What Is Glioblastoma?

Glioblastoma is a type of brain cancer. It’s the most common type of malignant brain tumor among adults. And it is usually very aggressive, which means it can grow fast and spread quickly.

Although there is no cure, there are treatments to help ease symptoms.

Where It Forms in the Brain

Glioblastoma is a type of astrocytoma, a cancer that forms from star-shaped cells in the brain called astrocytes. In adults, this cancer usually starts in the cerebrum, the largest part of your brain.

Glioblastoma tumors make their own blood supply, which helps them grow. It's easy for them to invade normal brain tissue.

How Common Is It?

Brain cancers aren’t common. And when they do happen, about 4 out of 5 aren’t glioblastomas. Men are more likely to get them than women. And chances go up with age. Doctors diagnose about 14,000 glioblastoma cases in the U.S. each year.

Symptoms

Because glioblastomas grow quickly, pressure on the brain usually causes the first symptoms. Depending on where the tumor is, it can cause:

  • Constant headaches
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble thinking
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Trouble speaking

 

Diagnosis

A neurologist (a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating brain disorders) will give you a complete exam. You may get an MRI or CT scan and other tests, depending on your symptoms.

Treatment

The goal of glioblastoma treatment is to slow and control tumor growth and help you live as comfortably and as well as possible. There are four treatments, and many people get more than one type:

Surgery is the first treatment. The surgeon tries to remove as much of the tumor as possible. In high-risk areas of the brain, it may not be possible to remove all of it.

Radiation is used to kill as many leftover tumor cells as possible after surgery. It can also slow the growth of tumors that can't be removed by surgery.

Chemotherapy may also help. Temozolomide is the most common chemotherapy drug doctors use for glioblastoma. Chemo can cause short-term side effects, but it’s much less toxic than it used to be.

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Doctors can treat glioblastoma that comes back with another chemotherapy drug called carmustine (or BCNU).

Electric field therapy uses electrical fields to target cells in the tumor while not hurting normal cells. To do this, doctors put electrodes directly on the scalp. The device is called Optune. You get it with chemotherapy after surgery and radiation. The FDA has approved it for both newly diagnosed people and people whose glioblastoma has come back.

At major cancer centers, you may also be able to get experimental treatments or oral chemotherapy, which you take at home.

These treatments may help with symptoms and possibly put the cancer into remission in some people. In remission, symptoms may let up or disappear for a time.

Glioblastomas often regrow. If that happens, doctors may be able to treat it with surgery and a different form of radiation and chemotherapy.

Palliative care is also important for anyone with a serious illness. It includes taking care of your pain and the emotions you may be dealing with, as well as other symptoms from your cancer. The goal is to improve the quality of your life.

You may also want to ask your doctor if there’s a clinical trial that would be a good fit for you.

Outlook and Survival Rates

Many things can affect how well someone does when they have cancer, including glioblastomas. Doctors often can’t predict what someone’s life expectancy will be if they have a glioblastoma. But they do have statistics that track how large groups of people who’ve had these conditions tend to do over time.

For glioblastoma, the survival rates are:

  • One year: 40.2%
  • Two years: 17.4%
  • Five years: 5.6%

These numbers can’t predict what will happen to an individual, though. A person’s age, type of tumor, and overall health play a role. As treatments improve, people newly diagnosed with these aggressive brain tumors may have a better outcome.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 15, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Glioblastoma Multiforme."

American Brain Tumor Association: "Glioblastoma," "Brain Tumor Primer," "Glioblastoma and Malignant Astrocytoma."

Massachusetts General Hospital Brain Tumor Center: "Therapeutic Door Opens for Aggressive Brain Cancer."

UC San Diego Neurosurgery: "Glioblastoma."

CBTRUS Statistical Report: “Primary Brain and Other Central Nervous System Tumors Diagnosed in the United States in 2009-2013.”

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