- Experts say an immunotherapy known as Keytruda is a major reason former president Jimmy Carter has lived for more than 7 years after his brain cancer diagnosis.
- They add that Carter’s decision to publicly discuss his treatment has provided hope for thousands of people with cancer.
- One doctor says some of his cancer patients have mentioned Carter when discussing their treatment options.
More than seven years ago, when former President Jimmy Carter first learned at the age of 90 that his melanoma cancer had spread to his brain, he thought he had just a few weeks to live.
His doctors, however, were quick to give him a much brighter prognosis.
After consulting with his medical team, Carter said he was much more optimistic. Soon after, he held a press conference explaining his battle with cancer.
“They did an MRI and found that there were four spots of melanoma on my brain. They are very small spots — about 2 millimeters, if you can envision what a millimeter is,” Carter said at his press event at the Carter Center in Atlanta on August 20, 2015.
Carter went on to describe the medical team’s choice of treatment, which included surgery, chemotherapy, and a relatively new modality at that time called Keytruda, an immunotherapy that elicits the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
Keytruda was just beginning to become known nationwide as an effective new cancer fighter when Carter was treated with it.
The treatment worked well and his physicians have said it’s likely that’s what has given Carter these extra years of life.
Last week, Carter, who is now 98, said he has chosen to enroll in hospice care at his home rather than receive additional medical intervention.
“After a series of short hospital stays, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter today decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention,” the Carter Center said in a statement.
“He has the full support of his family and his medical team. The Carter family asks for privacy during this time and is grateful for the concern shown by his many admirers.”
For all the good things Carter has done in his life, multiple sources tell Healthline that his decision to be treated with immunotherapy and openly share his cancer journey so publicly may be among his biggest gifts to the world.
Author and journalist Jonathan Alter’s biography of Jimmy Carter, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” takes an intimate look at the man — from his childhood days in the Jim Crow South to the White House to his accomplishments after leaving office in 1981.
While Carter faced several health scares in 2019 and underwent surgery to remove pressure on his brain, Alter said his biggest post-cancer health issues have been because of a fall.
“Most of President Carter’s recent health problems really stemmed from a severe fall in 2019,” Alter told Healthline. “He had a subdural hematoma, which affected his vision and mobility. He was generally healthy, but his advanced age is what was wrong with him.”
Alter said that after Carter’s fall, the former president could not communicate by email and didn’t travel.
“He became more isolated. My wife and I saw him briefly at his 75th wedding anniversary in Plains in 2021. He was not doing well and he has been hospitalized several times since then,” said Alter.
He added that Carter’s father, brother, and both sisters died of pancreatic cancer.
“Jimmy was very concerned about this. His father died in 1953, and his three siblings died of it, and his mother died of breast cancer,” Alter said.
“In the 1980s after he left the White House, Carter undertook thorough pancreatic tests. He thought he would die soon of pancreatic cancer,” Alter said.
Although hereditary may play a role in pancreatic cancer, the former president never developed the disease.
Several types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer, including immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell transfer therapy, monoclonal antibodies, treatment vaccines, and immune system modulators
Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, the chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs at Cancer Research Institute, a nonprofit organization formed in 1953 that is dedicated to advancing immunotherapy to treat all cancers, said it was helpful to have a former president go into a long remission because of immunotherapy.
“What President Carter did elevated the status of immunotherapy. I am thrilled that it worked so well for him and that he was willing to talk about this to the public,” she told Healthline.
Dr. Gregory Daniels, a medical oncologist and professor of medicine at UC San Diego, treats people with melanoma and is quite familiar with Keytruda.
“President Carter’s decision to be treated with an immunotherapy caused a ripple effect nationwide,” Daniels told Healthline.
He noted that as immunotherapy began showing positive results, more patients began asking about it.
“People often come into our office pretty devastated. When patients are looking for an oncologist and they are feeling some doom and gloom, President Carter’s story is a good one to bring up,” Daniels said. “The fact that he tolerated the treatment and he responded, is significant.”
Lekhan Shivashankar, the founder and chief executive officer of Renaissance bio, a consulting firm engaged by a leading vaccine-based cancer immunotherapy developer, said that the road to acceptance has been a long one for Keytruda and for all immunotherapies.
“Although data were stellar and clearly indicative of a therapeutic benefit, initial uptake for immunotherapy was suboptimal and met with hesitancy by patients and physicians alike,” he told Healthline.
It has taken years and many clinical trials to get to this point, experts say.
“And the support of high-profile leaders like Carter was a game-changing inflection point for the field,” Shivashankar said.