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 Covenant Health’s 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 recommended.”
The 39th president, who served between 1977 and 1981, started radiation to his brain and is also receiving the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, which is administered intravenously.
“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 the body.”
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.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.