was a Republican agenda."

    Romeo had a brain tumor during the first legislative session, and breast cancer the second. But she's ready to run for another term, even with that track record.

    "What could be next?" she said, laughing.

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