Dr. Summral

News | 4 years ago

Glioblastoma: A Closer Look

It was recently reported that US Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was battling brain cancer – more specifically a type of tumor in the brain called glioblastoma. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic made the discovery after the senator underwent surgery to have a blood clot removed from his left eye.

Glioblastoma: A Closer Look

The news might leave you wanting to know more about glioblastoma. Ashley Sumrall, MD, division chief of neuro-oncology at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute, explains more about this particular type of aggressive brain tumor.

Q: So, what is glioblastoma?

A: Glioblastoma (GBM) is a tumor that begins in the brain and spreads throughout the brain. It’s known to be a very quickly growing tumor. It can double in size in three to four weeks. People of all ages are affected, even children.

Brain tumors affect a small percentage of our population. Unfortunately, every year we see more and more of them. In the United States, we see 15,000 of those tumors, with GBM being the most common.

There is the cognitive effect of having the tumor, there is the motor effect and how it affects your ability to move, and then there is ability to tolerate treatment. As patients get older, it becomes harder to treat it and harder for them to tolerate treatment. Older patients have more trouble fighting this disease than younger patients.

Q: What are the symptoms associated with this tumor? Is there any way to spot it early?
A: This tumor can affect both men and women. There is no screening. No way to prevent it. No genetic predisposition. It’s just bad luck and the likelihood of getting it increases as we age.

Patients present in different ways. Sometimes they have trouble with language, or memory, and symptoms they express depend on where the tumor is located. In the case of Sen. McCain, the tumor was found when his doctors uncovered a blood clot during a routine physical. Some have dramatic effects; others minimal.

Q: Sen. McCain had previously had melanoma. Does that mean the two are not related?

A: When we meet people who have brain tumors, the tumor has often spread from somewhere else. With Sen. McCain, the initial thought was melanoma, or skin cancer, that had spread to the brain. It’s uncommon to grow from the actual brain tissue. So the actual brain tissue that keeps us healthy, turns on us, and develops this spider web-type of tumor in the brain. It’s very difficult to treat.

Q: What are the best short-term and long-term treatment options for this type of tumor?

A: Chemo and radiation are well tolerated, but it often affects people cognitively, and can make it difficult for them to function in their previous role.

Clinical trials are encouraged, and that’s a big part of what we do in neuro-oncology. We travel all around the country multiple times a year in order to bring home clinical trials to our patients. We are active in immunotherapy trials here at Levine Cancer Institute. Now is the best time to have this condition – we have more effective therapies than we’ve ever had.

Q: What’s the impact on patients’ lives?
A: With our patients, we talk about what’s important to them. If they want to return to work, we help them make that transition. It involves evaluation of their cognitive and motor abilities, and then we continually re-evaluate. We see these patients every one to two weeks for therapy. We develop close relationships. Many of these patients are able to go back to their roles at work.

I’m always saddened to hear when people are diagnosed with this disease, but I love that it brings attention to this devastating illness. I think it’s important to continue to foster the field of research and find a cure for brain tumors.