On July 14th, 2017, Senator John McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. 80-year-old McCain had reportedly visited the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix for a routine exam, after some trouble with double-vision and fatigue. Doctors found an unknown mass in his brain using CAT scans, initially thinking it was a blood clot. However, after surgically removing the mass, they identified it as a primary glioblastoma- a type of tumor. (1)
The Mayo Clinic released this statement about McCain’s diagnosis, “The Senator and his family are reviewing further treatment options with his Mayo Clinic care team. Treatment options may include a combination of chemotherapy and radiation…The Senator’s doctors say he is recovering from his surgery ‘amazingly well’ and his underlying health is excellent.” (2)
Since his diagnosis, McCain’s office released a public statement, saying, “Senator McCain appreciates the outpouring of support he has received over the last few days. He is in good spirits as he continues to recover at home with his family in Arizona. He is grateful to the doctors and staff at Mayo Clinic for their outstanding care, and is confident that any future treatment will be effective. Further consultations with Senator McCain’s Mayo Clinic care team will indicate when he will return to the United States Senate.” (2)
Already feeling improved, McCain returned to the Senate on July 24th. (3) However, it’s clear that, due to the nature of the cancer that he’s been diagnosed with, he may have a long journey yet to remission.
What is Glioblastoma?
Treating cancer is much more complicated than many people realize, and even more so is treating brain cancer. According to Tom Curran, Ph.D., past president of the American Association for Cancer Research, executive director of the Children’s Research Institute and the Donald J. Hall Eminent Scholar in Pediatric Research at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, “We need to find ways of identifying and eliminating brain tumors without damaging the surrounding brain tissues, which is essential for lots of different functions… With the brain, you can’t cut deep because the deeper you cut, the more side effects you’re causing, the more damage you’re causing.” (4)
Treating Glioblastoma: Why It’s So Complicated
While all forms of brain cancer are especially tricky to treat, glioblastoma presents additional complications to consider when treating. Glioblastomas are tumors that attack the supportive tissues in the brain, and they multiply incredibly fast. They can be found in the brain or the spinal cord, and they usually develop finger-like appendages making them hard to remove in their entirety.
Not only do glioblastomas grow aggressively (and in the case of primary glioblastoma, the onset is very sudden), they contain a diverse number of cells within them, all of which respond to different types of treatments. (5) The median survival of glioblastoma is about 2 years- meaning, half of people live longer than this number, and half of people live for less time than that.
Currently, people with glioblastoma can participate in clinical trials which explore new treatment options. One such new potential treatment option is known as CAR-T cell therapy, and it’s been used successfully for blood cancers, however, hasn’t been tested on brain tumors. (6) The usual treatment includes radiation and chemotherapy.
Symptoms of glioblastoma include (5):
weakness on one side of the body
memory and/or speech difficulties
We wish Senator John McCain and his family all the best as he pursues treatment! For those wishing to get support, the American Brain Tumor Association offers information, mentorship, and resources for people whose lives are affected by brain tumors.