Chavez Says Chemotherapy May Be Needed, Cancer Isn’t Death

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez kisses a Venezuelan national flag at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he may need to receive chemotherapy or radiation treatment after undergoing surgery in Cuba last month to remove a cancerous tumor he described as “almost like a baseball.”

“A third stage may be needed, probably radiation or chemotherapy that could be difficult, but it’s precisely to try to armor my body from the malignant cells,” Chavez, 56, said today in a phone call to state television. “My colon and stomach aren’t destroyed like the opposition is saying. Today cancer isn’t death.”

Chavez, who has led South America’s largest oil producer since 1999, was operated on June 20 for an undisclosed form of malignant cancer after an initial operation to remove a pelvic abscess on June 11. The self-declared socialist and ally of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has cut his marathon-length speeches to just 15 minutes since returning to Venezuela on July 4 as he follows a medically imposed recovery schedule.

“I had a large tumor,” Chavez said. “When I saw the image, I said: ‘My God.’ It looked almost like a baseball.”

Chavez said yesterday that he’s not preparing a political transition in the event that he isn’t able to run for re-election next year and that he expects to deepen his drive to convert Venezuela into a socialist state.

Fatigue, No Appetite

Both chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used after surgery and the treatments are associated with longer survival for a range of tumor types, according to the website of the National Cancer Institute in Washington. Side effects include fatigue and lack of appetite.

“I’m gaining weight again after losing about 14 kilos, I’m getting closer to my weight of 85 kilos after weighing 100 kilos before, like a war tank, eating anything I could find, drinking 40 cups of coffee a day,” Chavez said. “It was and is my fault, I was trying to do everything, from filling a pothole to developing the Orinoco oil belt. I had to learn to delegate.”

The yield on the government’s 9.25 percent benchmark bonds due in 2027 rose 4 basis points, or 0.04 percentage points, to 13.06 percent at 3:16 p.m. in New York today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The price fell 0.19 cents on the dollar to 74.56 cents.

Investors have increased holdings of Venezuelan debt on speculation that Chavez may not be able to participate in next year’s presidential campaign, boosting prospects for an opposition that may reverse his socialist policies.

State Role

An opposition victory could improve Venezuela’s “weakened credit fundamentals” by curbing the state’s role in the economy and reversing capital flight that has averaged $18 billion over the last four years, Moody’s Investors Service’s Patrick Esteruelas wrote today in a note to clients. Still, with Chavez supporters remaining in control of many of the country’s institutions, the transition could lead to short-term volatility.

“A new opposition government would have to contend with a Chavista movement that will still be in control of the Supreme Court and the National Assembly until the next legislative elections in 2015, that has laid deep roots in state oil company PDVSA and the armed forces, and that will look to exploit the new government’s weaknesses when making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions in a highly polarized country,” the report said.

A Chavez victory would provide initial stability while leading to a further deterioration of inflation and investment in the long term. It wouldn’t necessarily affect the country’s ability or willingness to pay, Esteruelas said.

Economic Challenges

Chavez’s health problems have overshadowed the economic challenges he faces to secure re-election, which include the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere, food shortages, violent crime and a housing shortage of more than 2 million units.

Before his health crisis, the president hosted his own television show most Sundays that lasted up to seven hours without commercial breaks and sometimes featured spontaneous expropriations of businesses after followers complained of exploitation. His improvised speeches have ranged over philosophy, baseball and diatribes against the U.S. “empire.”

Professional Baseball

Now the former paratrooper who once aspired to play professional baseball in the U.S. is waking up at 5 a.m. to undergo rehabilitation with his team of doctors, take medical exams and return to bed early.

“I’m assuming responsibility for my fundamental errors -- of drinking gallons of coffee a day, sometimes cold coffee reheated in a thermos on the road, eating anything in any place I went, not sleeping and not letting my ministers sleep,” Chavez said today. “That’s a lifestyle of death.”

While Chavez’s public appearances have become less frequent, he continues to govern via his Twitter account. Today he announced the “forced acquisition” of a rice plant in Guarico state and approved salary increases for workers at the government’s Foreign Exchange Board, known as Cadivi.

Chavez yesterday attended a mass at the Military Academy where he joined members of his cabinet to pray for his health.

Patients are treated with chemotherapy or radiation even after a tumor is successfully removed to prevent the cancer from recurring, said Jeffrey Meyerhardt, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Fatigue and Nausea

While radiation is sometimes easier to tolerate than chemotherapy when targeted to specific areas of the body, both cause fatigue and nausea. Even so, many patients in high profile jobs are able to work full time through treatment sessions that can last several weeks, Meyerhardt said.

Other South American leaders have shown battling cancer need not interfere with carrying out their responsibilities. Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2010 received chemotherapy in Brazil for a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, while continuing his duties. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff announced in 2009 when she was a pre-candidate for the presidency that she was receiving treatment for a lymphoma.

“Chavez could still possibly work and lead a country, but everyone is different, so it depends on how his individual body tolerates it,” Meyerhardt said in a phone interview.

While the government hasn’t given details on Chavez’s condition, he said his Cuban doctors have been giving him only necessary information.

‘Tell Me Everything’

“I told the chief medic, tell me everything, keep me informed, don’t hide anything from me,” Chavez said. “The doctor said to me, ‘It’s not necessary in first instances that you know about everything. We can decide ethically to what extent we inform you.’”

For now, Chavez says this is the biggest challenge of his life and that he’ll beat the sickness, comparing it to a long uphill hike from a dark abyss. He has also dropped a military slogan that said “fatherland, socialism or death,” and substituted, “we will live.”

“I don’t understand how in some places they tell a patient, ‘You have so many months of life left,’” Chavez said. “We don’t understand that because sometimes they are wrong. Those are statistics. That seems very inhumane.”

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