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Since the tragic death of Senator John McCain, glioblastomas have been increasingly visible in the media. You may be curious about the nature of this aggressive type of brain cancer, and since May is Brain Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve put together this list of five things to know about glioblastomas from board-certified neuro-oncologist, Herbert Newton, MD — an expert with more than 30 years of experience treating brain and spinal cord tumors.
Glioblastomas Spread Quickly
Glial cells, or cells that act as supporting structures for other brain cells, have certain types and the most abundant of these glial cells in the brain are called astrocytes. Astrocytes coat the central nervous system and help regulate the brain’s transmission of electrical impulses. Astrocytes are closely connected to the brain’s dense network of blood vessels and add to the aggressiveness of cancers affecting them.
“Tumors that come from astrocytes are called astrocytomas, and glioblastomas are the most aggressive type,” explains Dr. Newton.
Glioblastomas are the most common malignant brain tumors found in adults over age 25, making up about two-thirds of all astrocytomas.
“Glioblastomas aren’t common compared to other types of cancer, but as a specialist in treating cancers that affect the brain, it’s a common cancer my team and I treat at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute, all too often.”
“Patients are traveling to us for their glioblastoma treatment and we’re seeing up to three new cases a week. While we offer some of the latest treatments for glioblastoma, this cancer is very aggressive and there’s still no cure yet.”
Glioblastoma is Usually Diagnosed Very Early On
“Glioblastoma is typically a tumor which grows very fast, and symptoms come quickly and intensely, affecting the part of the brain where it resides,” says Dr. Newton.
One common initial symptom is the fast onset of headaches which differ from your typical tension or migraine headache. Other symptoms which may occur alone or in combination include:
- Blurred vision
- Balance issues
- Difficulties with speech
- Weakness on one side of the body
- Changes in memory or cognitive abilities
- Hemorrhaging blood clots
“If you come to the emergency department or your primary care physician with these symptoms, depending on how severe, you’ll be sent for further diagnostic testing including an MRI, and get a formal diagnosis.”
If glioblastoma is suspected, you’ll be referred to a neuro-oncologist such as Dr. Newton for further evaluation and treatment recommendations.
3. Although Glioblastoma Can’t Be Cured, Treatment May Improve Your Condition
“The standard treatment for glioblastoma includes three steps of care,” explains Dr. Newton.
1. Surgical removal of the tumor
2. A six-week course of chemotherapy
3. Radiation therapy
“Another FDA-approved glioblastoma treatment option offered to qualifying patients at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute is called Optune. This cap-like device creates low-intensity electrical fields and can help slow or stop glioblastoma cancer cells from dividing and may also cause some of them to stop growing.”
Your course of treatment is always customized considering a host of factors. Your age, medical history, current health status and how well you tolerate treatments, which often becomes harder with advanced age, will determine your course of treatment.
Even if you don’t tolerate the treatments well, Glioblastoma is often challenging to treat for several reasons including:
- Heterogeneity (tumor cells that express and metastasize differently)
- The location of the tumor may be difficult to access, or too close to major blood vessels or other important centers of the brain
- The tendency of the tumor to come back quickly and aggressively
“Many of these are challenges are currently being studied in clinical trials and we’re gaining a better understanding of how and why glioblastoma forms and progresses in the brain which could hopefully soon lead to a cure.”
“Clinical trials examining specific molecular therapies for glioblastomas could bring more targeted treatments in the future, but this is still under study as a first line of treatment.”
4. No One Knows What Causes Glioblastoma
“Most glioblastomas aren’t inherited, they usually occur sporadically in people with no family history of tumors,” says Dr. Newton.
“They sometimes, but rarely, occur in people with certain genetic syndromes, but it’s more likely to occur in families who have a long history of cancer in general.”
5. While There’s No Cure, There’s Still Hope
Specialists like Dr. Newton at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute are always pushing the boundaries of medicine, furthering their education and implementing some of the latest treatment options and surgical techniques to improve the care we provide you.
Dr. Newton is just one of the Institutes very experienced neurological cancer specialists, who is using his fascination of the brain to help patients find hope, even in the most serious circumstances.
“I was always interested in the brain and how cancer affects the nervous system. That’s what drove me to put these interests together with my career in neuro-oncology. In our field, it’s our hope to make an impact. While we sometimes have to provide sad or disappointing news, we always strive to extend and improve quality of life while providing comfort to patients and their families.”