A new legal filing by Salvatore F. DiMasi, former speaker of the Massachusetts House, contends that federal prison officials denied him proper medical care for at least four months, which allowed cancer to spread from his tongue and now requires extensive radiation and chemotherapy to treat.
DiMasi, serving an eight-year sentence in a Kentucky prison on a public corruption conviction, said he discovered lumps in his neck that were a symptom of the disease last December. But he was not tested for cancer until April 24, despite his repeated requests for medical attention, according to the filing in the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. DiMasi spent much of the winter in New England waiting to appear before a grand jury in another corruption inquiry.
“Mr. DiMasi is preparing to begin radiation on his tongue, which will be quite painful and affect his ability to speak,’’ DiMasi’s lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, wrote in a motion asking a federal judge for extra time to prepare the appeal of DiMasi’s conviction. “He will be unable to eat and will require a feeding tube placed in his stomach. After the radiation is completed, Mr. DiMasi will undergo seven weeks of chemotherapy.’’
Patients with cancer like DiMasi’s, called squamous cell carcinoma, generally have a high survival rate, 80 to 90 percent, if the cancer is caught early, according to a head and neck cancer specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The more the cancer spreads, the worse the prognosis, said the oncologist, Elizabeth Buchbinder.
“When they’re local, patients have a good chance of responding to radiation and chemotherapy,” she said. “As they spread to the lymph nodes, the lower the chance of a cure.”
DiMasi’s cancer has spread at least to the lymph nodes in his neck, and a May test result suggests it may have reached his stomach, according to Kiley’s motion. If the cancer has spread significantly, that would reduce his chances of survival.
Once one of the state’s most powerful politicians, DiMasi has been in freefall since his conviction in June 2011 for pocketing tens of thousands of dollars from Cognos, a software company seeking multimillion-dollar state contracts. His wife, Debbie, has also been diagnosed with cancer, and the bank has foreclosed on the couple’s North End condo.
Lawyers not connected with DiMasi’s case said the delay in his treatment could form the basis of a medical malpractice case or a justification for letting DiMasi out of prison.
“If the Bureau of Prisons is . . . incapable of taking care of the man, I think he’s entitled to medical care somewhere else,” said Stephen G. Huggard, former chief of the public corruption unit of the US attorney’s office, now a partner with the firm Edwards Wildman Palmer.
“If they moved him around the country and put him on the bus and did not give him treatment, I have to believe his lawyers are looking at motions for medical furloughs and/or release,” Huggard said.
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke would not comment on DiMasi’s case specifically, citing DiMasi’s right to privacy, but he said federal prison officials strive to provide inmates with medical care that equals what they could receive if they were not in prison, including visits to private medical facilities, if necessary.
“The inmates do have an expectation of receiving appropriate and prompt medical care,” said Burke.
DiMasi has been undergoing treatment at a prison medical facility in Butner, N.C., where he was transferred June 6.
Kiley said that DiMasi asked the federal Bureau of Prisons over and over again for follow-up medical care after a prison doctor told him in January that his swollen neck could be a symptom of cancer.
Instead, from Feb. 2 until March 25, US marshals shuttled DiMasi from Kentucky through various prison facilities to Rhode Island so that he could appear before a federal grand jury investigating patronage in the Massachusetts Probation Department. Job candidates with connections to DiMasi were hired more often than those connected to any other politician, according to an independent counsel’s report.
“At each detention facility Mr. DiMasi passed through, he requested medical treatment and asked that the tests that were supposed to have been done in Kentucky be performed,” Kiley wrote. “He received no such testing.”
In April, a month after DiMasi returned to the prison in Lexington, Ky., he finally saw a specialist at the University of Kentucky hospital, who “found a lesion on Mr. DiMasi’s tongue, suspected that the involvement of the lymph nodes may be a sign of a cancer spreading, and worried that the biopsy had been delayed too long,’’ wrote Kiley.
Further testing in May revealed that DiMasi has squamous cell cancer and that it has reached Stage 4, meaning the cancer has metastasized, or spread, from the original site in his tongue, the papers said.
It’s unclear how far the cancer has spread, based on Kiley’s motion. Two high-tech scans performed on DiMasi showed a suspicious mass in his stomach that could be cancer.
However, Buchbinder of Beth Israel said cancer specialists consider cancers of the head and neck to have reached Stage 4, or metastasis, even when it has only spread to nearby tissue.
Kiley would not comment on DiMasi’s condition or his request for an extension of DiMasi’s appeal until Aug. 20, which has already been approved, except to say that he sought the delay so that DiMasi can fully participate “in his own defense.”
It was unclear whether DiMasi’s prognosis would be better if he had seen a specialist when he first noticed the lumps. But a prisoner is entitled to the same medical care as anyone else, said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. Failure to provide appropriate and prompt care could give DiMasi grounds for suing the Bureau of Prisons, she said.
“The standard is the same — whether you’re a prisoner or not,” said Walker.
“If you have cancer you get treatment. If you go to your doctor and say ‘I have a lump, can I have it looked at,’ you’re not going to get it blown off for six months.”
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