Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is due on Wednesday for surgery to remove a tumor on his prostate, putting the 61-year-old on an alarming list of Latin American leaders who have fought cancer in recent years.
The list includes Brazilian leaders, both former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and incumbent Dilma Rousseff, Paraguay’s ex-President Fernando Lugo and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner also had a scare but later doctors said she was cancer free.
Although he’s declared himself cured, Chavez has been weakened by cancer just as he began campaigning for his toughest re-election yet. Venezuelans go to the polls Oct. 7.
Santos’ diagnosis came at a key career moment, too: the start of negotiations to end Colombia’s decades-long conflict between the state and left-wing FARC rebels.
GlobalPost Commentary: Why the United States should support Colombia's peace process
Announcing the operation Monday, Santos said the tumor is not aggressive and he has a 97 percent chance of being cured.
All this disease hitting the region’s government heads is scary, offering fodder for conspiracy theories. Venezuela’s fiery leader Chavez once hinted that the United States was somehow behind it.
"Would it be so strange that they've invented the technology to spread cancer and we won't know about it for 50 years?" Chavez asked.
Washington has been accused of some outrageous things in its time, but a plot like that would be beyond strange. Barring Venezuela, Colombia and most other countries whose leaders were diagnosed with cancer are American allies, making the theory all the more implausible.
Cancer-stricken presidents are not the province of Latin America. Czech Velvet Revolutionary Vaclav Havel got it. France’s former President Francois Mitterrand lived with it for years in office and Georges Pompidou died from it soon after becoming prime minister.
President Ronald Reagan had cancer of the prostate, colon and skin.
Conspiracies cloud a real public health problem that’s not only affecting heads of state.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the Americas, where 1.6 million people are expected to die from the disease by 2030, according to the Pan-American Health Organization. Cigarette smoke, obesity and exposure to carcinogens in the workplace are pushing the rate higher.
Early detection is also lacking in Latin America, a region where more than 70 percent of cancer cases are diagnosed when the disease is incurable, according to the American Cancer Society.
Prostate cancer cases like President Santos’ are especially common amid changing diet and living standards as Latin America’s urban economies grow, ACS says. The spread of cancer has huge economic implications, as Financial Times' beyondbrics blog points out: "This is another sign of how people in the region are increasingly succumbing to the diseases of rich rather than developing nations."
The ACS cites several other factors that enable the region’s cancer problem, including limited resources and geographical gaps in health care. Also, governments in the region’s poor countries focus more on infant mortality and infectious, as opposed to chronic, diseases. They are finding that complex diseases are costly to treat and impose an increasing burden on national health systems.
It is hoped that Santos — whose approval rating surged after he announced peace efforts — will get healthy again soon. And as this illness keeps creeping into the bodies of presidents, perhaps more attention will be paid to the populations they’re meant to be serving. They’re hurting too.