Glioblastoma is an aggressive brain tumor, also known as glioblastoma multiforme. It is life threatening and has a median survival time of only 15 months. However, it is also rare.

Glioblastoma is one of a group of brain tumors called astrocytomas. These tumors start in astrocytes — star-shaped cells that nourish and support your brain’s nerve cells (neurons). However, a glioblastoma can contain many different types of brain cells — including dead brain cells.

This type of tumor grows very fast inside the brain. Its cells copy themselves quickly, and it has a lot of blood vessels to feed it.

Though glioblastomas represent 45.2% of all cancerous primary brain and central nervous system tumors, their incidence among all cancers is only 1 per 10,000 cases.

While it rarely spreads to other body parts, only 5.6% of affected adults survive for five years after diagnosis. The survival rate in children and teens is higher, though still lower than 30%.

Glioblastomas are sometimes called grade 4 astrocytoma tumors. Tumors are graded on a scale from 1 to 4 based on how different they look from typically-functioning cells.

The grade indicates how fast the tumor is likely to grow and spread. A grade 4 tumor is the most aggressive and fastest-growing type. It can spread throughout your brain very quickly.

There are two types of glioblastoma:

  • Primary (de novo). Thisis the most common type of glioblastoma. It’s also the most aggressive form.
  • Secondary glioblastoma. This tumor is less common. It usually starts from a lower-grade, less aggressive astrocytoma but turns into a grade 4 tumor. Secondary glioblastoma affects about 10% of people with this type of brain cancer. Most people who get this form of cancer are age 45 or younger.

Glioblastomas often grow in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. They can also be found in the brain stem, cerebellum, other parts of the brain, and the spinal cord.

The median survival time for adults with glioblastoma is 15 months. Median means half of all patients with this tumor survive to this length of time.

In children and adolescents

Children up to the age of 14 with higher-grade tumors tend to survive longer than adults.

About 19.4% of kids with this tumor live for five years or more. And about 26% of adolescents and young adults between 15 and 29 live for five years or more.

Extending life expectancy

New treatments are extending life expectancy even more. People whose tumors have a favorable genetic marker called MGMT methylation have better survival rates.

MGMT is a gene that repairs damaged cells. When chemotherapy kills glioblastoma cells, MGMT fixes them. MGMT methylation prevents this repair and ensures that more tumor cells are killed.

Glioblastoma can be hard to treat. These tumors grow quickly and have finger-like projections into the brain that are hard to remove completely with surgery.

These tumors also contain many different types of cells. Some treatments may work well on some cells but not on others.

Treatment for glioblastoma usually involves:

  • surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible
  • radiation to kill any cancer cells that were left behind after surgery
  • chemotherapy with the drug temozolomide (Temodar)

Other drugs that may be used to treat this cancer include:

  • bevacizumab (Avastin)
  • polifeprosan 20 with carmustine implant (Gliadel)
  • lomustine (Ceenu)

New treatments for glioblastoma are being tested in clinical trials. These treatments include:

  • Immunotherapy: This means using your body’s immune system to kill cancer cells
  • Gene therapy: This involves fixing defective genes to treat cancer
  • Stem cell therapy: This means using early cells called stem cells to treat cancer
  • Vaccine therapy: This involves strengthening your body’s immune system to fight off cancer
  • Personalized medicine: This is also called targeted therapy and involves targeting proteins that help cancer cells grow.

If these and other treatments are approved, they could improve the outlook for people with glioblastoma.

Doctors don’t know what causes glioblastoma. Like other cancers, it starts when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and form tumors. This cell growth may have something to do with gene changes.

You’re more likely to get this type of tumor if you’re:

  • male
  • age 40 or older
  • of European or Asian heritage

Glioblastoma causes symptoms when it presses on parts of your brain. You might not have any symptoms if the tumor isn’t very large. Your symptoms depend on where the tumor is located in your brain.

Symptoms can include:

  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sleepiness
  • weakness on one side of your body
  • memory loss
  • problems with speech and language
  • personality and mood changes
  • muscle weakness
  • double vision or blurred vision
  • loss of appetite
  • seizures

Read on for answers to additional questions about glioblastomas.

Is glioblastoma always fatal?

Glioblastomas are aggressive and almost always lead to death. While this is not definitively true for every person who gets it, only a little over 5% of people survive for five years. Only 0.71% of people survive for 10 years.

What triggers glioblastomas?

The exact cause of glioblastomas is unknown, though researchers have determined certain risk factors. In rare cases, they can develop in people with certain genetic syndromes, such as (von Recklinghausen’s Disease), Li Fraumeni syndrome, and Turcot syndrome.

How painful is glioblastoma?

Among the many distressing symptoms associated with glioblastoma, you may experience a throbbing headache. This tends to occur after waking up and stays constant throughout the day. It may feel worse when you cough or move. While regular pain-relieving medications are usually not effective for this pain, your doctor may be able to treat it with steroids.

Learn more about brain tumor headaches.

Glioblastomas are aggressive cancerous brain tumors that can be very hard to treat. Higher-grade glioblastomas have a median survival time of only a little over a year. A low number of people survive five years post-diagnosis.

That being said, it is a rare type of cancer. Scientists are also studying a variety of innovative treatments that may be able to increase the survival rate in the future.