Jimmy Carter Has Melanoma — No, It’s Not ‘Just Skin Cancer’ (VIDEO)

I’ve always felt a connection to Jimmy Carter. As an 18-year-old college freshman, I cast my first vote for president for the man from Plains. Now, the former president and I have another connection, besides both being liberal Democrats. Jimmy Carter and I both have melanoma.

President Carter told reporters on Thursday that his melanoma has spread to his brain, and that he will begin treatment immediately.

“[Doctors] found that there were four spots of melanoma on my brain…they are very small spots, about two millimeters,” Mr. Carter said. “I’ll get my first radiation treatment for the melanoma in my brain this afternoon.”

A few months ago the cancer was discovered during surgery on the former president’s liver. This means that he is already at stage IV of the disease. That stage used to be considered pretty much the end of the road for a cancer patient, but, thanks to advances in treatments, many stage IV cancer patients are now able to live for a number of years following their diagnosis.

Carter will be receiving radiation treatments, which is one way that melanoma of the brain is treated. He may also receive one of several revolutionary drugs that are now being used for melanoma treatment.

For many, when they hear the word “melanoma,” they think “skin cancer,” which is technically correct. But then they equate it with the two other types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Those types, while serious, as any cancer is, are actually two of the less serious types of cancer and two of the most treatable. Melanoma is different. Melanoma is a killer.

Unlike the other types of skin cancer, which remain “in situ,” meaning that they don’t travel to different sites in the body, melanoma spreads. If left untreated, melanoma will spread from the initial site to organs such as the lungs, the liver and the brain. The former president didn’t say whether his cancer started with a spot on his skin. Most melanoma begins that way and in many cases by the time the patient goes to a doctor, the cancer has already spread.

Typically, early stage melanoma is treated with surgery. But when it has spread, as President Carter’s has, surgery is not an option. Melanoma is a particularly stubborn cancer and while there are radiation treatments that can help patients like Carter who have brain metastases, the disease is very resistant to both radiation and chemotherapy. Because of this, doctors used to talk to advanced melanoma patients about how many months they had to live. Now, thanks to the new drugs, melanoma patients are surviving for years.

Researchers have found that melanoma is particularly vulnerable to attacks from the body’s immune system. But it, like other cancers, is able to avoid detection by “hiding” from the cells the immune system uses to kill cancer cells. The new treatments help the immune system attack the melanoma by allowing the immune system to “see” the cancer.

In 2011, the FDA approved the first treatment for advanced melanoma. Yervoy (ipilimumab) works by binding to a protein on the surface of cancer cells. When this protein is bound to the antibody in Yervoy, it allows the T-cells in the immune system to locate the cancer, and mount a defense against it. The problem with Yervoy is that it doesn’t work for everyone. But for those it helps, it generally does a good job keeping the cancer at bay, for months, sometimes even years. Two newer treatments, Keytruda (penbrolizumab) and Opdivo (nivolumab) work in a similar fashion, but have been producing even better results.

I received Yervoy as part of my treatment last winter. It didn’t do what I had hoped — it slowed the growth of my cancer, but didn’t completely rid me of it. Now I am receiving Keytruda, which has produced some dramatic effects in a very short time. After only two treatments, several areas on my back that are cancerous have begun to shrink. The FDA requires that Yervoy be administered first, followed by one of the other drugs, if Yervoy doesn’t work, or if the patient stops responding to it. So, in addition to the radiation treatments, President Carter will likely receive a course of treatment with Yervoy. That will involve a 90 minute infusion of the drug once every three weeks, for a total of four treatments.

It is likely that Carter’s melanoma started from excess sun exposure, given the amount of time he has spent working for Habitat For Humanity. When you go outside, wear a hat, and always use sunscreen, with the highest SPF you can find. Preventing skin cancer is really just that simple, as it is almost always caused by getting sunburned. Inspect your skin regularly, and get check-ups from a dermatologist. In the case of melanoma, as with any cancer, early detection makes all the difference in the world.

President Carter is in generally good health for his age, so while his situation is serious, there’s a good chance that he will be with us for years to come. If you would like to learn more about melanoma, or if you would like to contribute to melanoma research, to help patients such as President Carter, myself, and many others, visit the Melanoma Research Foundation’s website, at melanoma.org.

Here’s a video of President Carter discussing his cancer, and his treatment, via ABC News:

ABC Latest News | Latest News Videos

Featured image via Jeff Moore/Flickr