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Jimmy Carter diagnosis shows treatment a viable option at any age

Diagnosis
Wednesday’s announcement that former President Jimmy Carter has been diagnosed with cancer at 90 years old shows that treatment remains a viable option, determined and designed according to the specifics of each patient’s individual case.

Fighting cancer is difficult at any age. But the battle may prove even more complex when patients are diagnosed with the disease late in life. Wednesday’s announcement that former President Jimmy Carter has been diagnosed with cancer at 90 years old, though, shows that treatment remains a viable option, determined and designed according to the specifics of each patient’s individual case.  

“Chronological age is not a deciding factor in whether someone should be treated for cancer or not,” says Dr. Maurie Markman, President of Medicine & Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “One should not say that because he’s 90, he should not have treatment.”  Carter would appear to agree. In his statement Wednesday, he revealed he is “rearranging [his] schedule” to accommodate treatment after doctors found cancer during recent liver surgery. The cancer, he said, “now is in other parts of my body.”

Because of the limited details released about Carter’s disease, it is unclear what kind of cancer he has, where it has spread or exactly what course of treatment he will undergo. When cancer spreads, or metastasizes, it is considered at an advanced stage. Personalized treatment plans are available to target advanced and complex cancers. For those of Carter’s generation, while advanced age does not rule out treatment as an option, it remains an important consideration when determining the scope and avenues of treatment. “No matter how good a 90-year-old looks, feels and acts, his or her organ function reserve is not going to be the same as a 50-year-old’s,” Dr. Markman says.

Co-morbidities—heart disease, prior history of strokes, additional chronic diseases such as diabetes, for example—are more common in the elderly and may raise the risks of complications from treatments. Such factors, along with a patient’s strength and ability to tolerate certain treatments, all play a role in deciding which therapies oncologists may recommend. At the end of the day, patients, their caregivers and/or their guardians are responsible for choosing which recommendations are right for them. “If the cancer is treatable, the decision is always the patient’s,” Dr. Markman says. “The doctor doesn’t decide what treatment the patient will have, just which options may be available.”

Carter, who served as America’s 39th president from 1977 to 1981, has remained active throughout his post-presidential life. After leaving the White House, he founded the Carter Center in his home state of Georgia to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope,” and he has traveled extensively in his role as an advocate for peace, democracy and human rights around the globe. Though he has not revealed any cancer diagnosis before this week, pancreatic cancer runs in his family. His mother had the disease, and his father, two sisters and brother died from it. He told The New York Times in a 2007 article that he received regular CT scans and MRIs on his pancreas to look for evidence of cancer.

Learn more about how metastatic cancer is diagnosed and treated.