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What You Should Know About Brain Cancer

Brain tumor on MRI

About 17,000 people are diagnosed with cancer that began in or next to the brain every year in the United States. These are called primary brain cancers.

In this edition of Vital Signs, Dr. Ben Newman, a neurosurgeon with Methodist Dallas Medical Center, talks about this form of the illness.  In particular, glioblastoma - the type of tumor believed to have killed the vice president’s son, Beau Biden.

Highlights from Dr. Newman’s interview:

What is glioblastoma?  “Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer, accounting for half of new diagnoses. It is extremely aggressive. It is extremely difficult to treat. A big part of the reason for that is when you have tumors that are growing inside the brain, you can’t generally be very aggressive in terms of removing the tumor and the tissue around the tumor because at that point you would be risking injury to the individual by trying to remove the tumor. And the brain is a small area and does not tolerate having large parts of it removed, which you unfortunately have to do for a complete surgical cure.”

Do we know what causes a brain tumor?  “We do not. We’ve begun to identify what we think are probable genetic predispositions or individuals who may have increased likelihood of developing brain tumors. But there’s not been consistently or any definitively identified factors.”

Who is most likely to develop a brain tumor? “It does seem to be random, and it does seem to be something that we don’t completely understand. But I will say that we’re making a lot of progress with our new developments in terms of our understanding of biochemistry and molecular biology.”

Survival rates today: “With maximum medical treatment, a new diagnosis of glioblastoma – the average survival is about 16 months. We have seen some promising new results in terms of vaccines and other types of therapies, but for the time being, they’re all investigational. Lower grade tumors, those (survival rates) tend to be much longer for the most part. It really depends on the location of the tumor, whether it can be removed surgically, and a lot of things, frankly, that are out of our control.”   

For more information:

M.D Anderson Cancer Center - Basic facts 

National Institutes of Health – National Cancer Institute 

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.