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Kennedy's Surgeon Deems Brain Surgery a Success

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Senator Ted Kennedy came out of surgery yesterday with the words I feel like a million bucks, and his surgeon called the procedure a success. But details about the operation for brain cancer and the type of tumor Kennedy has are still sketchy. How long Kennedy can survive after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation is an open question. People with the kind of brain tumor Kennedy has - a malignant glioma - have varying degrees of survival. NPR's Richard Knox has more.

RICHARD KNOX: Doctors at Duke University operated on Kennedy for three and a half hours to get out as much of his brain tumor as they safely could. They still didn't say exactly what kind of cancer he has, so his prognosis remains unclear. Statistics say half the patients with malignant glioma die within a year or so.

Later this month, Kennedy is expected to go back home to Boston for stage two of his treatment - six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy - then another year of anticancer drugs.

One of the doctors who will play a big role in Kennedy's care at Massachusetts General Hospital is Tracy Bachelor, a brain tumor specialist. Bachelor isn't happy about the gloomy picture many have painted about Kennedy's future.

Dr. TRACY BACHELOR: Many have been upset and really this has provoked a lot of anxiety in many patients.

KNOX: Bachelor says things aren't always as bad as they used to be for patients like Kennedy. He goes to his computer and punches up a scan from another of his patients. Like Kennedy, Janice Durham was also diagnosed with a malignant glioma.

Dr. BACHELOR: So what we're looking at here is one of the initial scans that Janice had when she came under our care.

KNOX: It shows a golf-ball-sized glioma in the frontal lobe of her brain. Durham remembers the day when she had her first scan. She could hardly absorb the news.

Ms. JANICE DURHAM (Patient): They came out and they were ashen-faced and said that I had a mass in my brain and I needed to find a neurosurgeon. And the next day I was supposed to do a stress management workshop and get the oil changed in my van. So I sort of said, OK, I've got to get the oil changed in the van, do a stress management workshop and find a neurosurgeon.

KNOX: As it happened, Durham canceled that workshop and didn't get the oil changed. Unlike Kennedy, she didn't have surgery. Doctors said her glioma was too wrapped around vital brain structures for surgeons to operate. Durham's husband, Steven Suddick(ph), says the message they got was as gloomy as it could be.

Mr. STEVEN SUDDICK: One of the doctors that we talked with at Mass General said there is no hope, there is no hope. Everybody dies of this.

KNOX: But what else could she do? With two adolescents at home, Durham embarked on the treatment course that is similar to the one that Kennedy will probably get. But unlike Durham, the Senator will probably get radiation and chemotherapy at the same time, instead of one after another. Recent evidence suggests that prolongs survival.

Durham's response to radiation and chemotherapy was spectacular. After a year's treatment, she and her husband went to Bachelor to hear the results of her latest MRI scan.

Ms. DURHAM: He came in and he said that the MRI looked good. And we said so what - like how big is it? What's left? And he said, well, there's nothing left. And we said, well, what do you mean there's nothing left? And he said, well, it's all dead tissue. There's no active tumor anymore. So we were just sort of stunned, completely stunned.

KNOX: Janice Durham is now doing fine five years after she got malignant glioma. She has one big advantage over Kennedy. She was 50 when she got her diagnosis, 26 years younger than Kennedy is. Even so, experts say it's impossible to know if Kennedy will be among those who outlive the usual expectations.

Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.