Details on the Surgery John McCain Had to Remove Part of His Brain Tumor

U.S. Senator John McCain

John McCain | Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

You know Republican Senator John McCain for his politics, but since his diagnoses with brain cancer in 2017, he’s also been making news cycles for his condition. AARP notes McCain’s specific type of brain cancer is aggressive and deadly. And incidences of this cancer seem to be on the rise.

What is glioblastoma?

The American Brain Association’s data suggests around 15% of all brain tumors are attributed to glioblastoma, AARP reports. And this type of cancer is different than others, as it doesn’t spread to other parts of the body. It destroys the brain over time, resulting in headaches, seizures, confusion, vision issues, and trouble in areas of the body controlled by the part of the brain that’s affected by the tumor. And though doctors know more about glioblastoma than ever before, they’re still having a tough time finding the best way to treat it, making McCain’s prognosis particularly grim.

Currently, there are only a handful of medications that can treat glioblastoma, and it’s known to be resistant to chemotherapy. As far as surgery is concerned, it’s possible to remove portions of the tumor, but doctors are wary here as well. As Jana Portnow, M.D., explains, “It’s always a delicate balancing act about how much tissue we can take out while keeping basic functions intact.”

McCain discovered he had cancer after a routine physical exam

McCain explains exactly the moment he learned he had glioblastoma in his memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, Business Insider reports. He recounts that he completed a routine physical exam on Friday, July 14, 2017, at the Mayo Clinic when they called him and told him to return back to the office as soon as possible. During his physical, he had a brain scan — and the doctors found something on the scan that concerned them.

It was a few hours later when McCain was undergoing surgery by a neurosurgeon who was also called back to the office upon the emergency request. The surgeons thought it was a blood clot, though they later discovered the clot was a two-inch cancerous growth.

Doctors removed the initial tumor by way of an eyebrow craniotomy

An eyebrow craniotomy sounds serious, but it’s actually less invasive than many would suspect. Business Insider explains the surgery took over five hours to complete. McCain described it as, “they cut a hole in my skull along my left eyebrow to look at my brain’s left frontal lobe and see what the trouble was.” And that’s when they found the tumor (which, at first, was thought to be a blood clot).

Johns Hopkins Medicine explains eyebrow craniotomies, also known as supra-orbital craniotomies, are often used to remove brain tumors. They’re performed by making a small incision above the eyebrow of the patient to access the front of the brain. When the tumor is either very large or located near optic nerves or arteries, this method is also preferred.

Here’s the good news about this procedure: It’s a lot less invasive than a traditional craniotomy, meaning recovery time is minimal. There’s also very little scarring or pain. McCain explains he went home the very next day following his surgery.

John McCain and his daughter

John McCain and his daughter | Meghan McCain via Instagram

McCain has since faced other surgeries and complications

The surgeries didn’t end with just the eyebrow craniotomy for McCain. In April 2018, Newsweek reports that McCain fell ill due to an intestinal infection that he developed while treating his cancer. He underwent surgery for diverticulitis, which is an infection that occurs in the small pouches of the digestive tract.

Age is a huge risk factor for the development of diverticulitis. And it’s recommended that those with compromised immune systems undergo surgery to treat the illness, which was the case with McCain. The condition can cause abdominal pain, fever, and nausea.

The future for McCain

Recently, McCain just passed his one-year mark of living with cancer, which suggests his form of the disease isn’t as aggressive as once thought. With that said, notes many worry about his condition the longer he has it. In regards to this, his wife, Cindy McCain said, “That he is still with us one eventful year later, still working at getting stronger, still engaged in the life of his family and our country, is as much a testament to their dedication, skill, and compassion as it is to his fighting spirit.” She’s also praised the hard-working doctors who’ve helped McCain fight his condition at every stage.

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