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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was diagnosed with throat cancer on Saturday, casting doubt on his political future in Latin America's largest economy.
Lula, as he is universally known, is a former metalworker and union leader who rose from poverty to become Brazil's first working-class president. He led the country between 2003 and 2010, a period of robust economic growth in which more than 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and joined the middle class.
Speculation has swirled that Lula -- who remains immensely popular in Brazil -- could run for the presidency again in 2014 if President Dilma Rousseff, his political protegee, were to decide not to seek re-election.
Lula, who turned 66 this week, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the larynx and will start chemotherapy in the coming days, according to Sao Paulo's Sirio Libanes Hospital. Rousseff herself was treated for cancer at the same medical center before taking office in January.
Dr. Artur Katz, an oncologist on Lula's medical team, told Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that the tumor was "not very big" and that "the odds of a cure are excellent."
Chemotherapy was chosen over surgery to preserve the functions of Lula's larynx, or voice box, he said.
Dr. Paulo Hoff, another oncologist on the team treating Lula, told local news Web site ig.com.br that the tumor was localized and had not spread through the neck or to his lymph nodes. He said Lula would also undergo radiation therapy.
"He's a fighter," Finance Minister Guido Mantega said after visiting Lula in hospital. "There's no metastasis. Nothing has spread to other organs and everything was detected.
Lula left the hospital in the early evening and is expected to return for outpatient treatment starting on Monday.
Lula, who left office with a sky-high approval rating of 87 percent, could play a vital role in next year's municipal elections, helping stump for candidates from his left-leaning Workers' Party, known as the PT.
But it is in the next presidential election in 2014 that Lula's role could be key -- whatever that role ultimately is.
"The presence of Lula is an extremely important ace in the hole for the Workers' Party," said Latin America analyst Christopher Garman of the Eurasia consultancy in Washington.
Whether Lula campaigns for Rousseff or, should she falter, runs himself, Garman said, his participation "guarantees the opposition have a hard time reaching office in 2014."
More recently, Lula's presence has been a boost for Rousseff because it "means that allies were never going to abandon ship," Garman said. "He's an extremely important political hedge for this administration."
Since leaving office Lula has done little to lower his profile, founding a public policy institute and traveling the world speaking on democracy.
He's also kept a hand in domestic politics, privately advising Rousseff on a series of corruption scandals that have rocked her government. Six ministers have so far left her administration this year, five of them over ethics breaches.
Brazilians flooded the social media site Twitter with well-wishes, prayers and more. "We'll keep an eye out for you in 2018," one tweeter said.
A folksy leader who has suffered occasional health problems over the years, Lula is a smoker with a weakness for cigarillos, or baby cigars. He was also known as a drinker, which contributed to his image as a man of the people.
Both drinking and smoking boost the chances of throat cancer, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
Dozens of reporters and TV crews gathered outside the hospital to try to get a glimpse of Lula. The news dominated Brazil's television and radio programs, with one commentator calling the diagnosis a "bombshell."
Rousseff issued a statement wishing her predecessor a speedy recovery, calling him a "symbol and an example" for all Brazilians. An aide said Rousseff, who was plucked from relative obscurity by Lula and groomed to succeed him, planned to visit the former president on Monday.
Lula is particularly known for his trademark beard and gruff voice, whose roughness seemed to mirror his own unpolished edges. But he recently had noticed more gruffness in his voice as well as some discomfort, according to local radio and television reports.
A politician with a Midas touch among voters -- particularly among the lower-income classes that make up the PT's base -- Lula helped bolster Brazil's influence on the world stage during his eight years in office.
Additional reporting by Juliana Schincariol in Rio de Janeiro, Roberto Samora in Sao Paulo and Jefferson Ribeiro in Brasilia; Editing by Todd Benson and Anthony Boadle