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Slowing down could be toughest part of Jimmy Carter's cancer fight

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown Sunday in Plains, Ga. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 23, 2015

PLAINS, Ga. — In theory, it's not the restful weekend one would expect of a 90-year-old who has just started cancer treatment.

But Jimmy Carter has never lived his life in theory.

On Thursday, just hours after the extraordinary news conference where he discussed in detail his diagnosis and plans for the future, the former president and governor returned to the beloved hometown from which he has always run his most important campaigns.

His docket was crowded with events like Saturday night's 88th birthday celebration for his wife, Rosalynn, a fundraiser for a couple of worthy nonprofits here, and his suddenly not-very-usual Sunday school teaching slot at Maranatha Baptist Church for as many as 400 visitors and at least 10 TV news crews.

Plus, photos outside the church afterward with anyone who wanted them.

"Life goes on," said Jan Williams, a close friend and a member of Carter's church.

And now, so does Jimmy Carter's last great campaign. By publicly combating with grace and grit the melanoma cancer that has been found in his liver and brain, Carter is attempting to prolong his remarkable life while also leading others by example.

And he'll do it, he suggested in understated yet stunning fashion, by agreeing to temper the relentless pace of work and travel that has been the constant of his 60-plus years as a statesman and humanitarian.

"I'm going to cut back fairly dramatically on my obligations," Carter told the packed news conference at the Carter Center, where he also announced that his grandson, Jason, 40, would take over from him as chairman of the board of trustees. "I'm ready to go on to a new adventure."

In a session filled with difficult medical disclosures, this revelation may have been almost as tough for Carter to publicly embrace. Since leaving the White House 35 years ago, he has logged millions of miles and traveled to dozens of countries on various peace-keeping, democracy-pushing and disease-fighting missions. Now, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said he intended to follow his doctors' orders and reduce his duties at the Carter Center and Emory University.

He has talked of scaling down his work for more than a decade — and his wife of 69 years has intermittently begged him to do so — but he said it took getting cancer to finally force his hand. Even so, the pain of that decision clearly lingered, as Carter spoke hopefully about still embarking on a November trip to Nepal to build Habitat for Humanity houses for the needy, even though it could interfere with the end of his treatment regimen.

Carter isn't the only family member having to face harsh truths as a result of his diagnosis.

"I realized he was mortal," James Carter said of the moment when his grandfather shared the news with the family. "I knew, somewhere, that logically he wasn't going to be around forever. But it's strange to think about him being sick in any way. If anyone has led a full life up to this point, it would be him."

And by almost anyone else's definition, he'll still be doing so. In between treatments in Atlanta over the next three months, Carter will be spending more time in this southwest Georgia town of about 700 where he has lived most of his life.

Plains has rallied around their ailing native son, showering him with signs of support, prayers — and promises of tough love when necessary. When Carter mentioned that going to Nepal would delay his final radiation treatment by five weeks, a chorus of "NO's" rang out in Plains' Buffalo Cafe, where a handful of his close friends had gathered to watch Thursday's news conference on TV.

"He's always done it the way he's wanted to, that's why he's done so much," Bobby Salter, the owner of Plain Peanuts on Main Street, explained. "He's going to have to change somewhat."

Yet here, he still appears to be the same hard-charging Jimmy Carter who handed out awards for well over an hour under a blazing sun at last fall's annual Peanut Festival and who never misses a board meeting of the Plains Better Hometown Program.

There was no thought given to postponing Rosalynn's public birthday event, organizers say. And, despite being in the midst of an undoubtedly grueling cancer treatment regimen, Carter has given no indication he intends to skip any of his long scheduled Sunday school teaching slots -- what many church members refer to as "Jimmy Sundays."

In fact, some speculate, just the opposite could happen.

"I think there're going to be a lot more 'Jimmy Sundays,'" said Jill Stuckey, a Maranatha member and close friend of the couple, who helped organize last week's effort to place 500 "Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor" yard signs around town. "The dates he'd blacked out (when he wasn't available to teach) were because of trips he was taking for the Carter Center. And he's an evangelist. He sees this as an opportunity to tell the Word to even more people."

As concerned as they are for his health, some of Carter's friends fear another enemy for him: boredom. They know he'll stay busy fishing, walking in the woods, swimming in a lap pool at the house where he's lived with Rosalynn since 1961 and puttering around in his woodworking shop. But how long can that last?

"The man's used to working on little things like world peace and eradicating disease," said Stuckey. "Maybe making a table stand doesn't quite compare."

"I'll believe it when I see it," said James Carter. "He has trouble with not working, basically."

But Jason Carter called last week's news conference remarks a "retirement" announcement -- "if anyone deserves emeritus status, it's him," he quipped -- and said that his grandfather seems reconciled to the fact that his life is about to get much simpler. Most of all, he said, his grandmother Rosalynn will get the down time she's long sought with her husband.

"She's going to get the schedule she's always wanted," said Jason Carter. "And my hope for him and her is that they get to spend more time together, and catch more great-grandkid baseball games."

Still, there's one more campaign to be run. Carter's news conference was the first step in what's shaping up as an ongoing effort to live out his days openly and transparently, something experts say could help educate untold numbers of people about cancer and offer support to anyone going through something similar.

It's bringing hope and help where those things may not have existed before. And in that sense, it's not so different from building houses for Habitat for Humanity or working with the Carter Center to eradicate Guinea worm.

"Those things have defined him as a person. And I don't think anyone who knows him will be surprised by what he's said," said Jason Carter. "They have led him to be this incredibly giant human life. And he'll confront this chapter in that same vein."

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