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Carter to get radiation, new immune therapy for skin cancer

August 20, 2015 GMT

It was found in his liver and then in his brain, but very well may have started in his skin. Former President Jimmy Carter revealed Thursday that he has melanoma, a serious form of cancer.

Carter, who will turn 91 in October, said he has already begun treatments for four small brain tumors.

A look at more about his situation:


Carter said he had a complete physical after feeling ill during a trip in May, and an MRI scan revealed a mass in his liver. A PET scan looked suspicious for cancer, and he started talking with doctors about his options.


“We knew, I would say, end of June that I had to have an operation on my liver,” Carter said, but “doctors told me it was a very slow-growing cancer,” so an operation was done on Aug. 3, after a book tour he had scheduled.

That surgery, done laparoscopically, through tiny cuts in the abdomen, confirmed cancer, and an MRI scan that afternoon revealed it had spread to his brain.


“Most melanomas occur on the skin, about 95 percent of them,” and Carter’s cancer probably originated there even though no skin tumor may be apparent now, said Dr. Anna Pavlick, co-director of the melanoma program at NYU’s Laura & Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center.

Sometimes the origin of melanoma cannot be determined. On very rare occasions, melanoma can start in mucus membranes or even the eye. But having cancer spread to the liver and the brain is not uncommon after a tumor that starts in skin, several cancer specialists said.

A skin cancer is not unlikely considering that Carter lives in the South, is fair-skinned and freckled, and through Habitat for Humanity and travel, has spent a lot of time outdoors — all known risks for melanoma, Pavlick said.


Carter said he will get two types of treatment — focused radiation to the tumors in his brain and a drug aimed at boosting his immune system. On Wednesday, he received the first dose of pembrolizumab, or Keytruda — a Merck & Co. drug recently approved for treating melanoma. It removes a sort of cloaking mechanism that cancer cells use to evade attack by the immune system. Three additional doses are planned at three-week intervals.

“It’s a wonderful drug,” with relatively few side effects, as opposed to older, traditional chemotherapy drugs that cause hair loss and other symptoms, said Dr. Patrick Hwu, a melanoma expert at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who helped test it and other immunotherapies.


Carter also received a stereotactic radiation treatment on Thursday afternoon. It focuses beams precisely on tumors and avoids other areas of the brain and causes far fewer side effects than the whole-brain radiation common in the past. He was fitted with a customized mask to hold his head perfectly still to help make sure the radiation goes only where it is intended. More radiation treatment could be scheduled if needed.


After the liver operation, doctors told Carter “they think they got it all there,” he said, but “it’s likely to show up other places in my body.”


It is hard to say. “Every patient is going to be different,” Hwu said. The key immune system cells needed to attack the tumor can get into the brain, so the treatment gives Carter a fighting chance, he said.

“There is a chance of cure,” even with tumors in the brain, said Dr. Mario Sznol, a melanoma specialist at Yale Cancer Center.

As many as half of patients respond well to the immune system drug, “the highest activity we’ve ever seen” for a melanoma treatment, and many have remissions that can last many years, he said.

“We’re not looking for a cure in patients who have a disease like melanoma that has spread,” said one of Carter’s physicians, Dr. Walter Curran Jr., executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.

“I’ll emphasize again, high blood pressure is not cured, and yet some of our friends live for decades with it. The goal is control and to have a good quality of life.”


Marilynn Marchione can be followed at