Glioblastoma — also known as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) — is one of the most complex, aggressive, and treatment-resistant cancers in existence. It’s also the most common form of brain cancer in adults, accounting for almost half of all primary malignant brain tumors.
About 14,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma every year in the United States. It can be devastating to learn that you have an incurable, fast-growing brain tumor, but there’s room for hope: The right treatment can slow its progression, alleviate symptoms, and prolong your life.
As a fellowship-trained neurosurgical oncologist who specializes in improving outcomes for patients with high-grade brain tumors, Jose Valerio, MD, knows that there’s no one-size-fits-all course of action for glioblastoma.
Here’s what to consider when determining which treatment approach may be best for you.
Glioblastoma is a kind of cancer that grows in the brain or spinal cord, meaning it begins within the central nervous system. Specifically, it arises from the star-shaped astrocyte cells that surround and support neurons (nerve cells) in the brain or spine.
Although glioblastoma rarely spreads to other parts of the body, its cancer cells multiply rapidly and often spread quickly to other areas of the brain. As they grow, glioblastoma tumors create their own extensive network of blood vessels that keep them well-fueled with oxygen and nutrients.
As a glioblastoma tumor grows and spreads within the brain, it typically develops infiltrative tumors — much like the threads of a spider’s web — which extend from the primary site to other areas of the brain. Sometimes, dead cells (necrosis) accumulate inside the core of the main tumor.
Treatable, but not curable
Because it’s so aggressive and invasive, glioblastoma often causes symptoms to come on quickly and intensify rapidly. As the growing tumor puts increasing pressure on the brain, it can trigger a variety of disabling problems, ranging from severe headaches, nausea, and vision abnormalities to memory loss, movement difficulties, and seizures.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for glioblastoma. The primary objectives of treatment are threefold: to remove as much of the tumor as possible, control its regrowth for as long as possible, and ease tumor-related symptoms.
Treatment options and challenges
Whenever it’s an option, surgery is the first step in glioblastoma treatment. To improve the odds of achieving the most complete removal possible, Dr. Valerio uses several advanced imaging techniques to highlight the tumor during surgery.
Complete removal of the cancer cells usually isn’t possible, however, because glioblastoma often grows into healthy brain tissue. Removing a margin of surrounding tissue to ensure the full eradication of cancer cells usually isn’t an option, as it would be detrimental to brain function.
Following surgery, most people undergo radiation therapy to treat remaining cancer cells or embedded tumor sections that couldn’t safely be removed. Radiation uses external, high-energy beams and pinpoint delivery to target and kill remaining cancer cells.
Most patients receive a 30-dose course of radiation over a six-week period. Oral chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with radiation therapy to kill aggressive glioblastoma cells.
Despite being able to target and kill the visible cancer cells of a glioblastoma tumor, there’s a population of microscopic cell types within the tumor that usually remain resistant to treatment and continue to multiply. As a result, the search continues for innovative new treatments that may lead to a cure for this disease.
Treatment advances and considerations
Treating brain cancer is a very active field of study. Researchers are working hard to develop new therapeutic options, and patient prognosis is poised to improve.
Targeted drug therapy is one such innovation. One type of targeted therapy uses an intravenous medication to prevent the tumor from forming new blood vessels, effectively cutting off its vital supply of oxygen and nutrients.
Tumor treatment fields (TTF) is another promising advance in the fight against glioblastoma. This FDA-approved therapy involves wearing a portable device that emits low-energy electric fields into the brain to disrupt cancer cells and keep them from growing.
Clinical trials are focused on developing effective immunotherapy treatments for glioblastoma as well as finding agents to target and disrupt the specific signaling pathways that control the growth of brain cancer cells.
If you’ve been diagnosed with glioblastoma, your treatment options and outcomes are shaped by the type, size, and location of the tumor as well as your age, overall health, and personal preferences.
As a leading glioblastoma specialist and neurological oncologist who stays on the cutting edge of brain tumor treatment and advances in care, Dr. Valerio can help you understand your options, so you can make an informed decision about your path forward.
To learn more, book an appointment over the phone with the practice of Jose Valerio, MD, today. He has locations in South Miami, Hialeah, and Weston, Florida.