Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco gives first public speech since cancer announcement

LAFAYETTE, La. -- "I’ve been thinking hard about what I would want to say to you today knowing that you could be my last audience, but I’m hoping not."

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco returned Friday to her alma mater, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to receive an honorary doctorate of liberal arts and serve as Commencement’s keynote speaker. It was also her 75th birthday.

The degree, she said, was “the most unique birthday gift I have ever received.”

The speech came just six days after she announced in an open letter to Louisiana that she is battling liver cancer and fighting for her life. The eye cancer that Blanco was treated for six years ago has spread to her liver.

"I’m praying for a miracle," she told students during the commencement. "Don’t know if I’ll get one. But I have put my life in God’s hands. Because I believe in God and I trust him, and I hope that you do, too."

Blanco’s 20-minute address offered a vigorous defense of her administration’s handling of recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The storms occurred a month apart in August and September 2005, more than a year and a half into Blanco’s sole term as governor.

At the time, the storms were the largest natural disasters in U.S. history.

“Those destructive forces made 1 million people homeless overnight. We had to fight back from a terrain that looked like nuclear disaster. It was a long frustrating battle. Louisiana suffered over $100 billion dollars of damage to our homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, bridges, levees, highways and more, but fight we did," she said.

“You come from sturdy stock, you Louisiana men and women," she continued. "Your parents, and aunts and uncles and other relatives and friends jumped right in and said, ‘Show me the battlefront.’ That huge ground fight was an amazing thing to behold.”

Blanco, a New Iberia native, was the first and only woman to ever be elected governor in Louisiana. She served as governor from 2004-2008 and didn’t seek a second term.

Before she was governor, she served as lieutenant governor, as a member of the Public Service Commission, and on the Louisiana House of Representatives.

She served in government for more than two decades.