A glioblastoma is a malignant brain tumor which is usually fatal, with treatment for this cancer focusing on palliative care rather than attempting to cure the patient. This cancer is a type of astrocytoma, meaning that it arises in cells in the brain known as astrocytes, and it is the most common form of brain tumor. Fortunately, brain tumors in general are very rare, with around two percent of cancers occurring in the brain.
Like other astrocytomas, a glioblastoma begins to form when the genetic information in cells in the brain becomes damaged, causing cells to multiply out of control. In the case of a glioblastoma, the growth consists of an area of necrosis surrounded by poorly differentiated astrocytes. The patient can experience symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, confusion, difficulty balancing, vision problems, and other neurological issues as the tumor grows.
Doctors can diagnose a glioblastoma by using a medical imaging study to look at the brain, and biopsying the growth to find out what it is. When a pathologist examines the biopsy specimen, he or she can determine which kinds of cells are involved, and how aggressive the cancer appears to be. Glioblastomas are also known as Grade IV astrocytomas, referencing the type of cells in which the cancer originates, and the fact that these tumors are very aggressive.
A glioblastoma will not usually metastasize to other areas of the body, making management for the tumor primarily focused on keeping it from growing, and keeping the patient comfortable. Surgery may be recommended to remove as much of the tumor as possible, and chemotherapy and radiation can extend the patient's life, and make him or her more comfortable. New treatments are constantly being developed for conditions like glioblastoma, improving the prognosis and extending lifespan.
Men are most likely to develop this cancer, and it usually occurs in people over 50. There appear to be some genetic components to this cancer, and it may also be linked with environmental exposure to radiation. When diagnosed with a glioblastoma, patients should ask their doctors for honest opinions about the prognosis, and they may want to talk about end of life care so that they can make decisions about their care while they are still highly functional. It is also critical to talk to loved ones about specific wishes for care and treatment, and patients may want to consider creating a healthcare proxy, someone who will make sure that their wishes are carried out in the event that they are unable to communicate.