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Glioblastoma: A Q&A About Brain Cancer

Cancer Care
Author name: Dr. Bianca Ferrari

The death of musician Neil Peart from brain cancer earlier this year highlighted the insidious nature of glioblastoma, an incurable, virulent form of brain cancer.

Peart, best known as the drummer and lyricist of the iconic rock band Rush, died at 67 after a three-year battle with the disease.

Known medically as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the cancer has also claimed the lives of senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, actors Robert Forster and Tim Conway, as well as Beau Biden.

About 14,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Bianca Ferrari, M.D., a board-certified oncologist and medical director for Survivorship and High Risk Surveillance at Lee Health, offers some insight about glioblastoma, how we can lower our risks for developing any kind of cancer, and how to recognize symptoms.

HN: What causes glioblastoma?

Dr. Ferrari: Glioblastoma is a common primary brain tumor, meaning it originates in the brain. Typically, by the time we diagnosis someone with it, glioblastoma is considered to be advanced because they’re highly aggressive malignant tumors that grow rapidly into the surrounding brain tissue. Ninety percent of adult patients with glioblastoma die within 24 months after diagnosis. 

HN: The high-profile recent deaths from glioblastoma were all men. Is there anything to this?

Dr. Ferrari: Glioblastoma does occur in older men more than in older women, usually ages 50 to 70. Overall, males are 60 percent more likely to develop glioblastoma than females. As for children, only about 10 percent of childhood brain tumors are glioblastomas.

HN: What are the symptoms of brain cancer, and what causes it?

Dr. Ferrari: Brain tumors can produce symptoms such as headache, seizure, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, memory loss, and neurological changes. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, patients may show other symptoms as well. Some patients may experience vision loss or have trouble with speech, for example.

What’s frustrating about treating glioblastoma, specifically, is that we don’t know its exact underlying cause, in most cases. In rare cases, glioblastoma develops in people with certain genetic syndromes.

HN: How is glioblastoma diagnosed?

Dr. Ferrari: Patients undergo a physical and neurological exam and an imaging test like computed tomography (CT) and maybe also magnetic resonance imaging (MR). To confirm a tumor is present, a small biopsy or removal of the tumor is performed.

HN: What are the treatment options for someone who has glioblastoma, even though it has no cure?

Dr. Ferrari: Well, unfortunately, that’s true. Advance treatments include tumor removal, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy, but essentially the treatment is palliative. At Regional Cancer Center, we want to improve the patient’s quality of life with treatment that addresses the person as a whole, not just his or her disease. This means not only treating the symptoms and side effects of the disease, but also providing psychological, social, and spiritual support.

HN: Are there any promising new treatments for glioblastoma on the horizon?

Dr. Ferrari: Yes! There are options of treating using electric field therapy and some trials using viruses injected into the tumor causing it to die.

HN: Is there hope for future patients?

Dr. Ferrari: New treatments are constantly being developed. The promise of targeted and immunotherapy remains available in certain types of tumor. It’s important to continue supporting research for this devastating disease.

HN: How can we lower our risks for developing brain cancer?

Dr. Ferrari: First off, the odds are low. The likelihood of developing a malignant tumor of any form in a person’s life is less than 1 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Also, I want to stress that having one risk factor or many for getting brain tumor doesn’t mean a person will develop it. Again, most brain tumors aren’t associated with any known risk factors and have no obvious cause. But two factors have been identified that may raise the risk of brain tumors: radiation exposure and a family history of brain tumors.

Radiation-induced tumors are fairly rare, and caused by radiation to the head to treat other cancers. Also, in rare cases, brain tumors can occur in people with a family history of brain tumors or a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain tumors.

HN: What about radiation exposure from imaging tests like X-rays?

Dr. Ferrari: X-rays, CT scans and other imaging tests use much lower levels of radiation than those of radiation treatments. If there is any increased risk—the risk is not known for sure—it’s probably really small. According to the ACS, most doctors recommend people, particularly children and pregnant women, avoid these tests unless absolutely needed.

HN: Do cellphones cause cancer?

Dr. Ferrari: At the moment, there’s no strong evidence that cellphone use increases the risk of developing a brain tumor. But we really don’t know. There are ongoing long-term studies that should give us more data. If you are concerned about the risks, I would recommend limiting your cellphone use or using a hands-free headset.

Dr. Ferrari is a board-certified Hematologist-Oncologist who is also Medical Director for Survivorship and High Risk Surveillance at Lee Health.

To make an appointment with Dr. Ferrari, please call 239-343-9567.