Cancer Issues
May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month
May 23, 2014 - 4:00:32 PM

( - The month of May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, which not only recognizes the need for increased understanding of the severity of this disease, but also serves as a call for the increased application of technology and research in the field. Needless to say, brain tumors are a tragic reality with devastating impacts on individuals and families, but assessing new avenues of treatment is equally as important to spreading awareness of the disease itself. So while we pay mind to the problem, we should focus our energies on solutions.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 23,380 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed in 2014, and over 60% of those patients diagnosed will die from these tumors. Tumors known as glioblastomas are the fastest growing and most common malignant brain tumors in adults. Traditionally, these tumors have only a 4% to 17% five-year survival rate, depending on the age of the patient.

But treatment options have come a long way with emerging new high-technology applications and we are beginning to see improvements in these dismal statistics. Technology is revolutionizing the way neurosurgeons are treating brain tumors in ways that have never before been seen. Inoperable tumors, metastatic cancers that must be treated differently than primary cancers, and unpredictable responses to drug treatments are obstacles that neurosurgeons and oncologists face when considering treatment for a patient. But these challenges present opportunities for the next frontier of ongoing research and technology development. As this month comes to a close it is important to not only bring awareness to brain cancer itself, but also to promote awareness of the emerging treatment and life-saving surgery options that are now available.

For example, tumors that were considered "inoperable" just a few short years ago are now being treated or removed with a groundbreaking laser surgery, called Visualase. This surgery uses laser energy to destroy targeted tissues in the brain, utilizing high temperatures to obliterate cancer in tandem with an image guided system (MRI) to visualize and target cancerous tissue in real time. Because of the small size of the applicator, this surgery enables access to deep and high risk tumors that were once difficult to reach. Traditionally, brain surgery has been a very intensive procedure, requiring multiple night stays, hours of surgery and post-operative recovery time. In contrast, Visualase can be performed with a minimally invasive approach and usually only requires an incision the size of a coffee stirrer, one stitch and one overnight hospital stay.

My team at NorthShore Neurological Institute near Chicago, Illinois is among only a few teams nationally who are performing this exciting new and potentially revolutionary procedure with the hope that, as this technology gains popularity and experience, it will become a standard practice in treating formerly inoperable and difficult brain and spinal tumors.

Procedures such as this may dramatically change the way that we respond to and treat brain cancer. And while it is tremendously important to shine a spotlight on the human tragedies of brain cancer and the daunting, heartbreaking statistics, we also ought to shine some of that light onto the future of treatment for this devastating illness. There is hope on the horizon, there are new methods that are potentially game changing - and lifesaving.  Let's focus on treatments like Visualase and other leading-edge technological advances, because these developments give us reason to believe that those tales of tragedy and those statistics will be fewer and fewer in Brain Cancer Awareness Months to come.

Julian Bailes, MD, is the Surgical Director of NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute and Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery.


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