Glioblastoma is a disease so deadly it’s been called “the terminator” and “the eraser” because the fast-growing brain cancer can affect anyone, at any age, and comes with a grim prognosis.
As it spreads, the tumor can affect cognition, mood, behavior and every function of the body, leaving a previously active and otherwise healthy person unable to work or do everyday activities, the National Brain Tumor Society warned.
Wednesday marks the first annual Glioblastoma Awareness Day in the U.S., honoring patients, caregivers and those who have lost their lives to the disease. July 17 received that designation after the U.S. Senate approved and passed a bipartisan resolution last month.
“Glioblastoma is a devastating brain disease that has taken the lives of two of my very close friends and colleagues, Ted Kennedy and my dearest friend John McCain,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) in a statement. “This Senate resolution shines a light on this terrible disease.”
McCain passed away on August 25, 2018 — nine years to the day after Kennedy died of the same type of brain tumor in 2009. Both men passed away a little more than a year after their diagnoses, showing patients haven’t faced much better prospects over time.
Beau Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, died of glioblastoma in 2015 at the age of 46.
Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman, made national headlines in 2014 when she chose to end her life after receiving a glioblastoma diagnosis.
What is glioblastoma?
Also called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), it’s the most common and most aggressive form of brain cancer in adults, accounting for 35-40% of malignant brain tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute. About 14,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
There is no cure, and treatment is difficult since glioblastoma grows tentacles into the brain rather than forming a solid mass that doctors can target and remove.
What are the risk factors?
The only confirmed risk factor is radiation therapy to the head and neck, but the vast majority of glioblastomas occur randomly, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
“It’s a mistake in cell division that could happen at any time. Thankfully, it’s rare,” Dr. Steven Kalkanis, chair of neurosurgery at Henry Ford Health System and medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit, told TODAY.
Men are more likely than women to develop glioblastoma and there’s evidence women respond better to treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute.
At this time, there’s no known way to reduce your risk, the American Cancer Society advises. The most important thing you can do is not to ignore the warning signs.
What are the symptoms?
They’re varied and may depend on where in the brain the tumor is located. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the National Cancer Institute list these warning signs:
- persistent headaches — this is the most common symptom in a previously healthy person
- double or blurred vision
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- changes in mood and personality
- changes in ability to think and learn
- new onset of seizures
- speech difficulty
- memory problems
- weakness on one side of the body
- problems with language, concentration or coordination
What is the treatment?
Patients usually undergo surgery, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. But because the cancer resembles the threads of a spider’s web rather than a uniform mass, and it’s intertwined with delicate brain tissue, it’s almost impossible to get rid of.
“Brain tumors, particularly but not exclusively the malignant ones … are in such an eloquent area of the body that surgical intervention may not be possible and other interventions such as RT (radiation therapy) may come with a fierce price,” Dr. Henry S. Friedman, deputy director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center, told NBC News.
Optune — a cap-like device that sends a low-dose electrical current through the brain — offers a survival advantage. But more advances are desperately needed in the field, which is behind the curve compared to other cancers, said Dr. Glenn Lesser, a neuro-oncologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Glioblastoma cells often develop resistance to treatment and continue to grow.
What is the prognosis?
There is no cure for glioblastoma. Most patients survive for less than two years.