McCain's Brain-Cancer Diagnosis Draws Outpouring of Support

(Bloomberg) -- Senator John McCain’s brain-cancer diagnosis shocked his colleagues in Washington and prompted expressions of support from members of both political parties.

Tissue tested after doctors removed a blood clot above his left eye last Friday revealed a glioblastoma, his office said Wednesday night. Scans done afterward showed the cancerous tissue was removed and the 80-year-old Arizona Republican has been recuperating at home since the procedure.

McCain's Brain-Cancer Diagnosis Draws Outpouring of Support

“The senator and his family are reviewing further treatment options with his Mayo Clinic care team,” according to McCain’s office. “Treatment options may include a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.”

McCain said on twitter Thursday that he appreciates the “outpouring of support” he has received. “Unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!”

Glioblastoma is an aggressive form of brain cancer, making up about 15 percent of all primary brain tumors, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. Patients typically undergo surgery first to remove as much of the tumor as possible, then are treated with radiation and chemotherapy to slow the growth of any remaining malignant cells that cannot be removed.

While there’s been a wave of new cancer treatments that are changing the outlook for certain types of tumors like skin cancer and some blood cancers, the brain continues to be a difficult organ to treat, largely due to the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects the brain from foreign invaders, but also prevents many drugs from crossing.

The challenge is compounded by the mix of cell types in a glioblastoma, according to Susan Chang, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s division of neuro-oncology. 

“The cells don’t all behave the same way, so even when you kill some, the residual cells can take hold and grow again, so you’re fighting a constant uphill battle to get rid of every last cell,” she said.

Median survival for adults with aggressive glioblastoma is about 14.6 months, according to the American Brain Tumor Association, and 10 percent of patients survive for five years.

Senator Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009 after being diagnosed with brain cancer one year prior, had a malignant glioma, a category which includes glioblastomas. Beau Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, died from a brain cancer in 2015. Though his family did not disclose what form of brain cancer he suffered from at the time, Joe Biden said in an NPR interview broadcast last month that it was glioblastoma.

Congressional Career

A Vietnam War hero, McCain has been in Congress representing Arizona since 1983, first in the House then the Senate four years later. He was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that McCain is “a hero to our conference and a hero to our country. He has never shied from a fight and I know that he will face this challenge with the same extraordinary courage that has characterized his life.”

The surgery came at a critical time in McConnell’s efforts to pass health-care legislation, with every GOP vote crucial to advancing a bill. The majority leader had planned a procedural vote this week on his plan to replace Obamacare but said last weekend he was postponing it pending McCain’s return.

After that bill lost GOP support, McConnell is planning a procedural vote next week on a plan to simply repeal most of Obamacare -- and again he can lose no more than two Republican votes amid united Democratic opposition.

“As close as these vote margins are, it’s hard for me to imagine moving on to this without John McCain present,” Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, told Fox News on Thursday. Lee said he was “saddened” by the news about McCain and that he didn’t know when his colleague would be able to return to Capitol Hill.

A close friend, Senator Lindsey Graham, said he talked by phone with McCain, who said he wants to get back to work in the Senate.

McCain made clear he’s staying active on issues from Arizona, releasing a statement Thursday on reports by the Washington Post and the New York Times that Trump has ended clandestine U.S. aid to Syrian rebel groups.

"Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted," McCain said. "Six months into this administration, there is still no new strategy for victory in Afghanistan either.”

Statements of Support

President Donald Trump issued a statement saying he and first lady Melania Trump are sending “our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family.”

Former President Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election, said on Twitter that the senator is an American hero, and the former president urged him to "give it hell" in his fight against cancer.

McCain’s 2008 running mate, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, said on Facebook, "John McCain is one tough fighter -- we know he’ll face this diagnosis with courage and strength."

Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said in a statement the bipartisan support for McCain "reminds us that after all the meanness there is a human side to politicians. Count this Democrat in John McCain’s corner."

McCain, a former Navy pilot, was North Vietnam’s most prominent prisoner of war, spending 5 1/2 years of captivity in Hanoi and refusing an offer by his captors to be granted early release in an effort to sap POW morale.

McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and early this year he called for spending $430 billion more on defense above existing levels over five years.