Carter recently finished a nationwide tour for his latest book, called “A Full Life: Reflections at 90,” in which he noted a history of pancreatic cancer in his family. His father, brother and two sisters all died from the disease, he wrote, and his mother had it as well.
On Aug. 3, days after the tour ended, the Carter Center said the former president had “elective” surgery to remove the mass from his liver.
Carter, a peanut farmer who became Georgia’s governor, defeated Republican Gerald Ford in 1976 to become the nation’s 39th president. He established a national energy policy and brokered a landmark peace deal between Israel and Egypt. But the end of his one term in the White House was marred by an energy crisis and an Iranian hostage standoff.
He lost the 1980 election to Republican Ronald Reagan and returned to Georgia. In the 35 years since, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize and logged millions of miles and visited dozens of countries on missions to monitor the globe to promote voting rights, settle conflicts, advocate for human rights and fight deadly diseases such as malaria. Rosalynn, his wife of 69 years, often accompanied him on his journeys.
More recently, Carter played a mostly behind-the-scenes role in Jason Carter’s failed bid to unseat Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. The elder Carter provided his grandson with policy advice and fundraising heft. Near the end of the campaign, the former president headlined rallies and stumped door to door.
Residents of Plains, the southwest Georgia town where Carter lives and teaches regular Sunday school lessons, were struggling with the news.
“It’s shocking us. It’s just a shock to us,” said Jennifer Jackson, who works at Plains Peanuts in the town’s small commercial strip. “He means so much to the town. And we want him to recover quickly and soon.”
Jill Stuckey, a close friend to Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, said residents have been “praying ever since we found out about the small mass on his liver.”
“He’s done everything right. He exercises, he eats right, that’s how he’s gotten to be 90 and (still) going to different continents,” said Stuckey, who helps manage the crowds of visitors at Maranatha Baptist Church when the former president gives lessons.
There’s a history of cancer in Carter’s family, she added, “but if anyone can beat it, it’s Jimmy Carter.”
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society, said the physicians treating Carter will typically first determine what kind of cancer he has and where it originated. They next will determine how to treat it.
“It’s more of a challenge in somebody who is 90 years old. But they can have surgery, they can have radiation, and they can have chemotherapy,” said Lichtenfeld. “It really depends on the physical capacity of the individual, not how many years they have on the calendar.”
Past and present politicians sent Twitter messages and press releases offering him their prayers. U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were among the well-wishers.
“We need his wisdom, his words, and his leadership now more than ever before. We need him to continue to speak out on the great issues of our time,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, said in a statement. “I will keep him, his wife and his family in my prayers. He has my most hopeful wishes for a complete recovery.”
President Barack Obama offered this hope: “Jimmy, you’re as resilient as they come, and along with the rest of America, we are rooting for you.”
Carter acknowledged in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he may be a rare president who left a bigger legacy outside the White House than when he held office.
“I had so much authority as president. I was able to bring peace to Israel for the first time in history. I was able to implement normal relations with China. I was able to keep our country at peace, one of the rare times in recent history where we stayed at peace,” he said.
“But at the Carter Center, the humanitarian aspect of my life has been far superior,” he added. “In those days, I dealt with presidents and kings and prime ministers and ministers of state. Now we deal with individual families in the most remote and poverty stricken areas in the world.”
Carter’s friends and neighbors rallied around him Wednesday. Lee Kinnamon, a high school history teacher in Americus and chief conductor of a local rail line that Carter championed, said he expected the former president to use his illness as a “teachable moment” to help others.
“It’s a moment for him to demonstrate to the world his personal courage and faith and his commitment to his family. It’s going to be another opportunity for him to model virtue to the world,” Kinnamon said. “That’s what he’s been doing for us all along, and this will be another opportunity he’ll seize.”