Israeli leader discloses he has cancer

Surgery to remove prostate tumor to occur after summit

October 30, 2007|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced yesterday that he has prostate cancer but that he will continue to govern and expects to be cured by surgery.

Olmert, 62, looking fit and speaking calmly, told a news conference that a biopsy had detected a malignant tumor in its early stage. He said he had learned of the diagnosis over the weekend and has chosen to undergo surgical removal of the prostate gland "in the coming months."

"My doctors have informed me that I have a full chance of recovery and there is nothing about the tumor that is life-threatening or liable to impair my performance or my ability to carry out the duties bestowed upon me," he said.

The disclosure came at a sensitive time in Middle East diplomacy, weeks ahead of a U.S.-brokered summit, aimed at restarting talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fighting in the Gaza Strip yesterday left three Palestinians and an Israeli soldier dead.

Olmert's condition is not expected to complicate the peace effort, his doctors said, because the tumor is confined to the prostate and is growing slowly enough for him to wait months for treatment without risk. "The growth was discovered at an early stage and is curable," said one of the doctors, Yaacov Ramon.

Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for Olmert, said the operation would take place after the summit, which is expected to be held in late November or early December in Annapolis.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Olmert "to wish him a speedy recovery," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

Leaders in Israel are not required to issue regular reports on their health, and they rarely speak publicly on the subject. But Olmert told reporters that "the citizens of Israel have a right to know" about his condition, and he brought two of his doctors to the news conference to answer questions.

Olmert took office in January 2006 after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered the second of two strokes and fell into a coma. Sharon remains hospitalized in a long-term care facility. Olmert was elected to the office two months later as head of a broad-based coalition anchored by his centrist Kadima party.

Israeli politicians across the spectrum praised the prime minister for his quick, forthright disclosure. But some coupled their get-well wishes with jabs at his shortcomings as a leader, indicating that his political survival is more in doubt than his recovery from a potentially fatal disease.

"The prime minister does not have to resign because of his condition," said Ran Cohen, a member of parliament from the left-wing Meretz party. "But he must resign because of his decisions during the Lebanon war and because of the police investigations" into his alleged misconduct in office.

Olmert and his government are being investigated by a state- appointed panel for their conduct of the cross-border war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in summer 2006. In addition, police and judicial investigations are looking into four allegations that Olmert used public office before he became prime minister to improperly change rules, influence government decisions and benefit political or business partners.

The prime minister's serene, confident public demeanor in the handling of his cancer diagnosis seemed aimed at dispelling his image as a weak leader under siege. Asked at the news conference how Olmert had reacted to the diagnosis, Dr. Shlomo Segev said: "There was nothing that showed fear."

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men after lung cancer and is found mainly in men 50 and older. It is typically treated by surgery, radiation or hormone-deprivation therapy.

Both doctors said the tumor is very small and completely encapsulated within the prostate, making the risk of its spreading and metastasizing minimal at this stage.

"His chances for disease-free survival are more than 95 percent," Ramon said. "The chances for needing additional treatment such as chemo or radiation therapy are next to zero."

Richard Boudreaux writes for The Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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