Latin American leaders coping with cancer


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REPORTING FROM CARACAS, BOGOTA AND SAO PAULO -- Cancer is a fact of life, but it seems to be striking current and former Latin American heads of state with unusual frequency these days.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo have all been diagnosed with cancer, as have former leaders Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.


The most serious case may be that of Chavez, 57, who underwent two surgeries in June in Cuba for a malignant tumor. He subsequently underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, two in Cuba and two in Venezuela.

Chavez has never said what type of cancer he has, or the specific location. But ever since prominent Caracas surgeon Salvador Navarrete gave an interview last month to a Mexican magazine, rumors have circulated in Caracas that Chavez’s prognosis is poor.

Dr. Navarrete told Milenio magazine that Chavez probably had a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma near the prostate that apparently had invaded the bladder. Oncologists consulted by The Times say that if the diagnosis is correct, Chavez may have less than two years to live.

Immediately after the article was published Oct. 16 in Mexico, Chavez refuted the doctor by saying he had never examined him and that chemotherapy had purged his body of all cancer, an assertion backed by other doctors on his medical team.

Dr. Navarrete, who was head of endoscopic surgery at University Hospital in Caracas, later wrote a letter to Tal Cual newspaper saying he was making his “presumptive, not definitive” diagnosis partly based on official information released by the government and on his own analysis. The furor that followed his interview caused him to flee the country.

On Tuesday, Chavez said his condition is “unsurpassable,” and that his blood platelet count, a measure of his immune system often weakened by chemotherapy, is on the rise. “I have much faith in God,” Chavez told a political gathering. “The squalid ones are saying I am dying.”


But still rumors persist, driven partly by the president’s bloated and weakened physical appearance and his sometimes gloomy declarations on television. At a Student Day rally on Monday, he said he may not live to see the socialist Venezuela “as I dream it,” but that his children and grandchildren will.

Fujimori, 73, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses while in office, has cancer in his tongue and mouth. He was taken from jail to a hospital last week for treatment of a variety of ailments, including depression and weight loss.

His condition prompted his daughter Keiko to appeal to President Ollanta Humala, who defeated her in a presidential election earlier this year, not to let her father die in jail. “It’s not fair for him or any other person,” Keiko told a radio interviewer. “You have to see him as a human being.”

Rousseff, 63, and Lugo, 60, have both been treated for lymphoma diagnosed in the last two years -- both at Sirio Libanes Hospital in Sao Paulo -- and are apparently in remission.

Lula, Rouseff’s predecessor, was diagnosed with cancer of the throat late last month and on Monday entered Sirio Libanes Hospital for his first round of chemotherapy.


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--Mery Mogollon, Chris Kraul and Marcelo Soares

PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally celebrating the university students’ day in Caracas on Nov. 21, 2011. CREDIT: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters