I have been praying for Sen. Ted Kennedy since Saturday, when he was rushed to the hospital because of an out-of-the-blue seizure. I knew all too well that the most likely diagnosis, considering his presentation and age, was a brain tumor. Today we hear it's a malignant glioma in the left parietal lobe of his brain, a dominant area that controls, among other functions, the ability to comprehend and express words. As he and his family are trying hard, no doubt, to digest this shocking news, they must also face the dark stories that are being blasted all over the airways about his illness—almost as if he were no longer with us. It brings chills to me, not just as a doctor who has cared for many with serious illness but also as a patient who, like the senator, once had a sudden seizure that led to the detection of a malignant glioma. Mine, too, was in the left parietal lobe.
As I commented in my book Living Time and in an excerpt in U.S.News last year about my own battle with brain cancer, gliomas are rare and often forgotten tumors that strike fear into anyone's heart—in part because we have known so little about them. Though the senator's doctors have not yet shared details of his exact tumor type, those particulars will be crucial, because all malignant gliomas are not created equal. In the coming days we will learn more about his outlook. But it is worth remembering that prognoses are estimates—and can be misleading. When I was diagnosed, it looked like I would not see my 12-year-old daughter complete middle school. This past weekend, she graduated from college.
To a large degree, the prognosis in brain cancer depends on a given tumor's characteristics—how it looks under the microscope, its genetic profile (which increasingly guides newer and better therapies), and, importantly, how it responds to treatment. In other words, Senator Kennedy's outlook depends on the traits of his particular tumor—as well as the patient himself. And if there is one thing we know about this patient, it's that he's a determined fighter.