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Tom Parker, singer from the band The Wanted who split up in 2014, shared with his fans that he has a grade 4 glioblastoma tumor, an aggressive and persistent form of brain tumor, and he’s currently undergoing treatment. At age 32, this is a devastating diagnosis as often patients are only given a year or more to live.
Parker said he visited the hospital over the summer after suffering two seizures, and that’s when he was told of the terminal tumor.
We consulted Dr. Herbert Newton, medical director of the Neuro-Oncology Program, and Dr. Melvin Field, medical director of Minimally Invasive Brain Surgery, to better understand what makes glioblastoma so incredibly difficult.
Glioblastoma Has No Known Cure
Ongoing research seeks to find new and better treatment options for patients diagnosed with glioblastoma. Glial cells form the brain’s glue-like supportive tissue, and the most abundant glial cells in the brain are called astrocytes, named for their star-like shape. “Astrocytes tile the central nervous system to help regulate the brain’s transmission of electrical impulses,” explains Dr. Field. They are closely connected to the brain’s dense network of blood vessels, which contributes to the aggressiveness of cancers that affect them.
“Tumors arising from astrocytes are called astrocytomas, and glioblastomas are the most aggressive type, grade 4,” says Dr. Newton.
“Glioblastomas are the most common malignant brain tumors found in adults over age 25, making up about two-thirds of astrocytomas,” he adds.
And while glioblastomas are not common compared to other types of cancer, Dr. Newton says that “as specialists in cancers that affect the brain, it’s a common cancer we treat at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute.”
Patients travel to us for their glioblastoma treatment, Dr. Field says, adding, “We have seen up to three new cases a week.” While we offer some of the latest treatments for glioblastoma, this cancer is very aggressive, and there is not a cure at this point in time.
Glioblastoma is typically a very fast-growing tumor, so symptoms tend to come on quickly and intensely and correlate to the part of the brain the glioblastoma is affecting, advises Dr. Newton.
He explained that a very common initial symptom is a fast onset of headaches that differ from your typical tension or migraine headache. Other symptoms can occur alone or in combination, and include:
- Balance issues
- Weakness on one side of the body
- Changes in memory or cognitive abilities
- Difficulties with speech or vocation
- Blurred vision
Patients generally come to the ER or their primary care physician with these symptoms, depending on how severe, and after diagnostic testing that includes an MRI, will get the formal diagnosis, advises Dr. Newton.
If glioblastoma is suspected, patients will then be referred to a neuro-oncologist for further evaluation and treatment recommendations.
Difficulty Treating Effectively
The worldwide standard of care for glioblastoma treatment includes a four-phase protocol, explain Dr. Newton and Dr. Field.
1. Maximal surgical resection (removal of the tumor)
2. 6-week course of radiotherapy in combination with temozolomide chemotherapy
3. Adjuvant chemotherapy with temozolomide for 6-12 months
4. Use of Optune (low-intensity electric fields called Tumor-Treating Fields) in combination with adjuvant temozolomide
Optune is an FDA-approved glioblastoma treatment option offered to qualifying patients at AdventHealth Cancer Institute. This unique cap-like device creates low-intensity electric fields that could help slow or stop glioblastoma cancer cells from dividing and may also cause some cells to die, Dr. Newton explains.
Every patient's course of treatment is customized considering a host of factors, including age, medical history, current health status and how well each patient tolerates treatments.
And even for patients who do tolerate the treatments well, glioblastoma is often challenging to treat because of the tumors:
- Heterogeneity (tumor cells that express and metastasize differently)
- Possible location in a region of the brain that's difficult to access, or too close to major blood vessels or speech or motor strip of the brain
- Tendency to reoccur rapidly and aggressively
Many of these challenges are being studied through clinical trials. Gaining a better understanding of why and how glioblastoma forms and progresses in the brain could lead to a cure.
There are clinical trials examining specific molecular therapies for glioblastomas that could bring more targeted treatments in the future, but this is still under study as a first line of treatment, says Dr. Newton.
Unknown Cause of Glioblastomas
If you have a relative with a glioblastoma, it doesn't necessarily mean you're destined for the same future.
Most glioblastomas are not inherited they usually occur sporadically in people with no family history of tumors, advises Dr. Newton.
They can rarely occur in people with certain genetic syndromes, but it's more likely to see some families having a strong predilection to cancer in general.
Hope for a Future Cure
Organizations like the Melissa Vosburg Foundation work to raise awareness and fund research on molecular therapy for these extremely aggressive tumors. Physicians like Dr. Newton and Dr. Field at AdventHealth join the fight by pushing the boundaries of medicine, studying and implementing some of the latest treatment options and surgical techniques to improve the care of patients with glioblastoma and other types of brain tumors.
“When a patient is diagnosed with a glioblastoma or other brain tumor, it’s a difficult journey, but one we walk along with them,” says Dr. Newton. You are never alone in your cancer treatment and you will always have our support in body, mind and spirit.
As clinical trials continue all across the country, we have hope that one day glioblastoma patients can look forward to better options and better outcomes.
For more information about the brain tumor treatments offered at AdventHealth, visit WholeNeuroCare.com.