Former president Jimmy Carter’s revelation that doctors found melanoma
on his brain places a spotlight on the deadly disease, which can show
up almost anywhere on the body.
“When people hear the word ‘melanoma,’ they think of
the skin and sun damage,” says
Ibrahim Shalaby, MD, FACP, FRCPC, a medical oncologist with
Joe Arrington Cancer Center in Lubbock, Texas. “Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.
It develops in the cells that produce melanin — the pigment that
gives skin its color. While cutaneous melanoma – melanoma on the
skin – is the most common type, melanoma can actually develop anywhere,
including the eyes, nasal passages, scalp, nails, feet or mouth.”
At a recent press conference, the 90-year-old Carter revealed that four
spots of melanoma were found on his brain during an MRI of his head and
neck. Earlier this month, doctors removed about one-tenth of his liver
after finding a small mass. A biopsy revealed that mass was melanoma.
Carter said it’s unclear where the cancer started and said it’s
likely that other spots will show up in his body.
“Melanoma can metastasize or spread quickly, which makes it extremely
dangerous,” Dr. Shalaby says. “That’s why early detection
and the right treatment are crucial. When melanoma cells of any kind have
spread through the lymph nodes to the body’s organs or to distant
sites in the body, it’s considered Stage IV melanoma. We usually
see melanoma metastasize to the brain, bones, liver and lungs. With Stage
IV melanoma, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and clinical trials may be
The 39th president, who served between 1977 and 1981, started radiation to his
brain and is also receiving the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, which is
“Immunotherapy is considered a systemic treatment,” Dr. Shalaby
says. “That means that immunotherapy drugs treat the whole body
and attempt to activate the immune system to destroy melanoma cells in
Melanoma is one of the fastest-growing cancers in the United States and
around the world, Dr. Shalaby said. Nearly 90 percent of melanomas are
thought to be caused by exposure to UV light and sunlight; one blistering
sunburn, particularly at a young age, double’s someone’s chances
of developing melanoma. See your health care provider if you notice changes
in an existing mole or new or unusual looking growths on your skin.
Reduce your risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer by using broad-spectrum
sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher, avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and
4 p.m. and seeking shade whenever possible.
Dr. Shalaby said rare forms of melanoma include mucosal melanoma, which
appears in mucous members such as the throat, mouth or vagina, and ocular
melanoma, which occurs in the eye. Neither of these types of melanoma
is caused by sun damage. Some people with these rare forms of the disease
have genetic mutations.
Cancer has affected most of Carter’s family. His father, brother
and two sisters died of pancreatic cancer. Carter’s mother had breast
cancer, which spread to her pancreas. Carter has said that for a long
time his family was the only one on earth that had four people who had
died of pancreatic cancer.
Despite his diagnosis, Carter said he did not have anger or despair. He
referenced his deep faith and said he would continue to teach Sunday school
for as long as he could.
“It is in the hands of God, whom I worship,” he said.
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