The Tamale Maker of Tejon Street

For decades, Paul Sandoval has been a mentor, friend, and adviser to virtually every Denver Democrat (and more than a few Republicans). Here, an oral history of his rise from local activist to political kingmaker. 

September 30 2011, 12:33 PM

The Diagnosis

Last February, Sandoval learned he had Stage III pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was given six months to live.

Paula: We initially thought he had indigestion. And he had an ulcer years ago, so we thought it might be flaring up. The doctors did a process of elimination. He wasn’t doing well, and I had been on the phone with Kaiser, asking for something like intravenous feeding. The nurse said they’d call back. Then Ken walked in the door and looked at Paul—Lucia Guzman also was there—and they started making calls.

Guzman: I had been concerned about him. I happened to go over to the house that day, and I knew he was trying to get checked out, and I said, “You’re losing more weight. They have to speed your exams up.” It just so happened that Ken Salazar walked in right after I got there, and I said, “Paul is in a lot of pain. Something’s not right. I think he has to go to the specialist at University.”

Ken Salazar: Colorado is my home, and whenever I’m back, I usually try to stop and see him for a few minutes. I stopped by that day because I knew he was very sick. He told me he was not feeling well. I could see how much pain he was in. They had put him on a waiting list for another week or so, but I told him he couldn’t wait—he had to see a doctor right away. So Lucia and I made a few calls. Then I put him in the truck and took him over to University Hospital and checked him in.

Paula: When he went into the hospital, they gave him five liters of fluid and decided to keep him in there. They did a test, and the surgeon came out and said, “We think it’s pancreatic cancer, but you’ll have to meet the oncologist.” And the oncologist said he had six months to live.

Amanda: When he first got diagnosed, it was really difficult. He was down and out, and he talked a lot about his death and how he wasn’t going to be here, and we had to be strong during this time. He didn’t have a lot of hope. He was real withdrawn.

Paula: Initially, we were both in shock. I had heard about pancreatic cancer before and knew it was one of the worst ones. When Paul was told that he had six months to live, we really started thinking, what does this mean? Where do we go from here? What treatments should we pursue?

Sewald: When he learned he was sick, he called me. [Paul’s childhood friend] Jim Rivas and I sat with him at the diner we always go to at Speer and Colfax. It was the most impressive damn thing I’ve ever seen from a man. He was so humble, and grateful he had time to put his finances in order, appreciate his loved ones, and reach out to his friends. He did not feel sorry for himself. Jim and I are crying like babies, and he’s the one holding it together.

Paula: Now we’re really focused on health. What can we do to increase his chances for survival? How can we improve his energy levels? What can we do for his diet?

Hansen: Every minute they’ve got left, Paula wants to be able to spend with him, and that’s why she resigned early. He also does better when she’s around. He actually eats and stays on a schedule and gets everything done that he’s supposed to.

Paula: I resigned from the City Council because I needed to be with him at the doctors’ appointments. We go like three times a week for hydration and chemo. It’s good to have a second set of ears.

Guzman: He is a real trooper. He has gone through this like a politician goes through a campaign. It has its highs and lows. When you look at the data and get a poll, and the poll says you are 15 to 25 points behind, there will be those moments. And then there are moments when you are dead even. In this political game of life and death, the numbers can go either way.

Joe Sandoval: When he first found out, I don’t think it sunk in that this was happening. He accepted it right away, more than anything else. He’s a warrior. He battles. I try to get over and see him every Sunday. But he’s still keeping up, watching Meet the Press. He says, “I can’t believe what the hell is going on with the Democrats and the Republicans! Both of these parties piss me off.”

Hansen: He’s taken this whole thing totally in stride. You know, “I’m gonna die sometime. At least now I know what’s gonna get me.”

Ken Salazar: I call him almost every day for just 60 seconds, a couple minutes, and he continues to maintain his positive attitude and optimism. He knows that he’s in a difficult time, but he is very much at peace with his life and what he’s done. He’s handling it the way he’s handled all of his life, with tremendous poise and dignity and continuing to inspire those around him.

Paula: He’s been responding very well to the chemo. That’s not to say that it’s not kicking the crap out of him, but the tumor has shrunk in half. The doctor is totally amazed by that. He said, “I’m very surprised to see that. You hardly ever see anyone get better.” All we can do is see if it continues to shrink.

John Salazar: If there’s anyone who can beat this disease, it’s Paul. He’s a fighter. He doesn’t give up easily.

Amanda: You hope the treatment continues to work, but at the same time, it’s advanced pancreatic cancer and you have to be realistic. There are days when I call and he sounds like my dad, cracking jokes. And there are days when he doesn’t have much to say. Everyone at work misses his quirkiness and his laughter. And I know he misses it, too.

Paula: The doctor hasn’t said one way or the other that Paul has more time to live, and we really haven’t asked him.