How John McCain Battled Glioblastoma—an Aggressive Brain Tumor—Since His Cancer Diagnosis
The senator had been undergoing chemotherapy and various surgeries.
The longtime Arizona senator had been undergoing chemotherapy and various surgeries in the hopes of extending his life after doctors discovered glioblastoma, an aggressive tumor, in his brain in July 2017.
Glioblastoma is considered a highly invasive tumor in the central nervous system because its cells reproduce extremely quickly. Those who are diagnosed with the malignant tumor have a median survival rate of about 14 to 14.5 months. About 5 percent of patients can make it to five years or more with the treatments that are currently available, but, “it’s a very difficult diagnosis,” Dr. Elizabeth Stoll, a research fellow at the U.K.’s University of Newcastle’s Institute of Neuroscience, previously told TIME.
Both United States Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy and Delaware attorney general Beau Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, died of glioblastoma.
His Initial Surgery
McCain’s diagnosis came just a few days after he had surgery — a minimally invasive craniotomy — to remove a blood clot above his left eye on July 14, 2017.
On July 19, McCain’s office released a statement sharing the news of his brain cancer diagnosis.
“Subsequent tissue pathology revealed that a primary brain tumor known as a glioblastoma was associated with a blood clot,” the statement said.
Despite the difficult disease, “the Senator’s doctors say he is recovering from his surgery ‘amazingly well’ and his underlying health is excellent,” the statement continued.
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McCain had previously battled cancer three times, all of which were forms of melanoma, or skin cancer.
Getting Back to Work
One day after revealing his diagnosis, McCain returned to Twitter and promised that he’d be back on the Senate floor.
“I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support — unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” he said. And five days later, McCain stuck to his word and was at the Capitol. The Senator, who had a bandage over his left eye, walked in to a thunderous, bipartisan standing ovation, and voted “yes” to continue debate on the GOP’s health care bill.
And on July 28, he made a stunning “no” vote to derail Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s heath care bill, which failed by a final vote of 51-49. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, was criticized for insinuating a few days later that McCain’s brain tumor “might have factored in,” to why he voted against party lines.
Returning to Arizona
Soon after the vote, McCain went back to chemotherapy treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix to slow down the disease, and completed the first round of radiation on Aug. 18.
“In accordance with the guidance of his physicians, Senator McCain is returning to Arizona to undergo further treatment at Mayo Clinic. On Monday, July 31, he will begin a standard post-surgical regimen of targeted radiation and chemotherapy,” his office said in a statement on July 28.
McCain was still able to get out during his treatment, and his daughter, Meghan McCain, shared a photo of the two of them at an Arizona Diamondbacks game on Aug. 10. A week later, McCain posted his own photo of a hangout with the “three amigos” — he and friends Sen. Lindsey Graham and retired Senator Joe Lieberman.
In early Sept., McCain opened up about his diagnosis in a forthcoming interview on 60 Minutes. He said he told the doctors to “tell it to me straight.,” which is how he learned of the grim expectations for glioblastoma.
“Some say 3 percent, some say 14 percent. You know it’s—it’s a very poor prognosis,” McCain said. “So I just said, ‘I understand. Now we’re going to do what we can, get the best doctors we can find and do the best we can, and at the same time celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.’ ”
McCain appeared on The View in October to celebrate Meghan’s 33rd birthday, a few weeks after she started on the show as a cohost. The Senator said he was feeling “fine” and “getting plenty of rest, plenty of food, plenty of exercise.”
“I don’t mean to get a little sentimental, but it does make you appreciate every minute of every hour of every day,” he said. “We should all thank God for every minute because we are blessed. And we’re blessed to be in the greatest nation on Earth.”
A Family Celebration
After that meaningful appearance, the emotions continued to flow for the family when Meghan announced her engagement to Ben Domenech, the publisher of online magazine The Federalist, and got married — all in November.
Meghan said she moved up the wedding to Nov. 21 because of McCain’s brain cancer.
“We pushed everything up,” she told PEOPLE. “My dad is doing really well right now, but it’s a deeply unpredictable cancer. You’re really just living scan to scan. I wanted to make sure that he was — that we were all — there. Why wait?”
About three weeks later, on Dec. 13, McCain was hospitalized for “normal side effects of his ongoing cancer therapy,” his office said. But to the excitement of his family, he was able to come home to Arizona for Christmas.
“Thanks to everyone for your support & words of encouragement! I’m feeling well & looking forward to returning to work after the holidays,” McCain tweeted.
In February, Meghan said that her father had a “crazy amazing recovery.”
“He is in Sedona, Arizona, right now at our ranch doing physical therapy and he has amazing doctors and he’s doing really well,” she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “He had a sort of rough time at Christmas and he’s made this crazy amazing recovery which I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at, he is so resilient in so many different ways. He’s a tough bastard.”
He continued physical therapy at home in Arizona for the next few months, until he had to return to the Mayo Clinic in April for an emergency surgery.
“On Sunday, Senator McCain was admitted to Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, and underwent surgery to treat an intestinal infection related to diverticulitis,” his office said. Meghan added that he was in “stable” condition.
Later that month, McCain shared an excerpt from his new book, in which he admitted that his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an “ungentle persuasion” to realize that his current term in office would be his last, and pushed him to change the way he votes.
“I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again. I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much. And I can vote my conscience without worry,” McCain said. “I don’t think I’m free to disregard my constituents’ wishes, far from it. I don’t feel excused from keeping pledges I made. Nor do I wish to harm my party’s prospects. But I do feel a pressing responsibility to give Americans my best judgment.”
He also quoted a line from For Whom the Bell Tolls: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” and added, “I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I made a small place for myself in the story of American and the history of my times.”
McCain’s fight continued as President Donald Trump — and members of his administration — mocked the Senator’s health. In May, special assistant and communications aide Kelly Sadler said “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” about McCain in a closed-door meeting. She was fired three weeks later.
In the last few months, McCain had been spending time at his Arizona ranch, and enjoying visits from a constant flow of friends, including Biden. After his office announced he was discontinuing treatment on Friday, there was an outpouring of love and support for the Senator — from his former running mate Sarah Palin, Senator Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and more. As of early afternoon on Friday, Trump had yet to send his regards.