Humanity has planted flags on the moon, yet a moonshot for brain cancer has yet to be realized.
Diagnosis known, we gradually stopped removing more tumor. The more tumor you remove, the longer the average survival, meager though it may be. But the quest for surgical perfection sometimes comes with a cost. In the brain, where critical human functions are packed into mere millimeters of tissue, removing more tumor and possibly damaging healthy tissue risks the loss of strength, speech, vision, memory and more. In glioblastoma, tumor cells that have traveled centimeters away from the bulk of the tumor, far out of reach of any forceps, almost guarantee the cancer’s recurrence. Surgical perfection is imperfect. She wanted to preserve her strength.
We sutured the dura closed, and then plated her bone back on. With care, we closed the layers of her skin. In a short while, she was extubated, and we brought her up to our neurological intensive care unit to recover.
“I have seven years on my sister, and a lot of young people are dying these days, so I’m trying to be pragmatic,” she had said to me the day before. Bargaining.
Forty years ago, the median survival time for glioblastoma was four-and-a-half months. Since then, researchers have characterized the genetics of glioblastoma and studied various vaccines, chemotherapies, immunotherapies, cell therapies, new imaging modalities, targeted radiation therapies and innovative forms of drug delivery to treat the disease. Many steps.
The median survival time today is about 15 months. Only a small percentage of patients survive more than five years.
Defeatism is a common feeling among neurosurgeons, but you maintain resolve, for your patients, and for yourself. The next morning, our patient was in good spirits, recovering well, with good strength. We delicately shared the diagnosis with her.
“Just my luck,” she said with a smile. She seemed to be expecting it.
Some cancers in siblings can be explained by genetics. But that’s not the case for glioblastoma. As for her sister, and many others, it really was just bad luck.