On Aug. 11, 2015, the news came out that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his liver and his brain. Despite giving an upbeat and cheerful press conference, Carter, now 91, seemed almost peacefully resigned to his prognosis which, as you can imagine, was not good.
However, his doctors just recently gave an update and announced that his cancer was no longer detectable. How did this happen?
Did Carter get some extra points for being a devout evangelical and born-again Southern Baptist? Did karma finally kick in for his tremendous work to help the poor and less fortunate? Don’t wanna burst your bubble but there is a simpler and more scientific explanation: immunotherapy.
First, we must remember that there are so many different types of cancer (about 200 are currently known). And people respond differently to a particular treatment based largely on their immune-system response — even to treatment. That’s why doctors will often combine treatments for cancers depending on the type, stage, location and patient’s overall health.
Immunotherapy helps the immune system recognize cancer cells and fight back more efficiently through the addition of man-made proteins. Although not a new treatment, immunotherapy has gained momentum in the medical community in the last couple of years.
In September 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration granted accelerated approval to a new drug for patients in life-threatening stages from certain types of cancer who had exhausted other treatment options (which included Jimmy Carter who had advanced melanoma). The drug pembrolizumab (aka keytruda), now an FDA-approved drug, blocks melanoma’s pathway to reproduction. And it helps the immune system better recognize and attack cancer cells.
While the drug did not help all of the cancer patients during the initial trial, it did help some, including Carter.
Thus, researchers are cautiosly optimistic about the results and hope to keep developing and expanding immunotherapy to treat even more types of cancers. Clinical studies dealing with lymphomas, breast cancer and bladder cancer already are underway.
Despite being in remission, Carter will still have to get regular health checks because, as we all know too well, cancer never gives up without a fight.
Oh, and note to ex-Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry: It’s not OK to compare people to cancer no matter how much of a ridiculous carnival act they are (especially if you’re gonna just endorse them later).