At 90-years-old, former President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma. Despite undergoing an aggressive mix of treatments, he has taken the time to open up about his physical and mental wellbeing. He has given us all a few key lessons from the way he has chosen to face his diagnosis.
Update: On March 6, 2016, Carter announced that he no longer needs treatment, less than seven months after being diagnosed with melanoma that spread to his brain. Congratulations, President Carter!
Former President Jimmy Carter has recently opened up about his diagnosis of melanoma that has metastasized to his brain and liver. The 39th president has kept high spirits, despite the grim prognosis of Stage IV melanoma. It is rare that an older cancer patient's fight with cancer receives as much public attention as Carter's has, but he was a president after all. Perhaps it will help shed some light to that topic itself. We took this as an opportunity to examine the way in which the former president is handling his diagnosis and we discovered a few lessons that we can all learn from, no matter what age we may be faced with cancer.
1. Living a Healthy Lifestyle Matters
At 90, Carter has maintained a healthier life than many. He has outlived his entire immediate family, all of whom have died of cancer - his father and three siblings to pancreatic cancer and his mother to breast cancer. He has mentioned that he may have escaped pancreatic cancer up until now because he was the only member of his family who didn't smoke. As a result of this, some consider him to be living proof that living a healthy lifestyle may be able to counteract familial and genetic risks that increase the odds of developing cancer.
He took his family history of cancer as an opportunity to stay healthy, not as an excuse not to. He was proactive and took control of his health, getting tested regularly for possible symptoms for many years. If you have a family history of cancer, speak with a genetic counselor and take President Carter's example of not living in fear.
2. Age Is Just A Number
Carter chose to fight his melanoma with drugs and radiation treatment, despite his age. Those of us who know how taxing cancer treatment is may be wondering whether or not he is too old to go through treatment. Here is where the opportunity to challenge those preconceptions lies. Perhaps a patient's eligibility for treatment shouldn't rely on how long ago they were born, but rather on how well they are able to function. This approach can help older patients more effectively fight cancer, despite their age.
Often times, when the elderly are diagnosed with cancer, there's more of a reaction as if it's somewhat expected. People think, "well, he/she lived a long life, it was bound to happen. They may as well accept it." But for many older cancer patients, including President Carter, age is just a number. He may have been alive for 91 years and counting, but that does not necessarily mean that he is living the life of a typical 91 year old. As Dr. Lodovico Balducci, a specialist on treating cancer in the elderly at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa has said, "treatment much depends on the patient's 'biological' age versus his actual years." Older cancer patients deserve as much respect and opportunity for survival as anyone else.
3. Always Have Something To Look Forward To
Since leaving the White House, Carter has maintained a busy schedule - which he does not plan to cancel as a result of treatment. He knows that he may need to cut back on his busy lifestyle in order to make time for treatment, but that does not mean that he has to stop planning for the future. Despite undergoing intense cancer treatments a couple of weeks ago, he taught his weekly Sunday school class in his hometown to a record turnout. He was even energetic enough to volunteer to teach at the local high school for those who didn't get to see him speak. He even has hopes to travel to Nepal in November to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, if his physician approves.
Even if there is a slight doubt that he may not be around to complete the goals he is setting for himself, having something to look forward to ensures that his hopes remain high. He is not throwing in the towel at his life, he is going to continue living; he just happens to be living with cancer now.
4. Be Thankful For a Life Well-Lived
Carter recently shared comments on his spreading cancer with the public, stating he had surprisingly received the news "at ease". He stated, "I've had a wonderful life...I've had an exciting, gratifying existence. But now I feel it's in the hands of God, and I'll be prepared for what comes. I'm looking forward to a new adventure." This is not to say that he is giving up, as is evidenced with the course of treatment he is pursuing. It is simply to say that he is aware enough to recognize and be grateful for the life that he has led.
Even when someone feels as though they have a lot more living left, it does not mean that they cannot be appreciative of the life that they have lived so far. It's the exposure to this kind of attitude that can teach us all how to face the news of a terminal diagnosis with dignity and grace.
Our thoughts go out to Jimmy Carter, as well as many other older cancer patients. You are not alone and you are not ignored.