Former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has been diagnosed with cancer in his tongue and lymph nodes, his family confirmed Friday, a disease that can be fatal if not detected early.
DiMasi, a onetime political power now serving eight years in a Kentucky prison for corruption, was diagnosed last month after he discovered a suspicious growth, a family friend said. It’s unclear where DiMasi will be treated, but there is a prison medical facility specializing in cancer treatment in North Carolina.
“Our family was shocked and saddened to learn that Sal was diagnosed last month with a rare form of cancer,’’ said his wife, Debbie DiMasi, in a statement to the Globe in response to questions about her husband’s health. “We hope he can get the prompt and proper treatment for this serious medical condition.’’
DiMasi already knew about the suspicious growth when federal marshals brought him back to Massachusetts in February to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a rigged hiring system in the state Probation Department. But doctors did not confirm that the growth was cancerous until he returned to Kentucky.
“Sal’s always been a fighter and he’s ready to take on this next challenge,’’ Debbie DiMasi said in her statement. “Our family had hoped this would remain a private, family matter and asks for privacy through this difficult time.’’
Tongue cancer is relatively uncommon, striking fewer than 13,000 people in the United States each year and killing about 2,000, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most of the victims are men, often smokers or heavy alcohol users, though DiMasi does not smoke or drink heavily, according to friends and former co-workers.
If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, the risk of death within five years is greater than 40 percent, federal cancer statistics show.
Exactly how DiMasi’s cancer will be treated depends on the type and extent of the disease. Many small tumors can be treated by surgery or radiation alone, according to the website of American Oral Cancer Clinic, a Houston-based group practice that specializes in treating oral cancers.
But if the tumor gets larger or spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck, as appears to have happened in DiMasi’s case, doctors may call for some combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Depending on the degree of damage to the tongue or other areas in the mouth, patients may also need reconstructive surgery, according to the clinic website.
DiMasi, 66, may be treated at a prison medical facility at the federal correctional complex in Butner, N.C., which is about 500 miles from the Lexington, Ky., prison where DiMasi is being held, according to a family friend.
DiMasi was once one of the state’s most powerful politicians, serving as House speaker from 2004 to 2009. He resigned in late January 2009 after House Democrats reelected him as their leader despite the state and federal corruption investigations that had engulfed him.
He was convicted last June for pocketing cash from Cognos, a software company that was seeking multimillion-dollar contracts from the state, and was handed the toughest federal sentence ever given a Massachusetts elected official.
DiMasi, who has steadfastly professed his innocence and has appealed the conviction, originally requested that he be imprisoned at Fort Devens so he could be closer to his stepchildren and wife, who was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time.
The Bureau of Prisons instead sent DiMasi to Kentucky because it has a medical center where he could be treated for other ailments, including a heart condition. He suffered a heart attack in 1989.
He asked US District Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf to delay his prison term to give him time to challenge the assignment, but Wolf refused.
In March, DiMasi asked to be reassigned to the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., where he was housed briefly while he was testifying before a federal grand jury in Worcester investigating the hiring scandal in the Probation Department.
John J. O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, hired or promoted more job applicants recommended by DiMasi than any other legislator, state records show.
DiMasi told friends he testified for five hours, but did not provide information about O’Brien’s hiring process that prosecutors could use against current or former legislators. Four people, including O’Brien, have been indicted after allegations that they ran a rigged hiring system that favored politically connected candidates. So far, no lawmakers have been indicted.
But Wolf again rejected DiMasi’s request to remain close to home, refusing to let him stay in Rhode Island after his testimony concluded. Around the same time, a Suffolk Superior Court judge authorized East Boston Savings Bank to foreclose on and sell off his million-dollar condo on Commercial Street in the North End.
Representative Angelo Scaccia, a Readville Democrat who is a longtime friend of DiMasi’s, has been soliciting donations for DiMasi’s family, according to several lawmakers, who said they do not know how much has been raised. Scaccia could not be reached by the Globe.
A lobbyist who has known DiMasi for years said he would gladly give.
“When you’ve been in the public arena for many years and in the State House, you become part of the fabric and you develop relationships,’’ said Paul Pezzella, a longtime lobbyist and former state official. “It doesn’t matter whether legislators support or oppose you. In the end, what matters in life is the relationships you develop.
“Sal DiMasi made a terrible mistake. But he is a good person and I would help him in any way that I could,’’ Pezzella said.