Brain Cancer has been in the news more than usual, probably spurred by the unfortunate death of Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden. He was only 46 years old.
Have you ever wondered about Brain Cancer – how common it is, how can you tell if you have it, what are the survival rates? For me, the death of a friend last week after battling Brain Cancer for 3 years had me asking these questions so I thought I would share what I found
How Common is Brain Cancer
Brain Cancer is less common than many other types of cancer, which is one of the reasons you don’t hear a lot about it. According to the American Cancer Society:
- About 22,850 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed this year – and males are slightly more likely to develop them than women- 56% of malignant tumors are found in men.
- These numbers would be much higher if benign tumors were also included (about 70,000).
- This year over 15,000 people will die from brain and spinal cord tumors.
- There is less than 1% chance of developing a malignant brain tumor.
Does that sound like a big number to you? Compare that to just under 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer, with a 12% liklihood that a woman will get some form of it in her lifetime. Or to lung cancer, with around 221,000 new cases each year.
What are the Symptoms of Brain Cancer?
The symptoms of brain cancer can often be subtle and will depend on the type and location.
Here is a short video about brain cancer symptoms:
You can get a more complete list of symptoms with descriptions at CancerCenter.com, but to summarize – symptoms can include headaches, changes in vision, nausea, vomiting, seizures, weakness/numbness, or problems with cognitive function, speech, or motor skills like balance and coordination.
To understand how difficult it would be to pinpoint brain cancer from symptomology, there are over 120 types of brain tumors.
Here are just a few of the types, from the American Brain Tumor Association:
- 34% of all primary brain tumors are Meningiomas – these are the most common type of primary brain tumor.
- Gliomas include all tumors that come from the supportive tissue of the brain – they make up 30% of all brain tumors and 80% of all malignant tumors.
- Glioblastomas make up 17% of all primary brain tumors, and 54% of all gliomas (these are very aggressive tumors).
- Astrocytomas represent 7% of all primary brain tumors, and together with glioblastomas account for 76% of all gliomas.
What are the Survival Rates of Brain Cancer?
The survival rates for brain cancer are not very encouraging, and have not changed much of the last many years. One reason for this is probably the fact that they make up such a small percentage of all forms of cancer. The research dollars tend to go towards types of cancer that impact a wider percentage of the population.
According to Health.com, in an article covering the death of Beau Biden:
…people live an average of just 14.6 months after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, according to Dr. Alexander. And just 33.3% of patients with all brain or nervous system cancers will survive past five years, compared to a five-year survival rate of 89.4% for breast cancers, according to the NCI.
The Biden family has not released specific information about the type of brain cancer that Beau was fighting. But there was another article dealing with brain cancer in the news this week, that had a more hopeful tone.
Maybe There is Hope for Glioblastomas
Optune, a device developed by U.S.-based oncology firm Novocure, can be fitted to a person’s head in order to deliver alternating, “wave-like” electric fields called Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields). According to the website for Optune, these TTFields travel across the upper part of the brain in different directions to help slow or stop recurrent glioblastoma cancer cells from dividing.
43% of patients using this device are still alive after two years, compared to 29% without it – a pretty significant difference!
Fox News carried a story recently about one patient, Elizabeth Marek, who has been wearing the device for a year. Currently she shows no signs of cancer, and is taking life one day at a time.
Read the whole story: Mother fights brain cancer with electric fields
There are other efforts going on to combat brain cancer, I hope they are successful at finding more solutions that can extend the lives of those who develop these tumors. I know I will miss my friend Tim, and the Biden’s will miss their family member Beau.
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