Glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive and deadly brain cancer, has been back in the news recently because of the passing and the funeral of John McCain. Other prominent figures, including Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden, son of the former vice president, Joe Biden, have also succumbed to this cruel killer.
Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory does not keep any type of formal statistical index of causes of death of clients who are serviced here. But we know of cases of Glioblastoma, and frankly, it is not a rare condition.
Numbers we have seen suggest that about 3 in 100,000 contract the condition; it is said to be the second most common brain tumor, just behind meningioma.
The survival prognosis reminds of us of pancreatic cancer: bleak. Most perish within 15 months, some five – ten percent battle on for as long as ten years. Other sources show a much faster rate of mortality.
Several types of glioblastoma exist: the primary or de novo, and secondary (slower growing, but still aggressive).
What are the symptoms?
In John McCain’s case, they were headaches and dizziness.
The list of symptoms includes: persistent headaches, nausea and vomiting, changes in vision, memory loss, hearing loss, weakness in one part of the body, emotional mood swings, drooping eyelids, uncontrollable eye movements, seizures, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, difficulties with swallowing or speech.
Obviously, only a professional can diagnose this complicated condition, but all agree, any of these symptoms should not be ignored. Also obvious is the fact that the above symptoms are not always indicators glioblastoma.
Sophisticated brain imaging techniques followed by a biopsy are required to make a definitive conclusion.
What are the treatment steps?
Surgery (if possible), chemotherapy, radiation, the full range of medical interventions can be used.
The nefarious nature of glioblastoma complicates the matter. It migrates and infiltrates in a manner that makes it difficult to remove all of the growth: so, surgery, chemo and radiation are unlikely to provide prolonged remission.
Although breakthroughs in treatment are yet to be seen, scientists say that there is a lot of promising research being done.
The director of the brain tumor program at the University of California at Los Angeles, Linda Liau, says: “One of the biggest challenges of the disease is that it is so heterogenous. That it is so different in every patient, and not every part of the tumor is the same. You are playing whack-a-mole, trying to kill all of the different kinds of cells.”
New drugs are being developed and they are being applied in different combinations with old drugs.
Data from drug tests continue to be evaluated, no stone is being left unturned.
Even the surgical procedures are being refined in an on-going manner. Because the harmful cells spread throughout the brain like tentacles, and because these cells are not always visible, surgical intervention is problematic. Removing the growths, while not disturbing other areas which may result in other issues — this demands an incredible skill set. Advances in computerized mapping of the brain helps, but this procedure is still extremely taxing, fraught with risk.
Post-surgery radiation usually last five or six weeks. Research has focused on various applications of radiation, including increasing the dosage, mindful, however, of the danger this presents.
Dr. Jim Olson pioneered a technique that employs a fluorescent dye which allows surgeons to
discern what is normal tissue and what is malignant growth. Olson has made the point that when you are dealing with a bulky brain tumor, it figures out a way to protect itself from both chemotherapy and radiation.
Another researcher, Dr. Eric Holland, put together a data base where a patient’s history is matched with other patients in order to target the best possible treatment options.
Experts say slow progress is being made, cause for hope does exist.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when it comes to glioblastoma.