What to know about glioblastoma, the brain cancer Sen. John McCain is battling

Glioblastoma, the cancer afflicting John McCain, is an aggressive cancer that originates in the brain.

Dr. Peter Nakaji, a neurosurgeon at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and Catherine Ivy, president and a founder of the Ivy Foundation brain research center, discussed the diagnosis, symptoms and treatment. He is not on John McCain’s treatment team.

What is glioblastoma?

“Glioblastoma is a tumor that arises inside the brain itself,” Nakaji said.

It’s a primary form of brain cancer, meaning it originates in the brain instead of spreading from other cancerous organs, such as with secondary brain cancers.

“Brain tumors are graded along a scale. Glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of that,” he said.

Nakaji said the cancer spreads like butter melting into bread, mingling with brain tissue. Medical professionals find it difficult to extract, making the disease especially dangerous.

“Glioblastoma is a liquid tumor that enters little crevices in the brain,” Ivy said. “It multiplies more rapidly than other cancers.”

What are the symptoms of glioblastoma?

Nakaji said symptoms depend on where the disease is located in the brain.

“Often it’s a seizure or some sudden event from it,” he said. “But sometimes it’s very non-specific things. (Patients) might have nausea or headache or personality change.”

Ivy said the symptoms of glioblastoma can resemble those of stroke.

Nakaji said many patients diagnosed with glioblastoma have no changes in their behavior and stay neurologically normal throughout their fight with the disease.

How is glioblastoma treated?

“Treatment usually starts with surgery, both to prove that that’s what it is and also to get out as much of it as possible,” Nakaji said. “Then, usually some combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.”

Nakaji and Ivy said recent findings in genetic-based research have helped patients to better manage symptoms. But Ivy said the disease is frustrating because little is known about it.

“I highly encourage people to try some clinical trials,” said Nakaji.

Nakaji said such trials could help patients find medications that work earlier in their treatment.

What is the long-term prognosis?

The five-year survival rate for glioblastoma patients is very low, especially when diagnosed in someone older than 50.

Ivy said some of the most meaningful gains in glioblastoma research have produced additional time and improved quality of life for those diagnosed with this type of brain cancer. One female patient, who died in March, lived more than six years past her diagnosis, she said. The Seattle woman traveled, lived to see her grandchildren born and enjoyed a good life in the years she had left, Ivy said.

“Many people who get treated will return to the same quality of life afterwards for a period of time,” Nakaji said. That could mean months or years – some patients have beaten the odds to live several years.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Peter Nakaji’s last name. It has been corrected.