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American imprisoned in Cuba may have cancer, doctor says

Peter Kahn / AP

American Alan Gross in 2009, left, and in 2012, right. A U.S. doctor said that Gross' weight loss, and a review of CT and ultrasound scans suggest Gross should be rigorously evaluated for cancer. He has a mass behind his right shoulder blade that Cuban doctors have diagnosed as a hematoma.


Alan Gross, a 63-year-old U.S. citizen imprisoned in Cuba for nearly three years, may be suffering from untreated cancer, according to a U.S. doctor who has reviewed Gross’ medical records — a conclusion that is at odds with the government in Havana, which has maintained that the American is in normal health.

Gross, a contractor for the United States government, was arrested as for subversion of the state in late 2009, and his case is a sticking point in U.S.-Cuban relations. The latest questions about his health have pushed his case to the forefront again.

Five months ago, Gross developed a mass behind his right shoulder blade, which doctors in Cuba diagnosed as a hematoma that would be reabsorbed within a few months, according to Reuters.

But an American radiologist consulted by Gross' wife to review his CT and ultrasound scans said the mass had not been properly evaluated, according to a doctor's statement released by Gross’ attorney Jared Genser.

Maryland-based radiologist Alan Cohen said the scans, combined with news that Gross has lost 105 pounds since his December 2009 arrest — suggest to him that Gross needs urgent evaluation — and very likely a biopsy of the mass — preferably at a facility in the United States.

A "soft tissue mass in an adult who has lost considerable weight must be assumed to represent a malignant tumor unless proven to be benign," said Cohen in a letter obtained by NBC News.

"If the mass is a soft tissue sarcoma and treated aggressively there is a good chance of cure; if on the other hand it is not treated aggressively and early and it spreads to lung and liver, his life expectancy would be about three months. Several months have already been wasted and the clock is ticking," Cohen wrote in the letter.

Attorney Genser said he hopes the doctor's evaluation, will raise the stakes enough for Cuba to take action.

"It is critically important that Alan Gross get competent medical care as quickly as possible," he said. "We hope this independent medical review demonstrates the need for that to happen immediately. I would urge the government of Cuba to allow Alan to be receive a doctor of his choosing to do a medical examination to evaluate his tumor."

Gross was arrested for "crimes against the state" and sentenced to 15 years for providing satellite equipment and service to Cuban Jewish groups.

At the time of his arrest, the Baltimore native was working for Development Alternatives, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up an intranet system, which his attorneys say was for sharing information such as recipes and prayers among the Jewish community in Cuba.

USAID’s Cuba program focuses its efforts on "increasing the ability of Cubans to participate in civic affairs and improve human rights conditions on the island," according to the federal agency's website. It had funding of $20 million for fiscal 2012.

Gross' arrest put an end to a brief period of warming in U.S.-Cuban relations, which had been chilly since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro that established a communist state.

So far, there's no sign that either the U.S. or Cuba has budged on the issue.

Josefina Vidal, head of the North American Division at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, told NBC News that her government has offered to "have a dialogue with the US government to solve all our problems and that would include trying to find a humanitarian solution to Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis. The U.S. government is responsible for the situation Mr. Gross finds himself in."

Vidal said there is no active negotiation currently underway between the two governments with the aim to free Gross. She asserted that "while we have conveyed our willingness to sit down and talk, to initiate a negotiation, we are still waiting for a response to our offer."

She did not specify what was entailed in that offer. Cuba has suggested in the past that Gross could be released in exchange release by the United States of four Cubans nationals held on espionage and murder conspiracy charges.

The idea been firmly rejected by the U.S. government, most recently by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in March, who said that Gross should be released unconditionally. The cases are not comparable, Nuland said, because "Gross is not a spy."

On Sept. 25, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro calling for Gross’ release, calling his detention "a major obstacle" to improving relations.  The letter, signed by 44 senators was U.S. legislators’ most strident effort on Gross’s behalf to date.

Judy Gross, has repeatedly appealed to government officials on both sides to negotiate her husband's release. On Tuesday, in a letter released by Genser, she appealed to Cuban President Raul Castro to allow her husband to be examined by a doctor chosen by the family.

"President Castro, I beg you not to let my husband die on your watch," Judy Gross said. "Your country claims to have such a wonderful health care system — yet why have your doctors misdiagnosed him and failed to order the right tests to determine what is actually happening?"

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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