Neurosurgeon Sheds Light on Former President Jimmy Carter’s Cancer Diagnosis

Posted on: August 27, 2015

Neurosurgeon Sheds Light on Former President Jimmy Carter’s Cancer Diagnosis

By Dr. Ezriel Kornel

Former President Jimmy Carter recently received his first radiation treatment targeting four Kornel, (Ezriel Kornel, MD)spots of melanoma on his brain.

Many people have only heard of melanoma on the skin. However, melanoma has a high rate of metastasizing to the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. In the case of a single metastasis, surgical removal is typically an option. In the case of Jimmy Carter, he has multiple melanoma spots on his brain, and is being treated with radiation.

At Northern Westchester Hospital, we treat many of our brain cancer patients with radiation using a Gamma Knife. Not to be confused with an actual knife or incision, it is a large helmet-shaped device which the patient slides into after having a head-frame placed under brief sedation.  It delivers high doses of radiation in one sitting that lasts  from a half hour to a couple of hours.

The primary goal of this procedure is to stop the cancer from growing, and it has a very high success rate – more than 90% – with minimal if any side effects. It is very successful in that it is so precise that it does not damage surrounding areas in the brain.

While I’m not treating Jimmy Carter, I would say that at the age of 90, if he has no new cancerous lesions elsewhere, he can continue to maintain his current schedule and activities. And if there are new lesions discovered in the future in his brain, he can repeat his radiation treatments.

The melanoma, itself, presents risks. Some patients experience seizures or neurologic symptoms such as balance issues. And melanoma has tendencies to bleed, which can have devastating neurologic consequences.

The good news is that melanoma is to a large extent preventable. Avoiding excessive exposure to sunlight is important, and wearing sunscreen is always imperative with prolonged sun exposure. If you see any questionable spots on your skin, or spots that change, make an appointment with your primary care physician or dermatologist as soon as possible. Like many cancers, if melanoma is caught early, it is treatable.

Editor’s Note: Ezriel Kornel, MD, FACS, is a Neurosurgeon and Director of Neurosciences at The Orthopedic and Spine Institute at Northern Westchester Hospital. 

Read additional blog posts about the gamma knife, melanoma and sun safety.