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Carter's diagnosis could lead to awareness, funding for cancer research

Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News

Carter's diagnosis could lead to awareness, funding for cancer research

By Wendy Leonard | Posted - Aug. 23, 2015 at 9:14 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Jimmy Carter's openness about his cancer has the potential to fuel an already burgeoning interest in finding a cure, according to local fundraisers.

"The most powerful voices we have are people who have direct experiences with cancer," said Susan Sheehan, president of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Sheehan said private gifts and donations often fund the most promising new treatments for cancer, such as those the former president of the United States is receiving.

During a news conference Thursday, Carter said he would immediately begin radiation treatment for melanoma that had spread to his liver and his brain.

He also said he has already received an intravenous infusion of a fairly new drug called Keytruda, a type of immunotherapy meant to charge up the immune system to fight off cancer cells.

"Melanoma is one of those cancers that is really good at hiding from the immune system, where it doesn't recognize it as something that shouldn't be there," said Dr. Robert Andtbacka, a surgical oncologist and melanoma expert at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

Immunotherapies, he said, have only recently proven to be more effective in treating melanomas than traditional chemotherapy, which sometimes produces harsh side effects.

Surgery and radiation are also viable options in treating melanoma, depending on the stage of diagnosis, Andtbacka said.

"We have a better understanding of the immune system and have developed ways to activate the immune system, allowing it to work more effectively in clearing the cancer," he said, adding that patients are responding better to the new therapies and are living longer after treatment.

The newer class of drugs can also be given to older patients, such as Carter, who at age 90 is forging an uphill battle.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute, as a newly designated comprehensive cancer center, conducts multiple clinical trials on new therapies, some of which earn approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or help to further research on additional treatments.

"It used to be that the odds for metastatic melanoma were very grim," Andtbacka said. "That trend is changing. People are living longer now than they used to, and many of them are doing very well."

Utah has the highest per capita incidence of melanoma, with its plentiful outdoor recreation and high altitude, both of which increase risk.

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Andtbacka said prevention is possible by avoiding dangerous ultraviolet exposure from the sun, keeping track of changes in the skin, and alerting an experienced physician or dermatologist as soon as possible when questions arise.

MaryAnn Gerber, of Bountiful, said she was unaware that her tanning habit was having any impact on her body until elective removal of a small mole on her face led to a scary cancer diagnosis more than 10 years ago.

In all, Gerber ended up having 31 lymph nodes removed, which left long, visible scars on her face and neck. Most people were shocked to learn that skin cancer caused such horrendous results, which catapulted Gerber, now 34, into her own public awareness campaign.

"I would not want someone I love to go through this. It was so devastating, so debilitating and deforming," she said, adding that telling her own story publicly helped her to feel better about her experience.

Now, as a parent of two small children, Gerber does whatever she can to protect them from the sun's harmful rays.

"We're that family," she said. "We go out with UV clothing, hats and umbrellas."

She's also more conscious of the hours they spend outdoors.

Gerber knows her situation could have been worse. Her cancer was caught early enough that it was treatable with minor surgery. She counts herself lucky and hopes the "unhealthy trend" of tanned skin will reverse in time and save others from a potentially fatal condition.

"We're all going to be touched by cancer in some way," Sheehan said. "The disease incidence is growing. Survivorship is also improving, which should give people confidence that research is working and there is still very much a need to continue to invest in research."

And public awareness helps.

Prominent members of society, she said, can have an impact, adding that actress Angelina Jolie's pre-emptive double mastectomy in 2013 went far to alert the public of available genetic testing to prevent breast cancer.

And earlier this year, former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett also publicly acknowledged a cancer diagnosis after doctors found an inoperable tumor on his pancreas.

Bennett said rumors had been spreading and people had been asking, and once he made a public statement, he was able to focus on treatment and healing.

"I have been occupied with dealing with my own therapy, and it is going fairly well," he said Thursday.

Bennett is undergoing chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He said doctors believe he is otherwise in good health, but the prognosis is unclear.


It used to be that the odds for metastatic melanoma were very grim. That trend is changing. People are living longer now than they used to, and many of them are doing very well.

–Dr. Robert Andtbacka


Pancreatic cancer has the lowest success rate of all cancers, as Bennett noted, and treatment generally includes heavy doses of chemotherapy.

"I'm assuming we will have a good outcome at some point," he said. "I remain optimistic that I will beat the odds."

Sheehan said some of the breakthrough treatments available now for other types of cancer were initially funded by private donors, including the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which was started by a donation from Jon M. Huntsman Sr. in 1995.

"That's how good things start, and that's how good things continue," Sheehan said, adding that Carter's announcement and explanation will hopefully help others consider supporting cancer research.

"He's always been very generous in sharing his life in ways that he feels can help eliminate suffering for humanity," she said. "This is just one more example of how he does that."

Prior to Thursday's public explanation, speculation around Carter's condition included rumors of pancreatic cancer, which runs in his family and is generally fatal, but Carter said his cancer has not spread to his pancreas. He also said during the news conference that he feels "perfectly at ease with whatever comes" and "has a deep religious faith, which I am very grateful for."

Andtbacka, who isn't familiar with Carter's specific case or course of treatment, said melanoma that has reached the bloodstream and has spread is more difficult to treat, but "there's a lot of hope and the outlook is very good for patients because we have these new therapies."

That wasn't the case, he said, just 10 years ago.

To donate to cancer research, visit www.huntsmancancer.org.

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Wendy Leonard

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