Jimmy Carter begins battle with brain cancer: ‘This is not a eulogy in any way,’ says his grandson

Faced with a brain cancer diagnosis, former U.S president and Georgia governor plans to scale back humanitarian work to focus on treatment.
Jimmy Carter
On Sept. 10, 2013, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter participates in an online video discussion about challenges facing global health.

Deborah Hakes/The Carter Center

At 10 o’clock sharp this morning, Jimmy Carter walked into the Carter Center’s Cecil Day Chapel, wearing a blazer and blue jeans, to reveal that his melanoma, first diagnosed on his liver in May, has spread to his brain—and potentially other parts of his body. The diagnosis is forcing him to undergo radiation treatment and to scale back his humanitarian efforts with the Carter Center, the institute that monitors elections and works to eradicate diseases around the world. The 90-year-old former president and former Georgia governor said he was “perfectly at ease” with whatever happens next in his fight against cancer.

With his family close by, including wife Rosalynn and grandson Jason, Carter told an army of reporters that, after the initial diagnosis in May, he waited until June to share the news with his wife. In early August, surgeons removed a growth from his liver. During the operation, doctors discovered the tumor on his liver was not isolated, but had spread from another part of his body.

“I just thought I had a few weeks left,” said Carter about his initial cancer diagnosis, who appeared in good sprits as he answered reporters’ questions for the better part of an hour. “I was at ease with that.”

Carter’s medical team has instructed the former president to undergo four rounds of radiation treatment to remove four small spots of melanoma—one round every three weeks, beginning today. He’ll also receive additional medication to boost his immune system. Doctors will continue to monitor for melanoma in other parts of his body, which doctors have told Carter is likely to happen.

Dr. Wally Curran, executive director of the Emory Winship Cancer Institute, one of multiple healthcare institutions treating the former president, did not offer further specifics about Carter’s diagnosis. But he said research advances in treating cancer over the past two decades have made it possible for melanoma like Carter’s to be maintained in a way that’s similar to a chronic disease.

“No one cures high-blood pressure,” Curran says. “Most types of heart disease are not curable. Yet many of our friends and families live with these diseases for years. [It could mean] longterm life with a good quality of life. Any physicians taking care of patients such as President Carter, that’s their goal.”

So far, Carter said, the side effects from the medication taken yesterday in advance of his first round of radiation were minimal. “Last night was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in many years,” he quipped. For a man whose father, mother, and two sisters all died of cancer—in their cases, pancreatic cancer—Carter’s own diagnosis was something he’d been preparing himself for for years.

In order to focus on his treatment, Carter plans to step away from many of his hands-on duties at the Carter Center, work that he considers more “personally gratifying” than the four years he spent as president. Health permitting, he hopes to go on his annual Habitat for Humanity trip in November, this one planned for Nepal. The issue of succession at the Carter Center is nothing new; in March, the institute announced that Jason Carter, the president’s grandson, would take over as board of trustees chairman this November. Jason Carter, a former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate, told us after the briefing that he hopes to act as a steward for the humanitarian organization. “This is not a eulogy in any way,” he added.

“For a long time, people looked at him as someone who was just going to go on forever,” Jason Carter said. “That’s the way he’s approached it. There’s an old gospel song called, ‘I’m going to stay on the battlefield.’ That’s always been the way he’s approached his life.”

The former president, who’s received well wishes from all the living American presidents, was remarkably sanguine, given the seriousness of the diagnosis. A man of deep faith and conviction, Carter plans to keep teaching Sunday school in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. He said he was “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” At the same time, he added, he never considered anything but an aggressive attack on the cancer. “I want the last Guinea worm to die before I do.”