When a 91-year-old reveals they have cancer, most people would consider that a death sentence. The older a person gets, the less likely they are to physically tolerate any type of aggressive treatment. In some cases, family members and close friends might also just accept such a sentence – after all, they’ve obviously lived a long life and made it to a ripe old age.
Our 39th President, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Jimmy Carter, however, is not one of those people. He announced this week that after undergoing treatment for metastatic melanoma tumors on his brain, his most recent MRI brain scan came up free of any signs of cancer. Carter first announced his cancer diagnosis in August 2015.
Carter’s treatment plan included rounds of radiation and a 12-week course of the newly approved cancer drug pembrolizumab (brand name Keytruda®). Earlier this year, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Keytruda to treat melanoma, and in October, it was approved to treat advanced lung cancer as well.
How Keytruda Fought Jimmy Carter’s Cancer
Keytruda is part of a new class of cancer drugs that help a person’s immune system fight off cancer cells. This type of treatment is called immunotherapy and experts believe that in the coming years — sooner, rather than later – it could become the 4th pillar of cancer treatment, along with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Why can’t our immune systems figure out how to fight cancer on their own? A big reason is that tumors are themselves made up of our own body’s cells — those cells have mutated, but they are still our cells. It’s believed that when our immune system jumps into action, it may not realize it needs to fight the tumors, since they are technically “supposed to” be there. Immunotherapy talks to the immune system and helps it figure out how to target the cancer cells.
“Melanoma is no longer a death sentence, and we are really changing what happens to patients,” said Anna Pavlick, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, while speaking with MedPage Today. “It really is amazing.”
The Reaction from the Greater Cancer Community
While this is great news for President Carter and his family, medical professionals remain cautiously optimistic. Carter’s melanoma had spread around his body, making it stage 4. Stage 4 is rarely cured, but it is possible for it to shrink so much that scans aren’t able to find it for a while. A study of Keytruda showed that for about a third of patients, it could shrink tumors by as much as 90%. For Carter, this may be enough to buy him plenty of extra time to continue doing the things that he loves.
“It’s as good of an outcome as someone with advanced melanoma can hope for,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society while speaking with NBC News.
What President Carter’s Results Mean for the Mesothelioma Community
Keytruda is not approved to treat mesothelioma, but clinical trials are currently underway at The University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere to see if the drug could help treat patients with malignant mesothelioma. Another such trial sponsored by the University of Chicago — Pembrolizumab in Treating Patients with Malignant Mesothelioma — is recruiting participants right now. The researchers estimate the trial will be complete in March 2018, so while approval is not 100% certain, it does provide a lot of hope for mesothelioma victims and their loved ones.
Still, even if Keytruda is not the answer for beating mesothelioma, there seems to be a lot of promise in the future of immunotherapy — and optimism about the ever-waging war on cancer as a whole.