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Mayor Rob Ford pauses while participating in a mayoral debate in Toronto on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Ford has been diagnosed with a tumour after seeking treatment for "unbearable'' abdominal painDARREN CALABRESE/The Canadian Press

Just one week ago, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was fighting for his political future. Now he is fighting a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Mr. Ford, the controversial leader who captured international headlines for his admitted drug use and the devotion of his Ford Nation supporters, has been diagnosed with a malignant tumour in his abdomen identified as liposarcoma by the senior doctor in charge of his care.

Dr. Zane Cohen of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, where Mr. Ford is a patient, said he is "optimistic" about a treatment plan, which will start this week with the first of two rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.

Dr. Cohen said the cancer, which originates in fatty tissue, has not spread to other organs. But in addition to a 12-centimetre-by-12-centimetre tumour, doctors have found a two-centimetre-wide nodule in the mayor's buttock, behind his left hip.

All soft-tissue sarcomas comprise about 1 per cent of cancers, and liposarcoma represents about 20 per cent of that 1 per cent.

Dr. Cohen characterized it as a "very difficult" form. How it responds to the chemotherapy will determine whether radiation or surgery is needed, he said.

The mayor's family, who visited him in hospital Wednesday, did not attend the news conference, but Councillor Doug Ford, who on Friday stepped into the race for mayor when his brother withdrew his name from the ballot, described the news as "devastating," in a statement.

"Rob has always been so strong for all of us and now I ask us all to be strong for him," it read.

The diagnosis, made public in a press conference covered live on suppertime newscasts, is the latest twist in a tumultuous period of Toronto politics. Mr. Ford's grip on power has been threatened time and again – by a court battle over conflict-of-interest charges, by his admission that he smoked crack cocaine, by council's decision to strip him of most of his authority and by a police investigation of the mayor and an associate charged with extortion over the "crack video." Each time Mr. Ford held on, vowing to win at the ballot box on Oct. 27.

Cancer has sidelined Mr. Ford when so much else could not. And it has done so suddenly – he was hospitalized for abdominal pain last Wednesday. In the days before that, Mr. Ford had appeared to be in the midst of a political comeback after spending two months in rehab to get treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction. Mr. Ford proclaimed, "I'm as sober as a judge," and invited reporters to join him on the doorsteps as he canvassed and raced up the subway stairs to a press conference two at a time.

At a debate the night before he complained about stomach pain to his brother over breakfast and sought treatment, Mr. Ford was introspective. "I admit I've made a mistake. I've dealt with that man in the mirror," he said. "You have bumps in the road, you keep moving on … I'm never quitting."

Despite his illness, Mr. Ford still holds office until December and has not asked for a leave, as he did when he went to rehab, a spokeswoman for the city said.

News of the mayor's health brought Toronto's months-long campaign for mayor to a momentary halt, with front-runner John Tory and rival Olivia Chow agreeing earlier in the day to postpone a debate on Wednesday evening.

Mr. Tory said he wanted to "just take the politics out of this," adding, "We should do the right thing as two human beings, as opposed to two politicians."

"I know Rob Ford is strong. He's a fighter," Ms. Chow said.

‪Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying he was saddened by the news. "We wish him a speedy and complete recovery and are certain that he will take on this fight with all of his characteristic tenacity and energy," it said.

Doug Holyday, Mr. Ford's former deputy and a long-time family friend, said he has not spoken to the mayor since he was admitted to hospital, but has spoken with Councillor Ford. The family, he said, is stressed but "100-per-cent behind Rob."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose Liberals have been on the receiving end of some of Mr. Ford's sharpest verbal barbs, said her "sincere hope is that Mayor Ford can beat this."

"I know he's been receiving a great number of good wishes. Those thoughtful words – along with the care of the team at Mount Sinai – are sure to help set him on the road to restored health," she said in a statement.

At Sullie Gorman's bar, one of Mayor Ford's old haunts across the street from his mother's Etobicoke home and in the heart of Ford Nation, one patron let out a gasp when Dr. Cohen uttered the word "malignant."

"That is not good, not good," she said, as everyone at the pub stared silently at live television coverage.

A few doors down, at Royal York Winery, owner Nizami Gadirov cast his eyes downward and said he and everyone in the community "feels very, very bad about this diagnosis."

"He's a great, great man," he added. "He always says 'hi' when he's here. I wish him the very, very best."

Like most people here, he plans to throw his full support behind Councillor Ford in the mayor's race.

"I would put his poster in the window if he asked," said Harmesh Khullar, owner of Chic Casuals clothing store in the same plaza. "I have known the family for years. Their father was a gentleman, the mother is a client and a wonderful person. Rob was a hard-working person and he's a fighter. He'll pull through."

With reports from Patrick White, Adrian Morrow, Oliver Moore and Kelly Grant

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