CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that he has begun radiation therapy in Cuba as part of cancer treatment one month after undergoing an operation that removed a tumor.
Chavez said in a phone call broadcast live on Venezuelan television that he had his first radiation session after he arrived late Saturday. He said that would be the first of five daily treatments and that he expects to be back in Venezuela for a three-day break starting Thursday, before returning to Cuba for the next five-day round.
Chavez will be in Cuba at the same time as Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives on the island on Monday after a visit to Mexico. Chavez didn't refer to the pope's visit to Havana, but he did say he views his own Christian faith and prayer as providing strength in his struggle against cancer.
"In reality, part of the treatment is prayer, faith – faith in God, in our God, in our Christ the redeemer," Chavez said. "It's part of my job to assume with rigor this task of fighting to overcome the difficulties, and to continue living."
Chavez has frequently clashed with Roman Catholic leaders in Venezuela, but he has often expressed faith in God and has said he views Jesus' principles as having been essentially socialist.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked Sunday about reports the pope might meet with Chavez while in Cuba. Lombardi said that as of Sunday morning, there were no such plans.
"That can change, anything can change," he told reporters. But he said the pope's delegation hadn't heard that Chavez was in Cuba until Sunday morning, and that they reported having received no request for any audience.
Chavez chatted with his vice president, Elias Jaua, in the phone call while the television panned to views of a government-run fish farm. The president said he plans to keep on top of government business as he comes and goes from Cuba for the treatments.
"I'm well, thanks to God," Chavez said, adding that he had been out for a walk in the sun in Havana.
Chavez has been recovering from a Feb. 26 surgery in Havana that he said removed a tumor from the same spot in his pelvic region where another tumor was extracted eight months earlier.
On Saturday night, Chavez was met by Cuban President Raul Castro as he arrived at Havana's airport. Venezuelan television showed Chavez saluting as he stepped off the plane holding hands with one of his daughters, and then embracing Castro.
In Venezuela, some of Chavez's aides led his supporters in a prayer for his health Sunday morning outside the cathedral in the southwestern city of San Cristobal, and then the crowd began a pilgrimage on foot to another church.
"He's a man with an iron will," Youth Minister Mari Pili Hernandez told a crowd of supporters during the walk. "We give thanks to God for our commander's health, for him to take care of (Chavez) for us, protect him, give him a lot of strength."
After he was diagnosed with cancer in Cuba last year, Chavez underwent an initial surgery in June to remove a tumor that he said was the size of a baseball. He then had four rounds of chemotherapy and said tests showed no signs of any cancerous cells. But last month, he announced he was returning to Cuba for surgery to remove a lesion that proved to be malignant. He has described the most recent tumor as measuring about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches).
Chavez has not identified the type of cancer nor the precise location where the tumors have been removed.
The president has said the radiation treatments will last for four to five weeks and are intended to "attack any new threat." He said he expects to be traveling back and forth between Venezuela and Cuba during that period.
He said on Saturday that he preferred to return to Cuba for radiation therapy because that is where his cancer was first detected last year and where he has undergone surgeries since.
Chavez said he is thankful to his close allies and friends Fidel and Raul Castro for the medical care he has received. He praised Cuba's health care system as "one of the most advanced in this world, thanks to the Cuban revolution."
Chavez is running for re-election in October and vows that his illness will not get in the way of that political goal.
Last year, Chavez shaved his head during chemotherapy after his hair began falling out as a result of the treatments.
Now, as he starts radiation therapy, potential side effects include fatigue, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting, said Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center who is not involved in Chavez's treatment.
The radiation is often administered for a short period each day, with breaks on weekends, Pishvaian said. "I would imagine that he probably could go about his daily activities even being a president."
Following radiation therapy, patients typically need two weeks to a month to recover from the effects of the treatment, Pishvaian said. "Then he should actually be pretty much back to normal, but will be on sort of high alert for watching to see if the cancer comes back again."
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Nicole Winfield in Leon, Mexico, and Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap