Symptoms of Brain Cancer: What Is Glioblastoma Multiforme?

Senator McCain's recent brain cancer diagnosis has truly been a shocker. What is Glioblastoma Multiforme? And what are the symptoms of brain cancer so that you are best prepared to take care of you and your loved ones?

Sanaz Majd, MD,
Episode #244

No matter where your political party loyalties lie, the recent news of Arizona Senator McCain’s grave brain cancer diagnosis has surely left many of you in disbelief. As a past prisoner of Vietnam war, two presidential runs, and one of the most outspoken Republicans, Senator McCain has gained the political attention of everyone. So his recent diagnosis of Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the most common type of brain cancer, hasn't been an easy one to digest.

Of note, Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden also suffered from brain cancer. So what is “glioblastoma multiforme?' And what does this mean for Senator McCain and his prognosis?

This one hits home for me as well, as one of my very close family member suffered through this diagnosis near end-of-life.

What is Glioblastoma Multiforme?

When we talk about “brain cancer,” what we are really referring to is a cancer that begins in the brain itself. It’s the brain cells themselves that go out of whack and turn cancerous. It’s different than other cancers that can “metastasize” (meaning spread) after originating from a different location in the body (such as breast, lung, or melanoma).

Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) is the most common type of brain cancer in adults. Yet, it is still a rare type of cancer. It specifically originates from the “glial cells” of the brain (hence, the term “glio-“), which comprise the greatest amount of our brain matter. These glial cells help “neurons” (the nerve cells that transmit information) do their job. Without them, our brains truly are unable to function.

No one knows what causes GBM. Unlike some other cancers, we do not really know of any risk factors that can contribute to it. For instance, we know some breast cancers are hormonally driven. And Most lung cancer is secondary to cigarette smoking. Sun exposure can cause some skin cancers. But we don’t really know what causes GBM.Contrary to popular belief, there is no good evidence that cell phones and electromagnetic field lines are contributing factors.  

Symptoms of Brain Tumors


This one may create some anxiety in some of you, because headaches are quite common; almost all of us have experienced at least one. Some of us with migraines or tension headaches tend to experience them more frequently. So before you dart to your doctor’s office in fear of a brain tumor, it’s important to note that brain tumors are a very rare cause of headaches.

Also, headaches caused by brain tumors are also often accompanied by specific “red flags”:

·         A new headache in an adult without a history of similar headaches: For example, if you’ve suffered from migraines since your 20’s intermittently, then that is not typically a cause for alarm when you experience another similar headache. It would be more concerning if let’s say a 50 year old adult with no prior migraines all of a sudden starts experience migraine-type headaches without ever having experienced one prior.

·         Headaches that progressively worsen through time: For instance, if your headache becomes more severe with each episode.

·         Headaches that worsen with position changes, such as bending over or coughing/sneezing

·         Headaches that awaken you from sleep:  Note that there’s a distinction between waking up and realizing you have a headache and a headache that is so severe that it awakens. The latter is much less common.

Other symptoms:

·         Neurologic:  Symptoms such as problems with motor skills, sensation, speech, vision, etc.

·         Vomiting upon waking up, most especially when invoked by a change in position. Although it’s important to not get carried away by this one, because nausea and vomiting is a common feature in those with migraines.

·         Seizures

·         Memory loss

·         Vision loss

·         Double vision (Reportedly Senator McCain experienced this)

·         A significant personality change


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