TAMPA — When 35-year-old Beth Caldwell heard about Sen. John McCain's brain tumor this week, she hoped he would stay positive.
That's what helped her, she said.
Three years ago, Caldwell, a mother of two who owned a CrossFit gym in Riverview and had competed in international athletic events, received the same diagnosis as the 80-year-old Arizona lawmaker: glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor that is difficult to treat and that took the lives of Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau.
Physicians detected McCain's cancer when they removed a blood clot from above his eye, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Mayo Clinic. They also removed the tumor.
McCain's office said he was recovering "amazingly well" and that he and his family were reviewing treatment options.
"I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support — unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon, so stand-by!" McCain said in a tweet.
Caldwell remembered the first few days after her diagnosis. The disbelief. The denial.
"The first thing I thought was just there was no way," she said. "But cancer doesn't discriminate."
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Researchers don't know what causes glioblastoma.
They do know it accounts for about 15 percent of all brain tumors, said Nicole Willmarth, chief science officer of the American Brain Tumor Association. Some 12,000 people in the United States will likely be diagnosed this year.
The disease is more common in men than in women and rare in patients younger than 40, making Caldwell an outlier.
Unlike breast or colon cancer, there is no screening for glioblastoma, said Dr. Lodovico Balducci of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
"Unfortunately, the first thing is neurological symptoms," Balducci said.
Caldwell had been in good health, but started experiencing deja vu, first a few times a week, then several times a day. The deja vu was accompanied by nausea and the feeling that everything she held had a marshmallow-like consistency.
She later discovered she was experiencing a type of seizure — which, along with headaches and trouble thinking or speaking, are symptoms of a glioblastoma.
Caldwell scheduled an appointment with a neurologist, who told her she would need surgery to remove the tumor. She made an appointment at Moffitt.
To remove a glioblastoma, physicians at Moffitt typically use a procedure known as radiosurgery, which allows for precise areas of tissue to be excised without a blade, Balducci said. They often follow up with Temozolomide, a special type of chemotherapy that allows the drugs to cross into the brain, and radiation.
Caldwell was awake through the seven-hour procedure, she said. The surgeons removed all of the tumor.
Six months of chemotherapy followed. In between treatments, Caldwell started running and lifting weights again. "Lying at home watching your hair fall out wasn't acceptable," she said. "I refused to look or act like a sick person."
She thought about her sons, then 4 and 7. She had to be there to take them to prom and teach them to drive.
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A glioblastoma can be tricky to treat. Because it grows in outward spindles, Willmarth said, it is difficult to remove completely. And unlike with other parts of the body, removing extra brain tissue around the cancer can be dangerous.
"There's inevitably cells left behind," she said.
Just 10 percent of patients survive five years or longer, according to the brain tumor association.
"There are some long-term survivors, but they are in the minority," Balducci said, adding that age is generally a "poor prognosis."
Balducci said McCain's diagnosis highlights the need for more research about cancer in older people. People 65 and older account for about 15 percent of the overall population, but make up more than half of all cancer patients.
"We don't have much data on how to treat cancer in older patients," he said.
Three years and three months have passed since Caldwell's surgery.
Every few months, she goes back to Moffitt for an MRI. So far, she has been cancer-free.
On the second anniversary of her surgery, Caldwell went skydiving. Earlier this year, she got an additional certification in human resources. She tries not to hold grudges anymore, and to be more aware when she's with her kids.
She's grateful she's there to clean up the messes.
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.