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Why we’ll never find out what killed Hugo Chavez

Venezuela's President and presidential candidate Hugo Chavez speaks in the rain during his closing campaign rally in Caracas in this October 4, 2012 file photo. Chavez died on March 5, 2013, after a two-year battle with cancer, ending the socialist leader's 14-year rule of the South American country, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech.


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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez apparently died of pelvic cancer, according to news media reports.

But that bit of information really doesn't shed much light on his medical condition before he passed away.

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The term pelvic cancer simply means the cancer was located in the pelvic region. He could have had a wide range of cancers found in the trunk of the body. So it might refer to bone, cartilage, bladder, rectum or the reproductive organs. And, for a man, that could include prostate or testicular cancer.

It is also possible the cancer may have started in another part of the body and spread to the pelvic region. Or, it might have spread just locally, such as from the prostate gland to the pelvic bones.

While he was alive, Chavez acknowledged that he had cancer, but never disclosed the type of tumour.

Canadian doctors tend to be extremely reluctant to talk about a medical condition in a patient who they have not personally examined. Even if they have seen the individual, it would be unprofessional to discuss the case without the patient's explicit permission.

So you are unlikely to get much informed medical comment in this country on what killed the Venezuelan leader.

But that type of constraint hasn't stopped speculation in the international political community.

An expert on communist states with long-term ties to Cuba, where Chavez was treated for cancer, told me: "I heard it was cancer of the stomach/bowels, very aggressive, and that his treatment had involved successive operations removing more and more of his intestines." The expert's source indicated to him that Chavez's prognosis was fatal.

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In some respects, it's really not all that surprising we know so little about the type of cancer that took Chavez's life. Some people consider a medical diagnosis to be a private matter – even if the individual is a public figure.

Consider the case of NDP leader Jack Layton who died of cancer several years ago. We were informed that Layton had been originally treated for prostate cancer. The cancer came back – but what form the cancer finally took has not been disclosed. Did it metastasize to the surrounding area to become another type of cancer? We just don't know.

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