What to know about glioblastoma—John McCain’s brain cancer

Senator John McCain of Arizona announced Wednesday that doctors have diagnosed him with brain cancer. The unexpected news came after surgeons removed a small blood clot over the senator’s left eye on July 14. However, after test results from the procedure returned, doctors confirmed McCain has a cancerous brain tumor known as a glioblastoma.

This is not the first time McCain, 80, has faced a cancer diagnosis. The senator has a history of melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. However, doctors treated the cancer successfully and McCain has been in relatively good health since 2000.

This recent diagnosis, though, has the Arizona senator in the fight of his life.

John McCain photo
Getty Images | Paul Morigi

What Is Glioblastoma?

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, glioblastomas are cancerous tumors that form in the “star-shaped cells that make up the ‘glue-like,’ or supportive tissue of the brain.” These tumors have a large blood supply, so the the disease reproduces quickly.

“It’s a very aggressive tumor,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN. In fact, Gupta said the average survival for cancerous glioblastoma averages about 14 months with treatment.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about three in 10 brain tumors diagnosed each year are glioblastomas. Family history doesn’t usually play a major role in these tumors.

Glioblastomas took the life of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and former vice president Joe Biden’s son, Beau.

What Are The Symptoms of Glioblastoma?

In McCain’s case, doctors report the senator complained about double vision, a feeling of fogginess and fatigue.

This appears consistent with common symptoms, according to WebMd, which include:

  • Persistent headaches
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble thinking
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Trouble speaking

Of course, these symptoms connect to a variety of conditions. So, if you or someone you know is experiencing them, make sure to see a doctor for a professional diagnosis.

McCain Considering Treatment Options

Although glioblastomas do not spread to other organs, they can be tricky to treat. These tumors “often spread deep into the brain by the time of diagnosis,” according to NBC medical correspondent Dr. John Torres. So, the affected tissue cannot be easily removed.

The 80-year-old McCain had the clot removed by surgeons at the Mayo Clinic. During the procedure, doctors had to remove a bone underneath McCain’s eyebrow to access it. Then, they put the bone back in place. Doctors believe they removed the affected tissue based on post-surgery scans.

Since his surgery, McCain is doing “amazingly well and his underlying health is excellent,” according to an official statement from his office.

The statement also expressed the senator’s gratitude for the public’s support and prayers.

Senator McCain appreciates the outpouring of support he has received over the last few days. He is in good spirits as he continues to recover at home with his family in Arizona. He is grateful to the doctors and staff at Mayo Clinic for their outstanding care, and is confident that any future treatment will be effective. Further consultations with Senator McCain’s Mayo Clinic care team will indicate when he will return to the United States Senate.

McCain is known for his fighting spirit. His daughter, Meghan, released a statement about the family’s reaction to the news. Part of her statement spoke of her father’s determination:

It won’t surprise you to learn that in all this the one of us who is most confident and calm is my father. He is the toughest person I know. The cruelest enemy could not break him. The aggressions of political life could not bend him. So he is meeting this challenge as he has every other. Cancer may afflict him in many ways: but it will not make him surrender. Nothing ever has.

And, a Thursday morning tweet from Senator McCain seems to prove his daughter’s point.

He definitely sounds like a man on a mission to beat this disease. Best wishes, senator!