Former President Jimmy Carter said he will scale back his work for the Carter Center, his international philanthropic foundation, while undergoing treatment for melanoma that has spread to his brain.
“They had a very high suspicion then and now that the melanoma started somewhere else on my body and spread to my liver,” Carter, 90, said at a news conference Thursday at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Carter will receive four treatments with a cutting-edge melanoma drug, Merck & Co.’s Keytruda, at three-week intervals, the Carter Center said in a statement after his news conference. He received one radiation treatment on Thursday for the cancer and has no others scheduled, the center said.
Elected in 1976, the 39th U.S. president may be better known for his accomplishments after his single term, which was beset by domestic and international woes including high inflation and turmoil in the Middle East. In the midst of a hostage crisis in Iran, he was defeated for re-election in 1980 by Republican Ronald Reagan.
Carter said doctors detected a growth on his liver after a trip he made to Guyana in May to monitor elections. Doctors told him the cancer was “very slow-growing,” Carter said, and so with a scheduled book tour in the summer, he waited until Aug. 3 for surgery to remove a tenth of his liver. Doctors then discovered the disease had spread.
He said he would re-arrange his schedule to undergo treatment at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta.
“I’m going to cut back fairly dramatically on my obligations,” he said. “The Carter Center is well prepared to continue on without any handicap.”
Carter was bouyant during his news conference, smiling and joking and telling reporters that he was at peace with his diagnosis. He explained his disease and treatment in great clinical detail, and reflected at length on his life and his accomplishments.
His top regret, he said, was not making another attempt to rescue Americans captured in 1979 when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian revolutionaries.
“I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages,” Carter said, referring to the failed April 1980 effort to get the diplomats. “We’d have rescued them and I would have been re-elected.”
His greatest accomplishment was marrying his wife, Rosalynn, he said.
“That’s the pinnacle of my life. We’ve had 69 years together,” he said. “That’s the best thing that happened to me.”
During the longest ex-presidency in U.S. history, Carter has advocated through his eponymous foundation for peaceful elections, human rights and disease prevention in more than 40 countries. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
The one-time peanut farmer lives in Plains, Georgia, with Rosalynn. He teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church and will lead his class as scheduled on Sunday, according to the church.
“I plan to teach Sunday school this Sunday and every Sunday as long as I’m able,” Carter said.
Carter’s father, brother and two sisters all died of pancreatic cancer. His mother also had the disease. Carter said doctors haven’t yet detected cancer in his pancreas.
Since announcing his disease last week, Carter has taken calls from both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Carter said he originally thought he might have only “a few weeks left” to live when he first learned of the diagnosis. He said he began to reflect on his nine decades of life and was “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”
He said he accepted his doctors’ recommendation on a course of treatment, including infusions of Keytruda. The former president received his first dose of the drug on Wednesday, Walter Curran, executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, told reporters after Carter’s news conference.
The Food and Drug Administration approved Keytruda, known chemically as pembrolizumab, in September last year. The drug is the first in a new class of cancer medicines that employ patients’ own immune systems against the disease.
Carter said he hopes to proceed with a trip to Nepal later this year to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, if possible. “It’s in the hands of God,” he said.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Carter’s treatment plan in the third paragraph.)