CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he's flying to Cuba to begin radiation therapy Sunday, one month after undergoing surgery that removed a cancerous tumor.
That will put him in Cuba at the same time as Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives on the communist-governed island on Monday after a visit to Mexico.
Chavez has been recovering from a Feb. 26 surgery in Havana that removed a tumor from the same spot in his pelvic region where another tumor was extracted eight months earlier.
"Tonight, I'm leaving for Havana," he said in a televised meeting with aides Saturday. "I've decided, on the recommendation of my medical team and also my government political team, to begin now, as we're going to begin on Sunday, radiation therapy treatment."
Chavez described it as a "complement to the surgery that I underwent" last month.
"Yesterday, they took out the last stitches that were left from the operation. Everything's very good. I've been walking much better. ... Without any sort of complication, thanks to God," he said. "And now, a month after the operation, we're ready for radiation therapy, which will last about four, five weeks."
Chavez didn't indicate whether he would be in Cuba the entire time. Chavez also didn't refer to the pope's upcoming visit to Cuba.
The 57-year-old president describes himself as a Christian. He has regularly clashed with Roman Catholic leaders in Venezuela, but during his illness has often publicly expressed faith in God that he will overcome cancer.
Chavez has not identified the type of cancer nor the location in his pelvic region where the tumors have been removed.
After he was diagnosed with cancer in Cuba last year, Chavez underwent an initial surgery in June that removed a tumor 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 had said earlier this month that he would undergo radiation therapy but had not given details about when it would begin or where he would be treated.
Chavez is running for re-election in October and vows that his illness will not get in the way of that political goal.
His rival, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, has criticized Chavez's handling of his cancer, saying that the president should be releasing complete details about the illness.
Chavez defended his decision to return to Cuba rather than undergo radiation treatment at home. He said he will be treated at the same medical center in Havana where his cancer was originally detected and where he had both of his operations.
"I know that this decision surely will be criticized by some embittered spokespeople of the opposition. However, I'm sure ... in this decision the great majority of Venezuelans are with me," Chavez said.
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, some of the potential side effects of the treatments include fatigue, abdominal cramping, nausea or 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 usually administered for a short period on a daily basis, 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."
As Chavez was finishing his televised remarks, he said: "I'm leaving to continue this battle, the battle for life."