Learning about Brain Cancer
- Laura Elizabeth Mahon was 29 years old and 20 weeks pregnant when she first felt symptoms of her brain cancer. Initially, her doctor thought her no longer being able to move her right leg and struggling to walk was a result of her pressing against a nerve.
- Today, she is fighting for her life against stage four glioblastoma, but a recent scan showed that her tumor had shrunk.
- Symptoms of brain tumors are often caused by increased pressure in the skull. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, balance problems, personality or behavior changes, seizures, drowsiness or even comas. It is important to note, however, that these symptoms are not exclusive to brain tumors.
- Glioblastoma is an aggressive form of brain cancer. And though it technically has no cure, one of our experts says a diagnosis does NOT mean you are dead.
- Being your own advocate can be key to getting a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
Laura Elizabeth Mahon was 29 when she woke up unable to feel her toes. But given the fact that she was 20 weeks pregnant, she just put it down to being overtired. Her symptoms the next day, however, made her much more concerned as she could no longer move her right leg and began struggling to walk.Read More
“It was such a shock,” Mahon said. “I was only 29 and didn’t think something like this could happen to me.”
Given the state of her health, Mahon and her husband decided to bring their daughter into the world at 30 weeks. Weighing in at only 3.4 pounds, little Sienna went in an incubator after birth and later developed a collapsed lung. Thankfully, specialized care helped her recover and she is due to celebrate her first birthday soon. But Mahon is still in the fight of her life.
A later MRI showed her tumor had doubled in size, and a follow-up biopsy revealed she had a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
“Being told at 29 years old that you have inoperable stage 4 brain cancer and just two years to live is something you can never prepare yourself for,” she said of the devastating results. “Hearing that said out loud was a moment I’ll never forget.”
For treatment, Mahon underwent six months of chemotherapy, and a recent scan revealed exciting news: her tumor had shrunk!
“I see others with GBMs [glioblastomas] who manage to live longer, so I am clinging to the idea that I might be one of those people,” she said. “I’m fighting as hard as I can and I’m staying strong for my family.”
What Are Brain Tumors?
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), brain tumors account for 85 to 90 percent of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord and acts as the main “processing center” for the nervous system. Normal function of the brain and spinal cord can become difficult if there’s a tumor present that puts pressure on or spreads into nearby normal tissue.
There are many different types of brain and spinal cord tumors. Some are more likely to spread into nearby parts of the brain or spinal cord than others. Slow-growing tumors may be considered benign (non-cancerous), but even these tumors can cause serious problems.
General Symptoms of Brain Tumors
Symptoms of brain tumors, as a whole, are often caused by increased pressure in the skull. This pressure can be caused by tumor growth, swelling in the brain or blockage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), according to the American Cancer Society.
General symptoms may include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Balance problems
- Personality or behavior changes
- Drowsiness or even coma
Additionally, MD Anderson Cancer Center notes that changes in the ability to smell can be a sign of brain tumors, and, more specifically, “strange smells” can be a symptom of seizures which can result from brain tumors.
Still, it is important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to brain tumors. You should always consult with your doctor if any health problems arise.
Understanding Glioblastoma: A Type of Brain Cancer
Glioblastoma, also known as glioblastoma multiforme, is an aggressive form of brain cancer. It’s considered the most aggressive primary brain tumor, and it doesn’t technically have a cure. The standard of care treatment for someone with GBM usually consists of a surgical resection followed by radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Nevertheless, brain cancer treatment options are expanding thanks to research. Dr. Henry Friedman, a neuro-oncologist at Duke University Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet that progress is being made.
“You are not dead just because you’ve been diagnosed with a glioblastoma,” he said.
Along with his Duke colleagues, he’s looking into a new therapy that combines the modified poliovirus and immunotherapy.
“The modified poliovirus is used to treat this tumor, by injecting it directly into the tumor, through a catheter. It is designed to lyse the tumor and cause the tumor cells to basically break up” he said. “I think that the modified poliovirus is going to be a game-changer in glioblastoma… but I should also say that its reach is now extending into melanoma soon to bladder cancer.”
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
And, as we saw in the case of Laura Mahon, it’s always crucial to speak up about any changes to your health and trust your instincts when you feel like there might be something wrong.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.