A patient's prognosis depends on the "grade" of the tumor, said Dr. Isabelle Germano, co-director of The Radiosurgery Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Five-year survival rates for low-grade (grade 1) tumors can be as high as 95 percent; for grade 4 tumors, five-year survival plummets to about 5 percent, she said.
Dr. Deepa Subramaniam, director of the brain tumor center at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, D.C., said younger people tend to be diagnosed with low-grade tumors while older individuals tend to have more aggressive ones.
The first evidence that a person has a malignant tumor is often a seizure like the one Kennedy suffered, or stroke-like symptoms.
"One of the most important things is whether this tumor is in a location that would allow him [Kennedy] to have surgery, because that will definitely improve the chances of long-term success," Subramaniam said. Only about 40 percent of tumors are operable, she added.
The parietal lobe, where Kennedy's tumor appears to be located, governs strength in one-half of the body. "It would leave him with weakness in one half of his body, so they might not take it out," Subramaniam said.
Without surgery, patients are left with chemotherapy (only one drug is currently approved for malignant glioma) and radiation, often given concurrently for the first six weeks. If that is well tolerated and if the tumor hasn't grown, patients might receive additional chemotherapy for the next five months or longer, Subramaniam said.
In the most aggressive form of the cancer -- grade 4 -- patients can live for about a year with the full complement of therapies, Subramaniam said. Without treatment, however, the prognosis is usually a few months.<
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