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Sure Signs You Have an "Aggressive Type of Cancer"

Cancer expert explains what to know about glioblastoma and signs that indicate you could have it. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Glioblastoma is a rare brain cancer that only seems to make headlines when someone notable like Tom Parker, John McCain, or Beau Biden are diagnosed, but in the last few years the disease has started to become more well known. "Glioblastoma is still a rare tumor with 15,000 cases diagnosed in the United States every year," Dr. Manmeet Ahluwalia, deputy director, chief scientific officer and chief of Solid Tumor Medical Oncology at Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida tells us. Dr. Ahluwalia, who specializes in primary tumors and brain metastases and whose research has been published in over 175 peer-reviewed publications and his study on glioblastoma recently was awarded competitive funding from the National Institutes of Health adds, "There has been increasingly more awareness in the last decade or so." While Glioblastoma is uncommon, knowing the signs can help get a quicker diagnosis and treatment to help slow down the progression. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Glioblastoma

Doctor examines MRI scan of head, neck and brain of patient

Dr. Ahluwalia says, "Glioblastoma is the most common primary malignant brain tumor. Each year around 15,000 people in the United States get diagnosed with glioblastoma. Despite advancements in chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, survival for glioblastoma still remains dismal. Most patients with glioblastoma survive 15 to 18 months."

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Glioblastoma is an aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. Glioblastoma forms from cells called astrocytes that support nerve cells."


Risk Factors

man hold his had and suffering from headache, pain, migraine

Dr. Ahluwalia explains, "People with rare inherited syndromes like neurofibromatosis, Turcot syndrome and Li-Fraumeni syndrome and anyone with prior history of ionizing radiation to the brain are at increased risk."

The Mayo Clinic says, "Glioblastoma can occur at any age, but tends to occur more often in older adults. It can cause worsening headaches, nausea, vomiting and seizures."

The Cleveland Clinic shares, "GBM commonly affects people age 45 to 70. The average age at diagnosis is 64. Men have a slightly higher risk, but the disease affects all ages and genders.

These factors may increase your risk:

–Exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides, petroleum, synthetic rubber and vinyl chloride.

–Genetic, tumor-causing conditions, such as neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and Turcot syndrome.

–Previous radiation therapy to the head."


Why the Survival Rate is Low

Radiologist looking at the MRI scan images.

Dr. Ahluwalia tells us, "Glioblastoma is a highly infiltrative tumor that spreads like a spiderweb in the brain. Even in the best hands, absolute complete resection of the tumor is not possible as there is still a tumor left behind – it is not possible to remove all the tentacles of the tumor. Also, it is a very heterogeneous tumor that becomes resistant to most therapies that are used very quickly. So far immunotherapies and targeted therapies have had limited success and there is only one chemotherapy and one device that is associated with improvement in overall survival. Also, drug delivery is a unique challenge in this patient population given the blood brain barrier, which is the lining around the brain that prevents any toxins from reaching the brain, and also limits the chemotherapy from reaching the brain."


Symptoms of Glioblastoma

Woman fainted

Dr. Ahluwalia says, "The signs and symptoms of glioblastoma can vary greatly depending on the brain tumor's size, its location in the brain, and rate of growth. Headaches that are associated with glioblastoma don't respond to over-the-counter remedies the same way other headaches do. Typically, these headaches are worse in the morning. Most headaches are not associated with glioblastoma. Other signs of glioblastoma or brain tumor include seizures, cognitive decline, personality changes, trouble with balance and coordination, weakness on one side of the body, vision changes or hearing difficulty."

Cedars-Sinai states, "Your brain controls your thoughts, emotions, and actions. It also interprets information from your senses. Different areas of the brain control different functions. Some of the symptoms of GBM have to do with where the tumor starts. For instance, if it grows in an area that controls your arm movements, your arm may become weak. If it grows in an area that controls your speech, you may have trouble forming words.

As the tumor continues to grow, it starts to take up space. This increases the pressure within the skull. Some of the symptoms of GBM are caused by the increased pressure in the brain.

Many GBM symptoms develop slowly and get worse over time. These may include:

  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of balance or trouble walking
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Personality and behavior changes
  • Problems speaking
  • Problems with memory
  • Seizures
  • Sensation changes
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Vision changes
  • Weakness

Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. Still, it's important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.


Treatments are Improving, But More Needs to Be Done

Woman in her 30s sits by her living room window with a cup of tea and looks out contemplatively. She is a cancer survivor and is wearing a headscarf.

Dr. Ahluwalia says, "Although glioblastoma treatment and outcomes have seen improvements in the last decade – in terms of quality of life and more people living longer, we still have a long way to go. The key is to get treatment at a large comprehensive brain tumor program by a multidisciplinary team of neurosurgeons, medical/neuro-oncologists and radiation oncologists who specialize in the treatment of these tumors and have access to clinical trials. Clinical trial participation is highly encouraged and a preferred therapy option in this patient population in addition to standard of care treatment."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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