WASHINGTON — In a remarkable press conference marked by grace and devoid of self-pity, former President Jimmy Carter said Thursday that four spots of cancer had spread to his brain.
Carter, 90, said he initially thought he had only weeks to live when he first learned of the diagnosis. He’s now more optimistic, placing his fate in the hands of God. At the news conference in Atlanta where he sat alone before a bank of reporters and cameras, Carter said he would begin a course of radiation therapy on Thursday afternoon.
“I have had a wonderful life,” Carter said with the same unsparing honesty and meticulous detail that marked his presidency. “I’m ready for anything and I’m looking forward to new adventure,” Carter said, in the 40-minute appearance before the cameras, in which he frequently beamed his huge smile and never fell prey to emotion.
“It is in the hands of God, whom I worship.”
Carter, speaking slowly and softly and wearing a coat and tie with blue jeans, said he had been overwhelmed with phone calls of support — including outreach from Secretary of State John Kerry and former presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush, who called at once. Carter said he wasn’t in a lot of discomfort but had some shoulder pain.
Carter said in the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, “I just thought I had a few weeks left (to live), but I was surprisingly at ease — much more so than my wife was.”
His devoted partner Rosalynn, the former First Lady, looked on, as Carter described her as the “pinnacle” of his life. “We’ve had 69 years together, still together,” Carter said.
The former president announced that he would cut back on the globetrotting personal diplomacy, peacemaking, election monitoring and pioneering public health work with which he has redefined the role of presidents once they leave office. He said his symptoms first appeared during a trip to Guyana earlier this year. On his return, doctors found a small tumor on his liver and diagnosed melanoma, which was later found to have spread to four spots on his brain.
But the 39th president’s appearance didn’t feel like a goodbye, as Carter said he still hoped to mount a visit to Nepal later this year for the “Habitat for Humanity” charity which builds shelter for homeless people. In fact — with the political world immersed in the fury of another election campaign, Carter seemed almost a throwback to a past, more courtly era.
Carter’s sanguine acceptance of his prognosis seems to lie in his deep religious belief, and he pledged to continue teaching Sunday school at his church “as long as I’m physically able.”
“I do have deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t go into an attitude of despair or anger or anything like that. I was just completely at ease.”
He continued: “I can’t really anticipate how I’ll be feeling. Obviously I’ll have to defer quite substantially to my doctors who are in charge of the treatment,” Carter said Thursday, saying he’ll get his first radiation treatment this afternoon.
Carter had a “small mass” removed from his liver in an early August surgical procedure. So far, he said the only places where cancer had been found in his body were in his brain and liver, though he also discussed his family’s history with the disease. He said it is likely that other spots of cancer would show up elsewhere in his body.
Elected in 1976 and ousted in the 1980 election by Ronald Reagan, Carter has a family history of pancreatic cancer — a disease that claimed his father, brother and two sisters. His mother had breast cancer, which later spread to her pancreas.
“For a long time my family was the only one on earth that had four people who have died of pancreatic cancer,” he said.