Jimmy Carter's Cancer: 3 Important Lessons on Dying

A life well spent
Carter at the Middle East Peace Conference. Getty

Two incredible things happened yesterday: Jimmy Carter was painfully honest about his stage IV cancer, and cable news commentators missed three lessons he graciously offered. It was as if someone presented an incredible gift, and the recipient only focused on the quality of the wrapping paper.

News commentators lavished praise on Carter for his honesty, offered sympathy to him and his family, but avoided discussing the big issues of death and dying.

Over two thousand years ago the Buddha said just as the elephant leaves the biggest footprint in the jungle, so do death in our lives. We may pretend it isn’t a part of living—as did some of the commentators—or we can learn from Carter’s words how to lead a life that will make our death easier whether it happens in weeks or decades.

Revealing a Cancer Diagnosis

Honesty characterizes Carter’s life: from being President to creating the Carter Center. It’s a quality rarely seen in politicians, probably cost him his second term as President and engendered the ridicule of far-right commentators.

The same openness and honesty present throughout his life was found when he described his stage IV cancer. His initial reaction was one those of us who have shared a cancer diagnosis experienced: acknowledging mortality. His second reaction—acceptance—is less common.

The decision to share a diagnosis with family and friends—and in Carter’s case, the world—is complex.

It involves reassessing one’s identity and the reactions you anticipate by those who hear it. Knowing you are flirting with death and saying the words, “I have cancer,” are different. “Knowing,” is more theory than experiential. Saying the words adds to the diagnosis’s emotional impact. I made the decision to share my prostate cancer diagnosis thirteen years ago, and I have never regretted it.

Lesson 1: A Life That Made a Difference

After informed of the diagnosis, Carter believed he had only weeks to live. He was surprised by his reaction to his impending death: calm acceptance. The reasons he cited were religious convictions and a fulfilling life. In serving​ the needs of people who are dying and their caregivers, I’ve found religious convictions helped some peacefully die while having little effect on others. However leading a life that made a difference was helpful for almost everyone. It not only eased a person’s death, but created a soothing legacy for their caregivers, family, and friends.

Lesson 2: Don’t wait to Prepare for Death

Unfortunately, many people begin examining their mortality when time isn’t sufficient to change what they did. Knowing you have an appointment with death that’s just around the corner doesn’t provide much of an opportunity to change “I should have…” statements into “I’m glad I did…..”. The time to think about death is when your life is ahead of you. Carter’s life is filled with an abundance of “I’m glad I did that…” statements rather than ones populated with regrets.

Lesson 3: Balancing Hope and Reality

Carter was clear while he’s hopeful the treatment can extend his life, he won’t be waiting for the extension nor lamenting the certainty of his death.

Within the limits of his physical condition, he’ll continue doing what he has always done to make a difference: from teaching Sunday school to participating in world events.

Those of us living with cancer face the same dilemma: balancing hope with reality. While it would be nice to find a method for determining the point where the two balance, it’s analogous to searching for the right colored bandage for a cut artery spewing blood. A better approach is to examine your life and ask, “If I die tomorrow, will I have made a difference?” If you can say “yes,” balancing hope with reality becomes superfluous.

If your answer is “no,” you have work to do.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your life and the lessons it provides.