Even though glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM, is the most common malignant brain tumor, it’s also rare: Just two or three cases occur per 100,000 people in North America.
Yet, at least two of those patients are in Columbia County: Ray Lilly, 46, a co-owner of Hardwood Floors and More in Evans; and Deborah Marshall, 48, the executive director of the Columbia County Board of Elections.
A reception and silent auction for Lilly, who had surgery for a GBM in January, is being held today at Savannah Rapids Pavilion. Coworkers of Marshall, who is being treated at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital, are holding a fundraiser cookout Friday behind the Evans library.
Dr. Cargill Alleyne, a professor and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Georgia Health Sciences University, explained the challenges of patients diagnosed with a GBM.
Its name – glioblastoma multiforme – refers to the tumor, which originates in the glial cells that make up the majority of brain tissue, Alleyne said. The designation means the cancer cells take many different forms.
“It’s very rare in the very, very young,” Alleyne said. “It tends to occur in ages 50 and onward, although it can literally occur in anyone, including kids. It’s not that common, overall; it’s about two or three cases per 100,000 in North America, but it does happen to be the most common type of (brain) tumor that we encounter as neurosurgeons and neurologists.”
Unfortunately for patients, the GBM is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat.
“By the time a patient has been diagnosed with a GBM, the median survival is only about a year, 12 to 14 months,” Alleyne said.
The reason, Alleyne said, is that by the time a patient shows symptoms, or the GBM shows up on an MRI, “the tumor has literally spread outside the confines of any observable tumor... By the time you get an MRI scan and you see an area of tumor lighting up with contrast, the tumor cells have long spread beyond that border.”
That means surgery alone can’t cure a GBM, he said – though that hasn’t always stopped surgeons from trying.
“Back in the old days, when this was discovered, people would actually try to aggressively remove brain tissue, in fact to the point of removing almost half of one side of the brain,” Alleyne said. “They quickly realized that by the time it was discovered, there are sometimes tumor cells on the opposite side. So regardless of how aggressive you are with surgery, the tumor would still come back and end up killing the patient.”
Modern treatment options typically involve surgically removing as much of the tumor as possible, followed by whole-brain radiation treatment and chemotherapy, Alleyne said.
Marshall, who had surgery at MCG on April 9, is undergoing conventional treatment, family members said, while Lilly, whose surgery took place Jan. 19 at MCG, is being treated in a study program at Duke University, his wife, Suzanne Lilly, said.
For patients battling a GBM, the outlook for recovery often is bleak – but not unheard-of, Alleyne said.
“There are reports of long-time survivors,” he said. “In fact, one of my patients is now five years out from a GBM.”