Venezuela congress chief to visit Chavez in Cuba

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The president of Venezuela's congress said he hopes to return to Cuba this week to see President Hugo Chavez, who is receiving additional treatment nearly seven weeks after undergoing cancer surgery.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced his plans during an interview broadcast Sunday, expressing optimism about Chavez's condition. The president hasn't been seen or spoken publicly since before his Dec. 11 operation, but Cabello said he was encouraged by Chavez's recovery when he last saw him about two weeks ago.

"I hope to go this week, return there to Havana to see the president. And all of us are hoping that, in accordance with the doctors who are treating him, the president can return very soon to Venezuela," Cabello said in the interview on the Venezuelan channel Televen. "We have hope, and really what we saw the last time gives us great optimism."

It was unclear when Cabello planned to make the trip. Other Chavez allies, including Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores, have also visited Havana multiple times during the president's long absence. Despite complaints by opponents, Chavez's inauguration for his new six-year term has been indefinitely postponed.

The government said on Saturday that during the surgery a "malignant lesion" was removed from Chavez's pelvis and that his recovery has been favorable. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas also said that Chavez has begun "systemic medical treatment for the fundamental illness."

Medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the government's latest account of "systemic medical treatment" could mean various types of chemotherapy or drug treatments, depending on the type of cancer.

Chavez has had tumors repeatedly removed from his pelvic region, and has also undergone prior rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The 58-year-old president hasn't revealed the type of the cancer or the precise location of the tumors removed.

Dr. George Demetri, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the sarcoma center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said there are many different drug therapies or forms of chemotherapy that could be applied depending on the type of cancer.

If it were sarcoma, "there are hundreds of different molecularly-defined subtypes of sarcomas, and the specific details of diagnosis drive the personalized choice of best systemic (drug) therapies for any individual," Demetri said in an emailed response to questions.

Demetri, who has no direct knowledge of Chavez's condition, said that for many subtypes of sarcoma, there are new "targeted therapies" that have been approved worldwide. He said they may include different types of oral pills or chemotherapy.

Different types of treatment could be used for other types of cancer occurring in the pelvic region, such as colorectal cancers or prostate cancers, he said.

Dr. Steve Hahn, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, said he thinks given Chavez's treatment regimen and evolution, he could have a low-grade sarcoma.

"It is speculation only, but it sounds very much like the systemic treatment is additional chemotherapy," Hahn said. He said that when a low-grade sarcoma recurs multiple times, typically "the interval between recurrences becomes shorter and shorter with each relapse."

"Systemic therapy typically does not have an impact on the natural progression of the disease," Hahn said.

Venezuela's opposition leaders have demanded more information about Chavez's condition and have questioned why the president hasn't spoken to the country in a single phone call on television, as he did often during previous treatments.

Allies in the president's inner circle who have visited him have brought back signed documents, and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua recently said he had shared jokes and laughed together with Chavez.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Sunday accused the government of deceiving the public about Chavez's state.

"The government is shamelessly lying under your noses," Capriles said in a televised speech to supporters. "Why is a person who can sign letters, a person who can make jokes not able to speak to the country? So, someone is lying shamelessly."

Government officials have countered such criticisms saying they have been providing regular updates and reporting on both the downturns and improvements in Chavez's condition.

Cabello dismissed opponents' charges of undue secrecy surround the president's health.

"In reality, what they would like to hear is that a tragedy has happened to the president," Cabello said in the interview. "That's what they'd like to hear."

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap

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