Advocate Condell neurosurgeon discusses new treatments, research on brain tumors
U.S. Senator John McCain died Saturday, Aug. 25. McCain, 81, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in July 2017, and announced he would no longer seek treatment just last week.
The cause of Sen. McCain's form of cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, is still unknown to physicians and researchers. What is known, however, is that risk of such tumors increases with age, with males facing higher risk than females.
Symptoms tend to vary depending on the location of the tumor, but commonly include motor changes, memory deficit and visual disturbances, among others.
The same cancer killed former U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy exactly nine years to the day before Sen. McCain's death, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Beau, in 2015.
Primary glioblastomas are extremely aggressive, and full removal of the tumors is rarely possible because of their finger-like extensions of malignant cells called distal disseminations. Senator McCain underwent surgery to remove most of the tumor in the summer of 2017, followed by intensive treatments of radiation and chemotherapy to attempt to slow further growth.
While Sen. McCain died approximately 13 months after his diagnosis, Dr. Juan Alzate, a neurosurgeon at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., says it can be difficult to provide a general prognosis due to the uniqueness of each patient and tumor.
Because of this, a patient's prognosis can vary depending on the tumor's location, resection and genetic makeup, as well as factors such as the age and strength of the patient.
"In general, prognoses can go from one to two years. Less than five to 10 percent survive as many as five years," Dr. Alzate says.
Even though Sen. McCain's diagnosis and recent passing were tragic occurrences, Dr. Alzate points out that they have also brought increased awareness to this dangerous cancer. Such awareness has led to increased funding and research surrounding treatment and finding a cure.
"Research on these tumors has been ongoing for several decades," Dr. Alzate explains. "One promising strategy involves testing with different immunotherapy trials, including vaccines."
Unlike chemotherapy, which fights cancer by attacking rapidly dividing cells throughout the body, immunotherapy bolsters the patient's existing immune system so it can better fight against the tumor specifically. Dr. Alzate also points to several new medications that have been found to increase responsiveness to radiation and chemo such as genetic manipulation drugs, which "turn off" the cancer cells' genetic programming for reproduction, slowing or even halting the growth of the tumor.
With the continued advancement of both immunotherapy and these genetic manipulation medications, physicians are confident in the future development of glioblastoma treatment.
Each day, new trials and methods are being proven effective in extending patient survival rates and increasing physicians' ability to eradicate these difficult to reach tumors, bringing hope and healing to thousands of individuals and families around the world.