How is Jimmy Carter? He's Doing Well
- Despite health concerns, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter celebrated his 97th birthday this year, making him the oldest former president.
- In 2015, Carter was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that had spread throughout his body. In December of that year, he was cancer-free. He remains free of disease to this day.
- Melanoma treatment has come a long way over the years. With breakthrough treatments like targeted therapy and immunotherapy, people who are diagnosed today have a much better chance of living a long and healthy life than ever before.
In July, the former president celebrated another milestone: 75 years married to the love of his life and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. "I want to express particular gratitude for being the right woman that I chose for my wife," Jimmy Carter said during the couple's 75th wedding anniversary celebration.Read More
Jimmy Carter's Cancer BattleIn 2015, just a few years before breaking his hip, Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that had spread throughout his body.
Melanoma treatment has come a long way over the years. Survival rates have risen dramatically, thanks to a "treatment revolution," SurvivorNet experts say. With breakthrough treatments like targeted therapy and immunotherapy now available, people who are diagnosed today have a much better chance of living a long and healthy life than ever before. If you're diagnosed with melanoma, there's a good chance surgery is going to be the treatment your doctor recommends. In the early stages of the disease, removing the cancer should lead to a cure.
However, once your cancer spreads, treatment gets a little more complicated. But there are still ways to stop it. New treatments have vastly improved the outlook for people with metastatic melanoma, like Carter.
For treatment, Jimmy Carter went through immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of one's own immune system to fight off cancer cells. He also went through surgery and radiation. (Carter's treatment plan of surgery, radiation and immunotherapy is often considered the most effective route for metastatic melanoma patients.)
This thorough treatment plan was necessary, especially since Carter's melanoma had spread to his brain. But as it turns out, the treatments were all worth it. Once going public about his cancer battle a few months later, he shared in December 2015 that an MRI scan found no evidence of disease; he was considered cancer-free.
Treating Late-Stage Melanoma
As previously stated, once the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, like Carter’s cancer did, treatment can be tricky.
Targeted drugs (one treatment option) block proteins and other substances the cancer needs to grow, while immunotherapy (another treatment option) boosts your body's own response to help it fight the cancer better. With so many more choices available, treatment can be tailored specifically to you and your needs. These therapies are more likely than chemotherapy to control your cancer, but like any treatment, they can cause side effects.
Immunotherapy drugs like pembrolizumab (brand name: Keytruda) and nivolumab (brand name: Opdivo) can help some people with this type of cancer live longer maybe even as long as Jimmy Carter! Whether these drugs are right for you depends on a number of factors, including where the melanoma is and how fast it's spreading. Combining immunotherapy drugs might also extend survival. But again, these treatments have risks that are important to discuss with your doctor.
There's also a vaccine that has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved for people whose melanoma has spread and can't be removed with surgery. Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) is a modified herpes virus that kills cancer cells when doctors inject it directly into the cancer.
Researchers, including some SurvivorNet experts, are studying other groundbreaking melanoma treatments in clinical trials. Enrolling in one of these studies might give you access to a new treatment before it's available to everyone else. (Many SurvivorNet experts say that once they've exhausted all other options for treating their patients' cancer, or if they have a rare cancer, they'll recommend looking into clinical trials. How can you find active clinical trials that may be right for you? Check out clinicaltrials.gov.)
Once you've finished treatment for melanoma, it can come with a huge sense of relief just like with any cancer treatment. Celebrate your successes, but stay vigilant. It’s possible for this cancer to come back in the future. For Jimmy Carter, he’s been cancer-free for six years now. Whether your cancer is likely to return may depend on your stage, so screening recommendations vary.
If you had early-stage melanoma, you should have a skin exam once every three to six months. If you had late-stage melanoma like Carter in addition to regular skin exams every three to six months, you may also need imaging scans or blood tests to monitor for signs of recurrence. You should also report any symptoms such as a headache, changes in vision, cough, fatigue or weight loss to your doctor.
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff