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As Menino faces cancer fight, support pours in

Thomas M. Menino sat with a group of children at a book signing at Dorchester Winter Farmers Market in Codman Square.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Thomas M. Menino sat with a group of children at a book signing at Dorchester Winter Farmers Market in Codman Square.

The door swung open and, to poignant applause, the guest of honor shuffled inside, leaning on his cane.

“I’m just a guy from Hyde Park,” he told a crush of reporters.

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But Thomas M. Menino is much more than that, to the more than 100 parents and children waiting for him at a Dorchester book signing Sunday afternoon and to residents across the city he helmed for more than 20 years. In the hours after his public disclosure that he is battling an advanced form of cancer, the former mayor has received an outpouring of support and prayers.

From Grove Hall to South Boston, residents and officials alike wished Menino a speedy recovery, and said they were certain the man who will always be known as “mayor” would not back down from a tough fight.

Menino’s successor, Martin J. Walsh, said the people of Boston needed to pray for him.

“But I’m not going to sit here and give an obituary,” the current mayor said following a keynote speech he gave to the New England Food Show early Sunday afternoon. “Tom Menino still has a lot to give to this city.”

During his appearance Sunday at a farmers market in Dorchester’s Codman Square, Menino struck an upbeat and defiant tone, calling himself a fighter who would conquer cancer just as he had previous health problems.

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“I look forward to a healthy life” after treatment, he said. “I’m very confident on this. I’ll be back . . . I believe in myself, I believe in my doctors, and I believe in my faith, and I believe I have the ability to beat it back.”

Menino’s appearance at the market had been scheduled before news of his illness broke, and was intended to help promote a children’s book by Dorchester author Kathleen Chardavoyne about his mayoralty.

Asked about the outpouring of support from Boston and beyond, Menino said he did not deserve it.

“Who am I? I’m just a guy from Hyde Park,” he said

Turning more serious, Menino added: “We’re a family city. We all know each other . . . When something happens to somebody else, they all rally. Look at what happened with the Marathon bombing and how we rallied then.”

Menino appeared in good spirits, even joking about the book, “Goodbye, Mayor Menino.”

“What an appropriate title that is!” he cracked.

Bostonians in attendance, many visibly worried, approached Menino to offer brief, quiet words of support. Some described family members who had overcome similar diagnoses.

He then sat with a group of young children to listen to a reading of the book, giving them high-fives and leaning in to listen intently as a little girl whispered in his ear.

Menino’s affinity for connecting with children was well known when he was mayor. Sunday afternoon, he said the only aspect of his diagnosis that concerned him was how his six grandchildren would take the news.

“They misinterpret sometimes the news,” he said. “You have to talk to them about it.”

Asked if he felt sorry for himself because of a series of recent health problems, Menino said emphatically that he did not.

“I’m the luckiest guy in America,” he said. “I was lucky to lead this city for 20 years. The health things are a little bump in the road, but we get over them.”

Earlier Sunday, at the St. John Chrysostom church in West Roxbury where Menino regularly attends Mass, emotional parishioners expressed grief over the cancer diagnosis and reflected on his importance to Boston.

“He made a great impact on Boston, especially with the spirit he had,” said 72-year-old Hyde Park resident Mary Turley. “He loves this city. No matter what I disagreed with, I knew his heart was in the right place.”

Parishioners also said Menino is a quiet member of the congregation who never seeks the spotlight, but is always ready to listen to the concerns of others.

“He isn’t one to make a big show of things,” said DeLane Anderson Jr. “I consider him to be such a good man. He does things in his own, humble way.”

At the Roxbury Presbyterian Church Sunday, not everyone had heard the news before the service began. Concerned murmurs rippled through the congregation when the Rev. Liz Walker said during prayers, “Mayor Menino is fighting for his life.”

Walker and other leaders of Boston’s religious community in attendance lauded the former mayor for his frequent attendance at their events and steady support of youth programs.

“He has always been and will always be a man of the people,” Walker said. “That’s why he stole my heart. Because you see so many political figures every once in a while, but Mayor Menino was everywhere — it was not a once in a while thing.”

Walker said she most recently saw Menino when he attended a ceremony earlier this month installing her as pastor of the church, where he got an enthusiastic reception.

“I just want him to know that we are here for him, because he was always here for us,” she said.

In Grove Hall, an area on the Roxbury-Dorchester border that Menino helped develop in the 1990s, residents reflected on the mark he left on the neighborhood.

Behind the counter of Grove Hall Convenience on Blue Hill Avenue, longtime employee Lucy Arroyo, 63, said she remembers well what the area looked like before the Grove Hall Mecca shopping center opened across the street.

“He wanted to fix Grove Hall, to make it look better, because at that time, the area was ugly around here,” she said. “Now it’s a different place.”

Menino was a strong advocate for the center, which opened in 1999, and the 5,000 affordable housing units that came with it.

Nearby, at Edward’s Barber Shop, Hyde Park resident Brenda Maria Mena, 27, said she remembered meeting Menino as a 9-year-old art contest winner at the Haley Elementary School in Roslindale.

For Mena and other residents her age, Menino’s long tenure as mayor spanned the majority of their lives. To them, he is an immutable fixture of life in Boston. Mena said she was speechless when she learned Menino has advanced cancer.

“He’s such a prominent figure for Boston,” Mena said. “I hope he recovers, and that his family stays strong, and that he stays strong.”

At Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, the event’s host, addressed the news of the former mayor’s illness early in the humor-heavy event. She said this year’s iteration of the South Boston tradition would be dedicated to him and his recovery.

“Many of us woke up today and our hearts were heavy upon learning of the mayor’s illness. But you know what, that’s not what Tom Menino wants. He doesn’t want to turn on the TV and see our long faces,” she said.

She added the best way to help him take on his next challenge was to make him laugh.

For his part, Menino said at the Dorchester book-signing he was glad to have missed the political event, which he compared to “a root canal without Novocain.”

While the speakers at the breakfast — a roast, variety show,, and concert in one — focused their remarks on jokes, some made reference to Menino’s diagnosis.

City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, whom Menino handily beat in the 2009 Boston mayoral race, advised the former mayor to look at his cancer fight like it was a political contest.

“Treat this ailment . . . like an election,” he said. “If you do that, Mayor Menino, you’re going to survive and you’re going to do very well and you’re going to conquer this thing.”

Walsh said he spoke with Menino on Saturday night and said his predecessor told him, “I’ve beaten this before.” The crowd applauded loudly.

After the breakfast, politicos lauded Menino’s strength.

City Councilor Tito Jackson said he knows Menino is a strong-willed fighter.

“I know that he is too strong and too stubborn to be overcome by this,” Jackson said. “He has fought many battles. And he’s won most of them.”

Treasurer Steven Grossman said Menino “is showing what Boston Strong is all about.”

And state Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg said that the breakfast was infused with Boston’s affection for the city’s longtime chief.

“He’s loved by these people, he’s loved by the city of Boston and everybody is rooting for him,” Rosenberg said.

Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Joshua Miller can be reached atjoshua.miller@globe.com. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.

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