Shedding Light on the Brain Tumor That Killed Beau Biden

Joseph "Beau" Biden (PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Joseph “Beau” Biden (PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

On Saturday, Joseph “Beau” Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden and former attorney general of Delaware, died after a long battle against brain cancer. Known for his sound character, military service, and political reforms, his passing came as a shock nationwide.

The most recent neurologic issue in the Biden family, Beau’s was not the first. The tragic 1972 car accident that killed his mother and younger sister left Hunter (his brother) with a skull fracture and severe traumatic brain injuries. In 1988, his dad underwent emergency surgery for a potentially deadly intracranial aneurysm.

Beau’s brain condition would turn out to be the worst of all. A Democratic superstar with a calm demeanor and passionate advocacy, the 46-year-old’s death raises new questions about the disease that killed him—one that’s alarmingly common in adults and chronically misunderstood by the public.

Brain cancer, a general term used by doctors to encompass a variety of malignant and benign tumors that grow in and around the brain, impacts thousands of people each year in the United States. This past year there were nearly 70,000 new cases and 14,000 deaths from this disease. While not as prevalent as stroke-related deaths—which claimed more than 130,000 lives in the United States this past year—these numbers are significant.

Although the term “brain cancer” is often used casually, there are many different types that occur in adults—each with a unique set of features. It may be a primary tumor, which arises from the cells that actually compose the brain itself. It could be a tumor of the skull or covering of the brain, or even metastatic disease, which occurs when a cancer from elsewhere in the body spreads into the central nervous system. Each types carries with it a separate prognosis—ranging from a life expectancy of eight months to non-life threatening.

It’s still unclear which specific type of tumor that Biden suffered from, but whether malignant or benign, it’s clear that the treatment to keep it from coming back ultimately failed. Most often, cases like Beau’s turn out to be a primary brain tumor in adults known as glioblastoma multiforme.

Glioblastoma is an aggressive and often fatal tumor, with an estimated 2-year survival rate of around 17 percent for patients between 40 and 65 years old. The underlying cause of GBM is unknown but is thought to be a disease that arises from astrocytes, the support cells of the brain, and is typically found in the cerebral hemispheres. Most cases of GBM arise directly from mutations in healthy cells. However, a small number may transform into GBM from a previously existing lower grade tumor.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast, Dr. Anand Veeravagu, MD and Christian Swinney

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