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.
After providing a detailed briefing on his diagnosis, Carter was asked to reflect on his life and career in politics, including the single term presidency between 1977 and 1981 that yielded some notable achievements overseas but ended when Republican Ronald Reagan swept to power amid the humiliation of a 444 day hostage crisis in Iran and a sickly economy at home.
Carter said that looking back, he wished he had insisted on more firepower for a botched U.S. 1980 operation to rescue the U.S. hostages in Tehran, which ended when a helicopter crashed into a U.S. transport plane in the desert, killing eight servicemen.
“I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been reelected,” Carter said.
The veteran Democrat said that on reflection however, he would have traded a second term for the Carter Center, which is renowned the world over for its advocacy of human rights and democracy, and which earned the former president the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
He said that if he had one wish for the rest of his life it would be that he gets to see peace in the Middle East but bemoaned the fact that that goal seems “more dismal than any time I remember in the last 50 years. The only process is practically dormant,” he said, and took a swipe at the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The government of Israel has no desire for a two-state solution, which is the policy of all other nations in the world, and the United States has practically no influence compared to past years in either Israel or Palestine. So I feel very discouraged.”
And he said that he was hoping to outlive one of the many scourges that has caused misery for millions of people in tropical Africa that his Carter Center has worked to eradicate.
“I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do.”