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Beau Biden's death renews focus on brain cancer and treatment

IU Health specialist talks about radiosurgery, targeted radiation treatment for tumors

IU Health's Simon Cancer Center (IU Health photo)

The death of Vice President Joe Biden's son from brain cancer brings more focus on a disease as well as what doctors say is a more effective way of treating it.

Beau Biden was only 46 when he died last weekend following a battle of at least three years with the cancer - he also suffered a stroke in 2010.  While no one in the family has talked about the type of cancer he had, a specialist at IU Health says most brain cancers come from cancer cells that start in other parts of the body.  "Metastatic brain cancer is the most common form, while patients with tumors that form in the brain first are less common though no less difficult in terms of neurological problems that they cause and the difficulty with having those patients achieve a long term remission," said Dr. Kevin McMullen, a specialist in radiosurgery. 

Radiosurgery is not actual surgery, and it is a treatment option touted by doctors like McMullen and what he says is a growing body of evidence of effectiveness.  A recent study from the American Society of Clinical Oncology showed that radiosurgery - a treatment that targets brain tumors or cancer cells with high doses of direct radiation - not only was better at killing the cancer cells, it also helped patients maintain more cognitive function than providing radiation treatment for the entire brain, which long has been the most common treatment for brain cancer.  "Whole brain radiation is more effective at preventing the return of cancer to the brain.  However, when you irradiate the whole brain, the patient has a much higher risk of having long-term problems with short term memory, the speed at which they think, their ability to perform executive tasks such as mathematics," McMullen said. "If those problem develop, they are permanent and they get worse over time."

Every year, about 400,000 Americans are diagnosed with brain cancer that started somewhere else in their body. About half those patients will typically receive whole-brain therapy.  McMullen believes switching those who would qualify to more targeted radiosurgery would help those patients have a better quality of life and, if the cancer returned, he says radiosugery treatment can be used time and again with no increased risk of side effects. "Patients with brain metastasis are now living longer.  We can control their brain disease better than we ever could before with surgery, radiosurgery and other strategies."

@WIBCRaySteele

My interview with Dr. Kevin McMullen of IU Health:


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The death of Vice President Joe Biden's son from brain cancer brings more focus on a disease as well as what doctors say is a more effective way of treating it.

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