Lessons from Jimmy Carter’s cancer treatment

What you can learn from his experience
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Jimmy Carter
Photograph courtesy of The Carter Center
Jimmy Carter Cancer
Photograph by Kim Fuller

Richard Nixon launched the nation’s “war on cancer” in 1971, and 44 years later his successor, former president Jimmy Carter, is showing the world the view from the front lines. Last August, looking relaxed and even jovial, 91-year-old Carter spoke about his cancer diagnosis and treatment. His remarkable candor and upbeat attitude conveyed a message of hope, and his detailed explanations provided some important information about new treatments for melanoma, which kills about 10,000 people a year.

“Where we had little to no hope five years ago, we now have genuine hope that we can make a real difference in the lives of patients,” says J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. What you can learn from Carter’s cancer experience:

The signs aren’t always visible. Often by the time someone feels pain, their cancer has reached a late, dangerous stage. Carter said he initially went to the doctor because of a bad cold. A full medical exam led to an MRI, which detected a growth on his liver; a second scan later found spots on his brain. (The original melanoma site was never found.) Still, in most cases, melanoma appears as an irregular spot or bump on the skin that changes or grows. Routine screening is the best way to detect cancer at an early stage, when it’s easier to treat.

It isn’t always an emergency. Carter revealed that scans detected the liver tumor in May. Yet he didn’t seek treatment right away, instead embarking on a book tour before finally undergoing surgery on August 3. Why no rush? While some cancers grow and spread rapidly, others—including about two-thirds of melanomas—grow slowly over a period of years. In fact, some, such as certain types of prostate cancer, grow so slowly that they will never spread, making treatment more harmful than helpful. Cancer experts are now trying to figure out how to tell the difference between fast- and slow-growing cancers, so they can better target the treatment where it’s needed or even take a “watch and wait” approach.

New treatments are less harsh than before. Traditional chemotherapy blasts fast-growing cancer cells along with fast-growing healthy cells, which is why patients often lose their hair and suffer from side effects like nausea and fatigue. But a newer type of treatment called immunotherapy works differently, by stimulating a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Carter had received one treatment before his press conference, at which he reported just a little shoulder pain and sleepiness. “I think it’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years,” he joked. Carter has also benefited from breakthroughs in radiation therapy, which now uses brain scans to target lesions with pinpoint accuracy, leaving surrounding healthy tissue untouched.

Finding a cure might not be necessary. Cancer is a lot more complicated than anyone realized when Nixon declared war on it. But though we might not be getting close to a cure, we are getting better at treating cancer like a chronic disease, holding it at bay for years or even decades. Says Walter J. Curran Jr., executive director of Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, where Carter is receiving treatment: “The goal is really control and a good quality of life.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.

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