Former President Jimmy Carter said Monday that he put on "a false, optimistic face" for months after he was diagnosed with skin cancer, telling fellow Habitat for Humanity workers that when he got the news last year, "I just thought I had a few weeks to live."
Speaking in Memphis, Tenn., at the opening of the annual Habitat work project he sponsors with his wife, Rosalynn, Carter, 92, said that he feels "pretty certain about my cure" but that the doctors are still keeping an eye on me."
Jimmy(James Earl) Carter as Ensign, USN, circa World War II. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
American politician and US Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter holds a handful of peanuts (referencing his career as a peanut farmer) during a campaign event, Boston, Massachusetts, 1976. (Photo by Mikki Ansin/Getty Images)
American politician and US Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter (center) smiles after his victory in the Pennsylvania Primary election, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 27, 1976. Among those on stage with him are politicians Samuel L Evans (left) and Senator Birch Bayh (second left). (Photo by Mikki Ansin/Getty Images)
U.S. president Jimmy Carter smiling at a podium in front of an American flag, 1970s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1976: A campaign button supporting the Democratic politician Jimmy Carter for President. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Jimmy Carter on his peanut farm, Plains, Georgia, 1976. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
Jimmy Carter (left) and Sen. Walter Mondale at the 1976 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by James Garrett/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Photograph of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dancing at a White House Congressional Ball. Photographed by Marion S. Trikosko. Dated 1977. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Jimmy Carter of Plains, GA, was the 39th President of the United States and a big fan of NASCAR racing. In 1978, Carter invited a number of NASCAR Cup stars to the White House for a big dinner and entertainment provided by country star Willie Nelson. Nelson was there and so were First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the President's brother Billy Carter, but President Carter was nowhere to be found. The President had gone to Camp David to meet with the leaders of Israel and Egypt, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, in what ultimately would lead to a huge Middle East peace agreement known later as the Camp David Accords. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
Jean-Paul II In Washington, United States On October 06, 1979)-John-Paul II, Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn at the White House. (Photo by Pool JEAN-PAUL II AUX USA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Photograph of President Jimmy Carter announcing new sanctions against Iran following the taking American hostages. Photographed by Marion S. Trikosko. Dated 1980. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter during Humanitarian Awards Dinner - November 23, 1987 at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Gillian Sorenson and Jimmy Carter during Benefit Dinner Dance for the Homeless - November 18, 1988 at Plaza Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Musician Willie Nelson and former President Jimmy Carter at the taping of 'CMT Homecoming: Jimmy Carter in Plains,' which will premiere on CMT in December 2004. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage)
ATLANTA - APRIL 22: Former President Jimmy Carter watches the game between the Philiadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on April 22, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 24: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter addresses the media on the second day of Egypt's presidential election on May 24, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. Carter Center election monitors observed the presidential election, the first of the post-Mubarak era. If no candidate wins an outright majority of the vote, the election would go to a second round June 16-17. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Former US President Jimmy Carter signs his new Book 'A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety' at Barnes & Noble on 5th avenue in New York on July 7, 2015. Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images
PASADENA, CA - JULY 30: President Jimmy Carter photographed at Vroman's Bookstore on July 30, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Paul Redmond / Getty Images)
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Carter underwent treatment with a new drug, Keytruda, and by last December, he dramatically announced at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where he frequently teaches Sunday school, that the cancer had disappeared. Four months later, he told the congregation that scans showed he was free of cancer and was able to end treatments.
The months between August and November, however, were difficult, said Carter, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner who's spent his post-presidential years as a highly visible advocate for the poor worldwide.
"A year ago, I didn't think I was going to live for two or three weeks," Carter said Monday. But he soldiered on, and when he arrived in Memphis last November for another Habitat for Humanity project, "I was putting on a kind of a false, optimistic face," he said.
Carter talked more at length last week about the past year during his regular Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist.
"I was faced with the end of my life, and Rose and I both thought that I just had a few — not more than two or three weeks to live," he told the congregation. "And I had a feeling, then, of despair."
At the same time, "I felt that I was thankful, because I've had a remarkably successful life," he said. "You know, I was the most powerful person in the world when I was president of the United States, and I've had a wonderful family and everything has been going well."
The Habitat project the Carters kicked off Monday is the 33rd they've undertaken just in Memphis — an indication of the whirlwind schedule that the former president and Rosalynn Carter, 89, have continued to keep. This week, they're helping to build 19 new homes for low-income families in the area.
"We've had a lot of opportunities for our kids and grandkids to go to school," Jimmy Carter said. "And we're working side by side with families who haven't had all those things.
"It's very difficult to break down that barrier across that bridge against people who've had everything and people who never had a decent home," he said.