Former President Jimmy Carter Diagnosed With Cancer

Former President Jimmy Carter Diagnosed With Cancer

A leading oncologist discusses cancer and aging.

Former President Jimmy Carter has announced that he has metastatic cancer. Doctors discovered the cancer in August 2015 after an elective surgery to remove a small mass on Carter’s liver. Details of the cancer were not immediately released.

The 90-year-old Carter has a family history of pancreatic cancer. He has remained active and in the public eye until the discovery of the disease. Sharcare spoke with oncologist Vince DeVita Jr., MD, professor medicine and of epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine, about cancer diagnosis and treatment in the elderly.

Sharecare: If not cancer, what else could a mass on the liver be?

Dr. DeVita: It could be an angioma, a blood vessel mass. It could be a cyst, it could be an adenoma, it could be a lot of things. It depends on the size and shape of the mass, whether it has calcium in it, that sort of thing. President Carter’s doctors were worried and biopsied it. A mass on the liver is not normal.

Sharecare: How much does the risk of cancer rise as one ages?

Dr. DeVita: It depends on the cancer. The risk of cancer does increase with age across the board. It’s much more common in people over 65. In a way, it’s a wear and tear breakdown of the machinery of cells. President Carter is 90, so the risk is there.

Sharecare: How does age affect treatment?

Dr. DeVita: Older people do have a depressed immune system and age does affect treatment. Bone marrow ages like everything else, and it becomes less tolerant of chemotherapy. The risk of using full doses of chemo is slightly higher.

The best data we have with this is in breast cancer. You can get the same outcome with chemo in breast cancer regardless of age, but the risk of complications is higher in older patients. For a 70-year-old patient with a full dose, the risk of [side effects] due to the chemo is higher. It’s a very interesting question because you have to make the decision to reduce the dose and increase the risk of dying from the cancer or use full doses and increase the risk of serious complications. For tumors that are known to be responsive to chemotherapy I usually recommend to go ahead with the full dosage.

Sharecare: President Carter has been particularly spry for a now-nonagenarian; what can people do to age as gracefully as him?

Dr. DeVita: He is a very active man. Inactivity is the greatest enemy of old people. President Carter traveled. He kept himself slim. If you can maintain normal bodyweight and exercise, you increase your chances of living a normal, healthy life and living longer. The worst thing that happens to people as they get older is they don’t move. You don’t want to be reclining on the couch too much.