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Pavarotti has surgery for pancreatic cancer

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer and is "recovering well," his manager said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The tenor of his times to opera buffs and a celebrity whose personality captivated even casual fans, Luciano Pavarotti was recovering Friday from surgery for pancreatic cancer — a kind of cancer often considered a death sentence.

His manager said he’s recovering well, and two cancer experts said surgery offered improved odds for survival.

The 70-year-old Italian singer, recognizable around the world with his smiling bearded face and heavy bulk, was preparing to leave New York last week to resume a farewell tour when doctors discovered a malignant pancreatic mass, manager Terri Robson said from her London office. All his remaining 2006 concerts have been canceled.

“Fortunately, the mass was able to be completely removed at surgery,” she said, adding that “his physicians are encouraged by the physical and emotional resilience of their patient.”

She told The Associated Press he underwent surgery within the past week at a New York hospital that she declined to identify. He remained hospitalized on Friday.

Because pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, it has one of the worst prognoses of all types of malignancies. Fewer than 4 percent of patients are still alive five years after diagnosis, and the majority die within a year.

But when the cancer is contained and can be surgically removed — as was Pavarotti’s — “that means he has a chance for long-term survival,” said Dr. Dan Laheru, an oncologist at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, one of the world’s leading institutions for pancreatic cancer.

Current studies show that 15 percent to 20 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer who have had surgery are still alive five years after being diagnosed, Laheru said. Of such patients, 63 percent survive one year and 42 percent two years.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society said: “The fact that he had surgery suggests his disease was localized, and the outlook is more optimistic.”

Capping a careerAt an age when most tenors are long retired, Pavarotti’s infrequent performances in recent years capped a four-decade career at the pinnacle of the music industry.

He took advantage of the television age to become a widely marketed artist — especially as one of the Three Tenors, including Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, who sang together at four World Cup soccer finals.

Domingo, who learned of Pavarotti’s illness on Friday just before singing in Berlin at a concert for this year’s World Cup final, said: “My thoughts and prayers are with my friend Luciano for a speedy and complete recovery.”

Domingo said he last saw Pavarotti in May, when he visited him in the New York hospital where Pavarotti was recovering from back treatment. “His innate strength seemed to have conquered those troubles and I hope that the same inner fortitude will make him overcome his current troubles. In the meantime, I’m sending from Europe to New York the most positive thoughts and much affection through space to him.”

While Pavarotti’s active career in operas was over, fans around the world anticipated his concerts — often electronically amplified. His last performance was at the Turin Winter Olympics when he sang his signature “Nessun Dorma” aria from Puccini’s “Turandot” at the opening ceremony.

Pavarotti then canceled eight concerts in April to undergo back treatment, and postponed five June dates because of complications from back surgery.

The tenor has kept a residence in New York, where he’d made his Metropolitan Opera debut on Nov. 23, 1968, in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” He became an international superstar after nailing nine high Cs in the aria “Ah! Mes amis,” as Tonio in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” at the Met in 1972.

Pavarotti’s Met finale, on March 13, 2004, was his 379th performance with the company.

That was more than four decades after he made his Italian debut in 1961 as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in Reggio Emilia, a city not far from his native Modena.

However, his name could show up as much in gossip columns as serious music reviews, particularly after splitting up with his wife of 35 years and taking up with his 26-year-old secretary in 1996.

Throughout his career, Pavarotti has struggled with a much-publicized weight problem. His love of food caused him reportedly to balloon to a high of 396 pounds in 1978.