The 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, declared on Sunday that he is now cancer free. This news comes only a few months after Carter, 91, went public with his diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma that had spread to his brain.
In addition to surgical tumor removal and radiation therapy, Carter also received courses of a relatively new immunotherapy drug called Keytruda (pembrolizumab). This Merck product received accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to treat melanoma and lung cancer.
Immunotherapy drugs are designed to boost the immune system to more effectively fight cancerous cells. Keytruda in particular regulates the activity of two genes that determine what immune cells attack. This mechanism prevents immune cells from targeting healthy cells, but tumors also use it to avoid being detected and acted upon. This new drug enables immune cells to accurately locate and destroy any cancerous cells.
Carter says Keytruda is responsible for shrinking the tumors in his brain, but experts say that it is unclear whether the drug alone or his treatment plan as a whole was so effective.
For a person of his age with such a serious diagnosis, Carter has been exceptionally lucky thus far. According to the American Cancer Society, older individuals are less likely to survive a melanoma diagnosis, regardless of stage, and that “the biggest drop in survival begins at age 70.” Furthermore, Keytruda is estimated to cost around $150,000 per year, and insurance companies may not cover this potentially life-saving drug.
Carter’s health will continue to be monitored very closely. A recurrence is not out of the question, but with the rise of new immunotherapy drugs like Keytruda, it is becoming more likely that patients will at least be able to live with their cancer, if they are not able to cure it altogether.
The former president and first lady, Rosalynn Carter are well known for founding the Carter Center, which advocates for human rights, physical and mental health, peace, and democracy. Rosalynn is also the president of the board of directors for the Rosalynn Carter Institute of Caregiving (RCI) in Georgia. The RCI is dedicated to supporting caregivers through advocacy, education, research and success to services.