July 19, 2017 -- -- U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 80, announced Wednesday that he has brain cancer.
The Republican nominee for president had a procedure earlier this month to remove a blood clot above his left eye at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, AZ. Doctors later discovered a brain tumor known as a glioblastoma associated with the blood clot, the statement says.
Doctors removed the tumor and later scanning showed that the visible part of it was completely gone.
Sadly, that doesn’t mean McCain’s cancer has disappeared. Glioblastomas grow in two ways. They grow as a solid mass, but they also spread on a microscopic level into surrounding brain tissue. The invisible spread is known as the infiltrative tumor.
“In general, when we say that we've gotten all the tumor that we can see, that refers to the tumor mass, but not the infiltrative tumor,” says Michael Vogelbaum, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio who treats patients with glioblastoma.
Surgery alone isn’t expected to cure this cancer, he said.
The statement says McCain's underlying health is "excellent.”
His daughter, Meghan McCain, tweeted Wednesday that her father, a former POW in Vietnam, is “confident and calm” in the face of his diagnosis. “He is meeting this challenge as he has every other. Cancer may afflict him in many ways: But it will not make him surrender. Nothing ever has.”
Glioblastomas are aggressive cancers. The midpoint of survival from the time of diagnosis is about 15 months, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. That means half of patients live longer, and half don’t live as long. About 30% of patients are alive 2 years after their diagnosis.
“Very often we don't have a good explanation why somebody got this tumor and why others didn't. There are few identified risk factors. It's rarely familial, It's not associated with any ‘bad habits’. These things sometimes just come out of the blue,” said Matthias Holdhoff, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center who specializes in brain cancers.
Capitol Hill, unfortunately, has experience with McCain’s diagnosis. Glioblastoma killed Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009. It killed Beau Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s son, in 2015.
Their battles with the disease played major roles in shaping the nation’s health policy.
In 2015, amid his own cancer fight, Kennedy published an editorial in Newsweek arguing strongly for the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“I have enjoyed the best medical care money and a good insurance policy can buy. But quality care shouldn’t depend on your financial resources, or the type of job you have, or the medical condition you face,” he wrote. “Every American should be able to get the same treatment that U.S. Senators are entitled to.”
Beau Biden’s death inspired his father to launch his Cancer Moonshot initiative, an effort that continues today. It aims to expand cancer research, better prevent and detect the disease, and make sure more people can get cancer therapies.
“We have gotten better at treating patients with glioblastoma,” Vogelbaum says. “We have very good data that over the past 15 years or so, the [2-year] survival has gone from 2 percent to 30 percent. That's been a remarkable achievement. Progress is being made, but still, 30 percent at two years is not good enough for anyone of us in the field and certainly not for the patients,” he says.
McCain, re-elected to a new 6-year term in 2016, has survived previous bouts with skin cancer.
One day after his diagnosis, he was was back on Twitter: "I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support - unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon, so stand-by!"
He also issued a statement in response to the Trump administrations plans to end U.S. funding to Syrian rebels. "The administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin," he said.