The former president, 90, says he never considered not fighting the cancer

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
August 20, 2015 11:15 AM
Chris Rank/Bloomberg/Getty

Stoic but joking, Jimmy Carter, 90, shared on Thursday the grim news that the cancer found in his liver is melanoma and has spread to four “very small” spots in his brain.

The former president, sitting alone in a suit and tie at a table in a conference room at his Carter Center in Atlanta, spoke optimistically of his prognosis, outlining how he began chemotherapy on Wednesday and would undergo his first radiation treatment later on Thursday.

The radiation would target the four 2-millimeter melanomas on his brain, he said, with four treatments scheduled at three-week intervals.

But even as Carter spoke of continuing fundraising for the Carter Center and hoping to keep his commitment to build houses in Nepal, he raised the possibility of having limited time left: the treatments would continue, he said, “for the next number of months, if it goes on that long.”

He said that when his doctors at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta first told him he had cancer, “I just thought I had a few weeks left and I was surprisingly at ease.”

“Much more so than my wife was,” Carter said with a chuckle and a glance at his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, who was sitting nearby and who, friends say, is “scared” for her husband.

Carter, a longtime Baptist preacher and Sunday school teacher, says his “deep religious faith” has given him peace about the diagnosis. He’s felt no anger or despair, he insisted.

“I have been as blessed as any human being in the world,” Carter said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had thousands of friends … an exciting, adventurous and gratifying existence.”

He said he never considered forgoing treatment in favor of palliative hospice care: “I’ll do whatever doctors recommend to extend my life as much as possible.”

After all, he has work yet to do.

He spoke of a planned upcoming trip to Nepal with Habitat for Humanity – his and Rosalynn’s 33rd home-building outing with the charity. “Is that right, Rosa? Thirty-three years without fail building houses,” he said, looking over at his wife.

He added that they will make the trip, so long as he’s able and it doesn’t interfere with his treatment regimen.

Carter explained in candid and plainspoken terms how, on a trip to Guyana earlier this year, he suffered a “very bad cold” and returned home so doctors “could check me over.”

An MRI scan at that time showed a tumor on his liver, so he then had a PET scan – one “that kind of lights up a bad place. And that lit up, so they were pretty sure it was cancer.”

Surgery on his liver Aug. 3 (“they removed one-tenth of my liver; they think they got it all there”) and a subsequent biopsy confirmed the cancer.

Surgery and his first chemotherapy treatment have left him feeling pretty good so far, he said. “The pain has been very slight. I haven’t had any unpleasantness yet.”

In fact, he grinned widely recounting how many world leaders have called him to wish him well – including President Obama, with whom Carter has had a spotty relationship. “It was the first time he called me in a long time!” Carter said with a laugh.

Asked about his unfinished business at the Carter Center, he said his first priority is to see Guinea worm fully eradicated from the planet. He ticked off where each of the half-dozen cases remain – in impoverished corners of South Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere.

“I’d like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.”

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