Carter begins treatment for cancer in the brain, liver

Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this article.

Story highlights:

  • Former President Jimmy Carter announced at a press conference that cancer had spread to his liver and brain.
  • Carter will undergo radiation treatment and intensive drug therapy.
  • The cancer is melanoma, one of the most common cancers to spread to the brain.

  • Dr. Walter Curran Jr., the executive director of Emory's Winship Cancer Institute, said therapies have improved dramatically in the past few years to treat cancer of the brain.
  • Carter said he will take a step back from his work at the Carter Center and Emory University, but he hasn't ruled out a trip to Nepal later this year to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

Former President Jimmy Carter underwent a dose of radiation treatment Thursday to battle the cancer doctors have already found in his liver and brain and believe originated somewhere else, saying he was “surprisingly at ease” with the challenge ahead.

During an extraordinary press conference, the 90-year-old Georgia native spoke for nearly 40 minutes, talking candidly — and, at times, adding a dash of humor — about the four small melanoma lesions that doctors discovered in his brain.

Carter said he would fight the cancer but was clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. Doctors have told him the cancer was treatable, he said, but it could have spread elsewhere in the body. His message to the public, he added, was "one of hope and acceptance. Hope for the best, accept what comes."

“I think I have been as blessed as any human being in the world,” he said.

Carter, wearing blue jeans and a coat and tie, announced the findings at a press conference Thursday at the Carter Center in which he spoke frankly of his mortality, his regrets and his greatest accomplishments. He delved into his medical history, his legacy and his love for his hometown of Plains.

He spoke of his biggest regrets — not sending another helicopter to rescue the Iran hostages was one of them — and said he was considering a trip to Nepal to work on Habitat for Humanity houses. He talked about his quest for peace in the Middle East, his campaign against Guinea worm and other deadly diseases, and his political career.

And, as ever, he said his marriage to Rosalynn was his most important achievement.

‘I just thought I had a few weeks left’

Carter said physicians were first alerted in May when, fighting a cold, he cut short an election-monitoring trip to Guyana. Emory University Hospital physicians discovered a lesion on his liver, which they removed in an operation earlier this month that took about 10 percent of the organ.

The same afternoon as the operation, an MRI of his head and neck revealed the lesions in his brain.

“I just thought I had a few weeks left, but I was surprisingly at ease,” Carter said. “I’ve had a full life, I have thousands of friends … so I was surprisingly at ease, much more so than my wife was.”

His grandson former state Sen. Jason Carter said the former president was initially more worried than he let on.

“He wasn’t sure he was going to get to finish the book he was reading when he first found out,” the younger Carter said.

Melanoma is one of the most common cancers to spread to the brain, and a patient’s prognosis generally depends on factors such as the number and size of tumors, as well as their location in the brain.

Dr. Walter Curran Jr., the executive director of Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, said therapies have improved dramatically in the past few years to treat cancer of the brain.

Just a few years ago, Curran said, whole-brain radiation may have been needed to treat tumors such as the ones Carter developed. Now there are targeted treatments that can home in on the small growths.

“Any treatment can be tough at any age,” he said. “But most people can go on with daily life” amid therapy.

Carter has an extensive family history of pancreatic cancer, but he said Thursday that his melanoma has not spread to his pancreas. He also acknowledged that it’s possible it could spread to that organ in the future, and he described himself as a “quiescent patient.”

“Within the bounds of my own judgment, I’ll do what the doctors recommend to extend my life,” he said. “They have means, they say, and I trust them completely, to alleviate the aftereffects or side effects of the treatments. … I don’t anticipate any trouble with pain or suffering.”

‘I might have been re-elected’

Carter, a former 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 the Iranian hostage standoff.

“I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to rescue the hostages,” he said of the aborted Iranian hostage rescue, drawing laughs from the audience. “I think I might have been re-elected.”

But Carter noted that if he had won re-election, he might not have started the Carter Center.

“If I had to choose four more years or the Carter Center,” he said, “I think I’d choose the Carter Center.”

In the 35 years since he returned to Georgia after his 1980 defeat to Ronald Reagan, he has logged millions of miles and visited dozens of countries on missions to promote voting rights, settle conflicts, advocate for human rights and combat deadly diseases such as malaria and Guinea worm.

Asked to describe something he hoped to see before he dies, Carter pointed to eradication of the Guinea worm, noting that the debilitating disease, which numbered 3.6 million cases when he launched his fight in 1986, was now down to 11 cases.

“I want the last Guinea worm to die before I do,” he said with a grin.

But Carter also said the “pinnacle of my life” was his marriage to Rosalynn, his wife of 69 years.

‘I plan to teach Sunday school’

News of Carter’s cancer last week sparked an outpouring of prayer for the former president. Well-wishers at the Carter Center penned notes urging him to feel better, and the owner of Manuel’s Tavern hung a giant banner atop the popular Atlanta restaurant reading: “Get Well Soon, Jimmy.”

Residents of Plains, the town of about 700 where Carter lives, have rallied around their native son. On Sunday, he surprised many when he showed up at Sunday services at the nearby Maranatha Baptist Church, where he has long led Bible study. He made clear he will continue that tradition.

“I plan to teach Sunday school this Sunday and every Sunday as long as I’m physically and mentally able,” he said.

For now, Carter will take a step back from his work at the Carter Center and Emory University. He said he still hasn’t ruled out a trip to Nepal to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, but he sounded doubtful because it would delay his final radiation treatment.

He plans to travel less and rearrange his schedule so he can continue getting treatment. And, above all, he said he wants to spend more time with Rosalynn and their great-grandchildren.

“This is not a eulogy. This is really sort of a retirement,” said Jason Carter, the incoming chairman of the Carter Center. “I hope he spends as much time with his wife as he wants and catches as much fish as he can.”

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