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Olmert says cancer won't slow him

The Israeli premier tells his nation that he will remain on the job. He intends to have surgery after a planned summit.

October 30, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

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

The 62-year-old leader, looking fit and speaking calmly, told a national televised news conference that a biopsy had detected a malignant tumor in its early stage. Olmert said he had learned of the diagnosis over the weekend and had 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 conference aimed at restarting talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Olmert's condition is not expected to disrupt the peace effort, his doctors said, because the tumor is confined to the prostate and growing slowly enough for treatment to wait months without risk. Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for the prime minister, said the operation would take place after the summit, which is expected to be held in late November or early December in Annapolis, Md.

Leaders in Israel are not required to issue regular reports on their health, and they rarely speak publicly on the subject. But Olmert said "the citizens of Israel have a right to know" about his condition. 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-Yahad 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 the summer of last year. In addition, police and judicial probes are looking into four allegations that Olmert used public office before he became prime minister to improperly change rules, influence government decisions, or benefit political or business partners.

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

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

In its early stages, prostate cancer betrays no symptoms. But men who have it can be identified for timely treatment, as Olmert was, through blood testing for antigens originating in the prostate, a walnut-shaped gland beneath the base of the penis that helps produce seminal fluid.

Olmert said his blood test was part of an annual physical exam. Because the test showed an elevated antigen level, doctors ordered a biopsy and took tissue samples from his prostate Oct. 19, following his return from an official visit to Russia.

Segev told reporters that the biopsy revealed cancer in one of the 12 samples. Olmert's other doctor, Kobi Ramon, said the tumor was graded 6 on the 10-point Gleason scale, putting its growth rate in the intermediate range.

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

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


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