How Julia Thorne, Ex-Wife of John Kerry, Died of Cancer

Julia Thorne's battle with transitional cell carcinoma

Julia Thorne
Julia Thorne, ex-wife of John Kerry, died from transitional cell carcinoma. What should everyone know about this kind of cancer?.

Julia Thorne, author and ex-wife of John Kerry, former U.S. senator and secretary of state, died from complications of cancer on April 27, 2006. She was 61 and died in the home of a friend in Concord, Mass. Thorne had lived with transitional cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects the urinary system, since November 2003. Her diagnosis coincided with Kerry's failed presidential bid and garnered attention for transitional cell carcinoma.

What Is Transitional Cell Carcinoma?

Transitional cell carcinoma is a cancer which arises in transitional epithelial cells in the kidney, ureters (tubes which connect the kidney to the bladder) or bladder. Transitional epithelial cells are specialized cells that are structured so that they are "stretchy" and can expand and contract depending on the contents of the bladder. It is the most common type of bladder cancer and accounts for roughly seven percent of kidney cancers. It is currently the 8th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men, and the 4th most commonly diagnosed cancer in men.

The most common symptoms include blood in the urine and back pain. Diagnosis may be made via cystoscopy or scans of the pelvis, followed by a biopsy of the tumor.

Thorne's Depression and Writing Career - An Advocate for Depression

Before cancer struck Thorne, she battled depression throughout much of the 1980s.

She started the nonprofit foundation the Depression Initiative to raise awareness about the condition and shared her struggles with depression in a 1993 book she coauthored, "You Are Not Alone: Words of Experience and Hope for the Journey through Depression." She followed that book up with the 1996 title "A Change of Heart: Words of Experience and Hope for the Journey through Divorce." 

Personal Life and Survivors

Thorne was born into a political family on Sept. 16, 1944, in New York City. Her father served as a diplomat in Italy, and she spent much of her youth in the Mediterranean nation as a result. Her ancestors include Elias Boudinot IV, president of the Continental Congress, and William Bradford, attorney general under George Washington.

Thorne met John Kerry in 1963 through her twin brother. Kerry and her brother were both Yale students at the time. Seven years later, Thorne and Kerry married. The marriage lasted 18 years and produced two daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa. Despite her family background and lineage, Thorne reportedly never took to being a politician's wife.

Thorne and Kerry reportedly remained on good terms following their divorce. Both remarried. Kerry wed philanthropist Teresa Heinz in 1995, and Thorne wed Richard J. Charlesworth in 1997.

In addition to her husband, two daughters, and brother, Thorne was survived by another brother. A memorial service for her took place in fall 2006.

Causes of Transitional Cell Carcinoma

We don't know exactly what causes transitional cell carcinoma, but several risk factors have been identified. These include:

  • On-the-job exposures to dyes (especially aniline dyes), such as those used in leather production.
  • Use of some pain medications, both prescription and over-the-counter (most common was phenacetin which was taken off the market in the 80's due to this risk.)
  • Chemotherapy drugs used for other cancers such as Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide)

It appears that the amount of time urine is present in the bladder affects the risk. For example, truckers appear to have an increased risk whereas those who drink larger quantities of fluid have a lower risk. This makes sense when you consider that possible carcinogens present in the urine have longer contact with the underlying transitional cells.

Treatments for Transitional Cell Carcinoma

Surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue is the treatment of choice, though recurrence is common. For cancers which have spread at the time of diagnosis or recur, treatment can be challenging. Some options include:

  • Combination chemotherapy
  • Chemotherapy inserted directly into the bladder (mitomycin)
  • BCG infusions (a type of immunotherapy)
  • Clinical trials are in place looking at a number of newer treatments

Prognosis of Transitional Cell Carcinoma

The outcome of transitional cell carcinoma is closely related to the stage at which it is diagnosed. When these cancers are found early, surgical removal of the cancer and surrounding tissue may result in long-term survival. At the present time, early stage cancers have a 5-year survival rate of 90 percent, with 5-year survival rate dropping to 10 to 15 percent with more advanced cancers.

Progress with Transitional Cell Carcinoma

While surgery for early stage transitional cell carcinoma is very effective, the treatment of metastatic disease and recurrence is more challenging. That said, there are several clinical trials in place looking for more effective treatments. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma, make sure to learn all you can about your disease, including the clinical trials available which may be effective for your particular cancer. It can make a difference in your quality of life, and possibly even your outcome, to be your own advocate in your cancer care.


National Cancer Institute. Transitional Cell Carcinoma of the Renal Pelvis and Ureter Treatment (PDQ) – Health Professional Version.