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Jimmy Carter: The deadly diagnosis that led him to believe he had ‘just a few weeks left’

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Speaking at the Carter Center several years ago, at the time of his cancer diagnosis, Carter said he was at “ease” despite believing he “had just a few weeks left”. Prior to the announcement, the politician had been for a full body checkup at a medical center in Atlanta, Georgia, where the shocking diagnosis was given to him.

“I came back to Emory and they checked me over and in the process, they did a complete physical examination and the MRI showed there was a tumour on my liver,” said Carter back in August 2015.

“They did a biopsy and found out it was indeed cancer and it was melanoma and they had a very high suspicion then and now that the melanoma started somewhere else on my body and spread to the liver.”

Melanomas are cancers that begin in the melanocytes, which are responsible for producing melanin. Cancer that spreads to the liver from melanoma is known as liver metastasis.

After learning of his liver cancer, Carter was sent for surgery. Although Carter was “quite relieved” about how the surgery went, another MRI scan revealed his ordeal wasn’t over.

He added: “That same afternoon we had an MRI of my head and neck and it showed up already in four places in my brain.”

Carter’s odds of survival were very low.

According to Cancer Research UK, roughly only 15 percent of people will survive a primary liver cancer – meaning it originated in the liver – diagnosis for five years or more.

However, secondary liver cancer is considered even more dangerous as it means cancer started elsewhere in the body.

Confronted with this, with the addition of the melanoma in his brain, Carter was ready for his life to end.

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He said: “This is the hands of God my worshipper and I’ll be prepared for anything that comes.”

Over the course of several months between August 2015 and February 2016, Carter underwent surgery, radiation therapy, and a new kind of immunotherapy treatment.

In March 2016, ABC News received the following email from a spokesperson at the Carter Center: “President Carter said today he did not need any more treatments, which he had August 2015 through February 2016, but will continue scans and resume treatment if necessary.”

Remarkably he is still alive today – which experts claim is mostly down to the effects of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab.

In the US, the drug was first introduced back in 2010. Talking to ABCNews, Doctor Lichtenfiel, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society said: “Five years ago we would not have much to offer the president.”

The drug pembrolizumab works by powering up the body’s immune system, used to treat melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, and bladder cancer.

In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – the main provider of standards and clinical advice for the NHS, had been recommending the use of pembrolizumab for many years.

Over the last decade, it has slowly become more available for those suffering from cancer, including melanoma – the fifth most common cancer in the country.

In December 2021, it became routinely available on the NHS for stage 3 melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes.

Pembrolizumab targets and blocks a protein called the PD-1 on the surface of certain immune cells known as T-cells explains Cancer Research UK.

Blocking these proteins triggers the T-cells to find and destroy cancer.

The medication is said in studies to be a lot less toxic than chemotherapy, although it can have negative reactions.

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