Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced Monday that she has begun chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer but will continue to actively lead one of the state's largest law enforcement agencies.
During a news conference at department headquarters in Santa Ana, Hutchens said she was confident that she could still serve and aggressively combat the cancer. If she found that she couldn't handle the load, she said, "I'd make other arrangements."
Sheriff's officials said the department was notified of Hutchens' health problems about two weeks ago in a staff memo that was sent the day after she began chemotherapy.
"So far," she said of juggling her responsibilities with her chemo treatments, "I'm powering through it."
The sheriff said she will go through four cycles of chemotherapy before undergoing surgery to remove a two-centimeter mass, followed by additional rounds of a different form of chemotherapy and radiation. The process is expected to take up to eight months.
Hutchens, 57, said the diagnosis earlier this month came as a surprise to her: She's healthy, she doesn't smoke and there's no history of the disease in her family. Being otherwise healthy and physically fit would help her endure the treatments, she said.
"You have to be strong for the chemo," she said. "You have to have a pretty strong constitution."
Hutchens said she was confident she would recover and pursue a second full term in 2014, as the cancer was "caught early and is curable." She said she also benefits from having a "great support network," particularly within her department.
Part of that team are the senior officials who will assume some of her responsibilities and take her place at public events and meetings she may not be able to attend.
Sheriff's officials said the department was uniquely positioned to take on the challenge: They'd dealt with budget cuts — and, at one point, an absent leader — when Hutchens' predecessor, Michael Carona, was indicted while in office. Carona is serving a federal prison term for witness tampering.
"This isn't uncharted territory for us," Cmdr. Steve Kea said after the news conference. Except this time, he said, "there won't be a leadership vacuum."
Just as the department was accustomed to handling adversity, Assistant Sheriff Lee Trujillo said the same was true of the sheriff.
"She led us through some of the darkest times in our department," Trujillo said, pointing to Carona's legacy, restructuring the department and overseeing layoffs because of budget cuts.
He said she's the type of person who thrives in her work.
"It's almost like she gains strength from doing this," Trujillo said of Hutchens when it comes to her job. "This is something that motivates her."