Seizures and Brain Cancer

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As most everyone knows, Ted Kennedy, who has been battling brain cancer, suffered a seizure at Barack Obama’s luncheon following his inauguration. When the news hit, Patient Power producers searched out an expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a sponsor of Patient Power, to find out more. Dr. Reid Thompson, Director of the Vanderbilt Brain Tumor Center and Vice Chairman of Neurological Surgery, took time out of his busy day to chat with Andrew about the connection between seizures and brain cancer.

Dr. Thompson explains why those with brain cancer would experience a seizure and what that could mean for the tumor. He talks about the different types of seizures and the various effects these episodes can have on the body. In this brief interview, Dr. Thompson highlights details of dealing with brain cancer and praises Senator Kennedy’s actions by going about his daily life and returning to the Senate. To quote Dr. Thompson, “You can have good quality of life with a diagnosis of a brain cancer, and I think he’s proving that.”

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Produced in association with Vanderbilt Medical Center


Andrew Schorr:

Hello, this is Andrew Schorr with Patient Power, and as millions of people watched at a Senate luncheon honoring our new President, Barack Obama, Senator Ted Kennedy, who people know has been dealing with brain cancer since May, had a seizure at lunch. It was very scary, and we're trying to understand what that means.

With us to help explain is Dr. Reid Thompson who is Director of the Vanderbilt Brain Tumor Center. He's also Vice-Chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt.

Dr. Thompson, so seizures are pretty scary, and when they happen to someone who has already been diagnosed with brain cancer, such as Senator Kennedy, you wonder well is it something super serious, or could it be something that can be managed more easily?

I know you're not his doctor, but any comments on that that can help us better understand?

Dr. Thompson:

I think you've described it really well Andrew. Seizures, they're scary, and there's no doubt about it. It's a very frightening experience for people to witness someone having a seizure, and in someone who has the type of brain cancer that Senator Kennedy has they're at risk for them. It turns out that many patients are taking medications that actually reduce the chance of having a seizure; not all of them, but many do, I'm not certain about Senator Kennedy; but they're definitely at risk for having a seizure.

Occasionally it could mean that the tumor is progressing or growing, and when someone does have a seizure that hadn't had one for awhile, you know someone with a brain tumor has a seizure where they had been very stable without having seizures, it needs to be evaluated further, and so they did really the appropriate thing by taking him to the hospital today to do a series of tests to make sure that there wasn't something like a hemorrhage in the brain or bleeding in the brain or something like that.

It sounded like, at least by all reports, that he's doing very well thankfully.

Andrew Schorr:

The concern would be of course, as you said, a hemorrhage or a recurrence of a tumor that would put pressure on different areas of the brain or spread of that. Now when someone has a seizure, what's going on? What is your body doing?

Dr. Thompson:

Right, so as it turns out there are different types of seizures. In the setting of a brain cancer these tumors, these cancers, they infiltrate the brain, so they're very sort of irritating to the brain, and basically what happens is the brain's electrical activity, if you will, kind of gets thrown off kilter, and you can have a seizure. Really the type of symptoms one might have with a seizure really depends on the location of the tumor.

For example, if the tumor were perhaps located in the speech or language center someone might have a seizure where they simply couldn't get words out or had a spell where they stopped talking or something like that. When a seizure generalizes, which is the medical term, then patients can have the more common symptoms or features where they're shaking and may lose consciousness.

So there is sort of a range of the types of symptoms one might have with a seizure, all of which are really scary.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Thompson, people wonder of course what could be the future for Senator Kennedy or someone with that diagnosis. We saw him speak at the Democratic National Convention, and now we see him here at a very important event, and we wonder well what could the future be? It can be variable with someone with brain cancer, can't it?

Dr. Thompson:

Right. It can, and yet the type of cancer that he has is a very aggressive one. It really is one of the most aggressive of all human cancers, and it is this sort of situation unfortunately where once a patient is diagnosed with it while we can often slow its growth down, we can't cure it unfortunately.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Thompson, thank you for putting this in perspective for us. I know we are all wishing Senator Kennedy all the best and for people who are diagnosed with brain cancer though I think the important point is there are different types, there are different prognoses, and so while this happened to Senator Kenney, this is not always the way it is.

Dr. Thompson:

Right, and I think I'd also like to emphasize that he has been incredible ambassador, if you will, in a lot of ways, I mean, just amazing going about his work and returning to the Senate and just being there with that diagnosis is an incredible achievement, and I think it really speaks to the type of person that he is, and I would echo what you said. You can have good quality of life with a diagnosis of a brain cancer, and I think he's proving that.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Reid Thompson, Director of the Vanderbilt Brain Tumor Center and Vice-Chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt, thank you so much for being with us on Patient Power.

Dr. Thompson:

You bet. Thank you.

Andrew Schorr:

I'm Andrew Schorr, and remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. Please have this discussion you're your own doctor, that's how you'll get care that's most appropriate for you.

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