I Felt Like a Failure. Trump Calling Was Like Divine Intervention

When your body fails you, no thanks to you, it forces you to learn important lessons, whether you want to or not.

I had become kind of cocky about my health. I worked out religiously, barely drank, never smoked, and never did drugs—at least not the nonprescription kind with the funny names.

Weren't we all told growing up that those were the keys to a healthy lifestyle, A to Z? And I wasn't missing a letter. When you do all of that and there's no history of serious disease in your family, you never consider that anything bad is going to creep up on you one day.

Like my Senate race, a sane person would've looked at the probabilities and said: "Are you crazy?" But to get into a race like that, or to get through medical school, I had to tell myself that this had a small possibility of success.

Dan Bongino and Trump
Dan Bongino is a political commentator, radio show host and author. He is pictured at dinner with his wife Paula and President Donald Trump in New Jersey. Photo from The Gift of Failure c 2023 by Dan Bongino. Published by Liberatio Protocol. Used with permission.

In my head I thought, this is very real, and I'm going to defy the odds. But it's the opposite when it came to my health.

It's one thing to be a one-in-ten-thousand shot when you run for office, but when it comes to your health and something bad happens, you think—this can't be me. But it does go both ways. Lightning can strike in either direction, and sometimes it can really hurt. Especially a direct hit.

I never considered I would be one of those people who would get sick. Maybe it was naïveté or maybe it was just present-day confirmation bias. In other words, you're not sick, so therefore you're never going to get sick.

But it had never occurred to me, so there was no plan if something happened to me. It probably would've been great to develop a detailed backup plan. But that was a failure on my part.

Life was going great. I was having a grand old time. Outside of some minor arthritis issues after an attempt at boxing, which helped me develop a face for radio, I was generally in good shape.

I loved jiu-jitsu, and all of the stereotypes you've heard about people who do Brazilian jiu-jitsu are true. The joke is: "How do you know someone does Brazilian jiu-jitsu? Don't worry, they'll tell you."

And even though I would never get into a bar fight willingly at this stage of my life, I took jiu-jitsu and boxing because I never wanted to negotiate again from a point of weakness in my life.

Growing up in New York City—I don't want to exaggerate, it wasn't Straight Outta Compton—street fighting was a pretty common thing. The first time I got into a really bad street fight, it changed me. And I found myself negotiating my way in or out of fights based on what the outcome would be.

That was something, of course, I didn't want to do anymore, which is what propelled me into boxing and jiu-jitsu. But back to our story.

I was in my mid-forties. I would come home every Saturday from jiu-jitsu class all beaten up, barely able to move as the "sore chemicals" started to kick in, and the weekend would become simply an adventure in recovery, and lots of Advil.

My wife, Paula, would say with a joking smile: "Hey, time to wrap this up. What are you training for? You're 45 years old. Your shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship is long past."

In addition to wanting to look after my family and not negotiate from a point of weakness, I just loved the spirit of competition, and I loved being able to roll with these young kids and show them that a guy old enough to be their father could still hack it.

But eventually, the kids start getting the better of you, and biology takes over. There's only one Tom Brady. And I ain't it.

I'd been rolling around with this kid named Lucas at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school run by a talented guy named Joe in Jupiter, Florida. This kid was way too fast for me.

The first thing that goes with age is raw speed. And even though he was a belt below me, the joke in jiu-jitsu is that every ten years, you lose a belt level. So technically, we were even, although that's probably just an excuse for my failure.

Reflexes go quickly. I just wasn't quick enough. The kid came around, accidentally kneed me in the face, and gave me the most vicious black eye I think I've ever had, and I've had a few.

Needless to say, the Fox News team wasn't too crazy about that. I didn't have a show on the channel yet, but I was doing regular appearances and this was not a good look. After all, it's Fox News, not Foxy Boxing. And the last thing I am is foxy.

Dan Bongino
Dan is pictured guest hosting Fox & Friends with Ainsley Earhardt and Steve Doocy. Photo from The Gift of Failure c 2023 by Dan Bongino. Published by Liberatio Protocol. Used with permission.

It's one thing to be 18 years old with a black eye. It's another thing to be 45 years old with a lot of makeup on trying to hide it. I decided it was time to start doing my jiujitsu training at home. So, I started taking private lessons from a couple of different guys, Steve and Harlan.

One day, Harlan choked me out badly. It was like in the cartoons when you get banged in the head and the stars circle around. I was out. It wasn't excessively violent; it was just a pretty good episode of oxygen deprivation.

I was getting ready to go on Fox on Monday morning and while shaving, when I turned my face to the right, to shave the left side of my face, I noticed a prominent lump on my neck.

A normal person would say: "This sucks. I should go to a doctor." But not me. I just figured it was a fatty tumor. No big deal. Maybe it was related to getting choked.

The idea of a cancerous tumor never entered my mind. I don't like going to doctors. Ironic, because I wanted to be one a long time ago, and while I really respect the field, I just hate going to a doctor's office—I prefer the dentist.

Luckily, I had a friend who was a local head and neck surgeon. I called him, and I said: "Steve, I have to come in. I have a lump on my neck, probably a fatty tumor..." He said: "Sure." So I went by the office, and I could tell right away he was concerned.

This was during the early days of COVID, so everything was shut down, but he arranged for me to go to a local Cleveland Clinic facility. Luckily, he knew the radiation oncologist—really nice guy—and he agreed to sit there during the MRI.

That was great because then I wouldn't have to wait for it to be read. They laid me down in the machine, put a cage over my face—which freaked me out because I'm claustrophobic—and gave me some headphones to play music—that machine is loud.

I was in the machine for about 20 minutes or so, and I couldn't move my head, but I moved my eyes over to see the radiologist. At this point, I had no worries at all.

They tell you in the headphones: "Okay, we are wrapping up." Then they roll you slowly out of the machine, which makes it more dramatic because you see this guy standing there over you, and you can't move your head.

Todd, his name was, was staring down at me somberly but not appearing overly concerned. But it's enough that I'm concerned that he is somber and not overly concerned.

I said to him: "It's a fatty tumor...right?" He said: "I think we need to put on your clothes and then we need to talk."

Oh s***, I thought.

He brought me back to a little room, showed me the images from the MRI, and said: "I can't tell you what it is. But I can tell you what it isn't, and it's no fatty tumor. Fat would be white." What I had on my neck was big, and it was jet black.

They say time slows down in moments like this. I remember in graduate school, doing some homework and learning that there are actual biochemical reasons that cause the sensation of time speeding up or slowing down.

How we comprehend time is a byproduct of biological processes that speed up and slow down based on stress. Maximum stress equals maximum time elongation.

So this time, the moment seemed to last forever. To comprehend what I was hearing, I was slowing things down. I walked outside of the facility in shock, and that eighth of a mile or so walk to my car was the longest distance I have ever felt.

I didn't know what to do, so I started to call Paula, while at the same time thinking that maybe I should do this in person. But I needed to talk at that moment. It was like an information bomb that was going to explode out of me. I just had to get rid of it.

So I called Paula from the car. "We need to talk. And it isn't good. It's a tumor." She couldn't believe it either. It seemed so unfair, as if there is fairness in the world.

I say that all the time on the radio, and I truly mean it: there are circumstances in this life, and there are responses to them. There's no fairness.

I came home, Paula was outside with the dog, and she was crying. The dog had strolled over as she always does to the neighbor's yard. We hugged in the neighbor's front yard and Paula said: "What are we going to do?" I said: "I have no idea."

Dan Bongino
Dan on the set of his show Unfiltered with wife Paula and daughter Amelia. PHOTO FROM THE GIFT OF FAILURE C 2023 BY DAN BONGINO. PUBLISHED BY LIBERATIO PROTOCOL. USED WITH PERMISSION.

I had no backup plan. As I said earlier, I had never anticipated this, and so we started to process this together. After overcoming all of these failures in our lives, constantly making our way back, grinding, fighting, and scrapping—she said: "There's no way we are going out like this. Not after what we've been through together."

I'd like to tell you that at this moment I raised my fist in defiance and agreed, but that's not what I was thinking at all. All I was thinking was that I was going to die. Because it was true.

I called my friend Sean Hannity—no, this isn't a name-dropping opportunity; he just really helped me out, and I want to shout him out—and said: "I need a favor."

I think he thought I was going to ask about tickets to a football game or something. But that's not the way it turned out. "I've got this tumor on my neck," I told him.

Anyone that tells you connections and friendships don't matter is full of s***. He knew everyone, and I knew he could help. Sean got me in to see a couple of doctors. I had a biopsy done, and it was not good.

One of the doctors said: "We're going have to cut you open, and we're going to have to take this out. Now. It's a serious surgery. We will cut your neck open and take the tumor out." And it wasn't small. It was a seven-centimeter tumor.

"It's in a very delicate area, and I want to warn you," he continued, "lots of bad things potentially can happen. Vocal cords. Everything is at risk."

Everything is in your neck. It's the choke point—a funnel that everything flows through from brain to body. Within days I was headed into surgery. And I was terrified about it. What if he nicked a vocal cord? Again, no backup plan.

Something weird happened in the hospital as they prepped me to be cut open. One of the staff helping to administer an IV asked me what I did for a living. Usually, when people ask me what I do, I don't answer. I just figure, if you don't know me from what I do, it's not even worth explaining.

One of my favorite pseudo-careers is being an "aqua dozer." What is an aqua dozer? I don't know. Someone told me they dug tunnels underwater once. However, once you say it, nobody asks any more questions.

But this time I told the truth. She obviously didn't know who I was, so I simply said: "I do a podcast." "It's not a political podcast, is it? You're not a Republican, are you?"

Holy s***, was this happening? Talk about a failure. I'm going to have this incredibly serious surgery, she's putting an IV in my hand—which hurts like crazy; I'm a big wuss with big needles—and she's asking me if I'm a Republican?

She wasn't done either. She decided she was going to launch into an anti-Trump tirade, too, at the most inopportune time.

"Trump should've put a mask on...he helped COVID spread..." And on and on. Ordinarily, I would have started a fight over this, but I have to tell you, I was completely starved of energy.

I could be dead in a few minutes, and this is not what I want to deal with on the way out, I thought.

It's interesting the way God intervenes in moments like this. I was down, and I couldn't believe this was happening. I was thinking, this is how far gone we are. This woman feels the need to make a political comment at this moment in my life.

Folks, there's a word for this. It's called "discretion." And then, just a few minutes later, my cell phone rang. "Dan, this is Donald Trump—your favorite president." Someone told him I was having surgery. And he called me.

"Dan, I heard you are going to surgery. What can I do for you?" Folks, that's loyalty. And it's a two-way street. It was about the third or fourth time he had called me to let me know he was thinking about me.

Trump understands the power of interpersonal dynamics better than anyone. Power asymmetries mean nothing to him. He was the president; I was a patient in the hospital. But he understood, and still understands the power of that personal touch.

But this was also different. The timing felt like divine intervention. Literally. He rescued the moment. Thanks to President Trump, I was sent down to the surgery in a different emotional state.

It was the one I needed to be in to help me survive all of this if things broke bad. I like to think I'm a thick-skinned, hard-nosed guy. But I can be a softy sometimes. And this was humbling.

Well, the surgeon was amazing, and not long after, I was back recording podcasts in the hotel room. The gravity of the moment did not hit me until soon after when Paula and I were flying back home to Florida.

It had been a whirlwind month. That's all the time that had passed since I found the lump and had been operated on. I was sitting in an aisle seat on the plane. Paula was in the center. Nothing had truly hit. There had been no time for self-pity or reflection, just fear and anxiety.

But on that plane, it came at me like an avalanche. I was so exhausted. I had started researching Hodgkin's lymphoma the day I received a diagnosis from the doctor and discovered there was a five-year survival rate of about 80 percent. That crushed me.

You might be thinking, why? Those odds are good. But are they? Remember, I had never anticipated any health problems, no less something with an 80 percent chance of survival.

Still, after five years, 20 out of one hundred people die. I wasn't thinking about the 80 percent. I was thinking about the 20 who died. But it's all relative. There are a lot worse cancers than mine.

When I went through treatment, I saw late-stage-five pancreatic cancer patients and others who I ran into at the various hospitals I was in all the time.

After seeing 13-year-olds and 60-year-olds with no hair, all just skin and bones, and all still fighting, you quickly throw away all the self-pity garbage.

And all of a sudden, you start thinking again about that 80 percent who lived. It's all relative. Here I was, a guy in his mid-forties, with no health problems outside of some orthopedic issues, and now there's a 20 percent chance I wouldn't be here in five years?

It all hit me at once on that plane. I'm not going to see my daughters get married. I'm not going to see my youngest daughter graduate high school....Some truly weird thoughts started happening.

Crazy s*** goes through your head in a crisis like this: They're building that new movie theater nearby my house, and I'll never see a movie there with Paula.

One minute you're thinking about your daughter's wedding, the next you're sweating over a cool new movie theater near your house... I just started crying like a little kid. I lost it on the plane. I mean really bawling. Waterworks. This was not a single Kleenex episode. This was going to be close to an entire box.

A guy was sitting across the aisle from me. I think he knew me from TV. He looked over to the left and gave me the "head nod" as if to say: "It will be okay, man." He saw me crying, and I thought, maybe it's going to be okay. This guy seems to think so, so that's good. He looked smart, whatever that means.

Sir, if you are reading this right now, thank you. My official results came back as Hodgkin's lymphoma. It could have been worse. It could've been a far worse kind of cancer.

I did chemo, which wasn't a lot of fun. If there was a consumer review site for chemo, I would definitely give it two thumbs down.

Thanks to the power of the Lord, I am in remission. But it could come back anytime, and if it does, I don't pretend to understand why the Lord makes these kinds of decisions.

I'll always be at an elevated risk for cancer and the chemo does a number on your heart, so I'm now also at a higher risk for heart attack. But it is what it is. As I said earlier, none of this is supposed to be fair. That stuff is for kids' books.

People tell you these experiences change your outlook. I hope this never happens to you. But it does change you. It has to. If it doesn't, you're not paying attention. You start to realize some things are more valuable than the numbers in a bank account, the downloads on a podcast, viewer eyeballs on a TV show, or votes in an election.

There's breathing oxygen, and there's staying alive. There are your kids' soccer games and dropping your kid off at college—the latter of which was simultaneously the proudest and saddest day of my life, a dichotomy only a parent can understand.

Even though you might take good care of yourself—and I still do—nature or nurture or some combination of the two will eventually take over and throw you a curveball.

The bottom line is, my advice, don't wait for the diagnosis to live the life you want to live. To do that would be the ultimate failure.

Dan Bongino is a political commentator, radio show host and author. The above is an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, The Gift of Failure.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at [email protected].

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Dan Bongino

Dan Bongino is a political commentator, radio show host, and author.

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts