Senator Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour in what could be the grim final chapter in a life marked by exhilarating triumph and shattering tragedy.
Some experts gave the veteran campaigner less than a year to live.
Doctors discovered the tumour after the 76-year-old senator and sole surviving son of America’s most storied political family suffered a seizure over the weekend.
The diagnosis cast a pall over Capitol Hill, where the Massachusetts Democrat has served since 1962, and came as a shock to a family all too accustomed to sudden, calamitous news.
Mr Kennedy’s wife, Vicki, acknowledged the family had been “pitched a real curveball,” but said “this is only the first inning.” She said the family was consulting with experts and seeking multiple opinions.
“Teddy is leading us all, as usual, with his calm approach to getting the best information possible. He’s also making me crazy (and making me laugh) by pushing to race in the Figawi this weekend,” she said, referring to the annual sailing race from Cape Cod to Nantucket.
Mr Kennedy’s doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital said he had a malignant glioma in the left parietal lobe, a region of the brain that helps govern sensation, movement and language.
Seizures can be caused by a wide variety of things, some of them relatively minor. The finding of a brain tumour – and specifically a glioma, an especially lethal type – was about the worst possible news.
Mr Kennedy’s doctors said he will remain in the hospital for the next couple of days as they consider chemotherapy and radiation. They did not mention surgery, a possible indication the tumour is inoperable.
Outside experts gave him no more than three years – and perhaps far less.
“As a general rule, at 76, without the ability to do a surgical resection, as kind of a ballpark figure you’re probably looking at a survival of less than a year,” said Dr Keith Black, chairman of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles.
In a statement, Dr Lee Schwamm, vice chairman of neurology at Massachusetts General, and Dr Larry Ronan, Kennedy’s primary physician, said the senator “has had no further seizures, remains in good overall condition, and is up and walking around the hospital.”
“He remains in good spirits and full of energy,” the physicians said.
Vicki, Mr Kennedy’s wife since 1992, and his five children and stepchildren have been at his bedside.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife, Maria Shriver, is Mr Kennedy’s niece, thanked the public for their thoughts and prayers.
“What we do know is that Teddy is an incredibly courageous and tenacious man who will tackle this with the same determination with which he approaches everything in life,” Mr Schwarzenegger said.
“Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family have faced adversity more times in more instances with more courage and more determination and more grace than most families have to,” said Senator John Kerry.
“Every one of us knows what a big heart this fellow has. He’s helped millions and millions of people – from the biggest of legislation on the floor to the most personal.”
Mr Kennedy, the Senate’s second-longest serving member, was re-elected in 2006 and is not up for election again until 2012.
Were he to resign or die in office, state law requires a special election for the seat 145 to 160 days afterward.
In a statement, President George Bush saluted Mr Kennedy as “a man of tremendous courage, remarkable strength and powerful spirit.” He added: “We join our fellow Americans in praying for his full recovery.”