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McCain diagnosed with aggressive, deadly brain cancer

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McCain diagnosed with aggressive, deadly brain cancer

2-inch blood clot removed during craniotomy last week

  • McCain in 2014
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMcCain in 2014

U.S. Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, following surgery to remove what testing showed was a glioblastoma tumor last Friday.

That form of cancer is the most aggressive type that begins in the brain, with early symptoms that may include personality changes, headaches, and symptoms similar to those of a stroke.

The seriousness of the disease puts in doubt McCain's return to the U.S. Senate any time soon, although he expressed determination to return to the political fray.

The 80-year-old Republican senator from Arizona had a two-inch blood clot removed from his brain above his left eye last week. Surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix performed the operation, which required a craniotomy near his eyebrow.

Related: 'Cancer doesn't know what it's up against' — leaders react to McCain's cancer

Pathology "revealed that a primary brain tumor known as a glioblastoma was associated with the blood clot," his doctors said in a statement released by his office Wednesday evening.

Scans since the operation showed the "tissue of concern was completely resected," they said.

McCain and his family "are reviewing further treatment options with his Mayo Clinic care team. Treatment options may include a combination of chemotherapy and radiation," the statement from his office said.

Glioblastomas generally recur, despite surgery and cancer treatments, and most patients live 12-15 months after diagnosis. Less than 3-5 percent live longer than five years, with those patients who are not treated dying within three months.

McCain's doctors said he "is recovering from his surgery ‘amazingly well’ and his underlying health is excellent," the statement said.

McCain had the surgery following an annual physical, doctors said last week.

"Surgeons successfully removed the 5-cm blood clot during a minimally invasive craniotomy with an eyebrow incision," the Mayo doctors said on Saturday. "Tissue pathology reports are pending within the next several days."

The statements released by McCain's office did not detail the location of the clot that was removed, nor what symptoms may have prompted the testing that led doctors to operate.

McCain "is in good spirits as he continues to recover at home with his family in Arizona," his office said.

"The news of my father's illness has affected every one of us in the McCain family," said his daughter, Meghan McCain. "My grandmother, mother, brothers, sisters and I have all endured the shock of the news, and now we live with the anxiety about what comes next," she said. "It won't surprise you to learn that in all this, the one of us who is most confident and calm is my father. He is the toughest person I know."

“The cruelest enemy could not break him. The aggressions of political life could not bend him. So he is meeting this challenge as he has every other,” her statement said. “Cancer may affect him in many ways: But it will not make him surrender. Nothing ever has.”

That resilience was echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, one of McCain’s closest friends in Congress, who was on the phone with McCain to get updates on his condition Wednesday night.

Graham told reporters that McCain said, “I’m gonna stay here a little bit longer, take some treatments and I’ll be back.”

Thursday morning, McCain tweeted that he would "be back soon."

"I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support - unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon, so stand-by!," he said.

Senate Republicans were working on health care legislation on Capitol Hill late Wednesday night when they heard of McCain’s diagnosis. Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, said the room reacted with “stunned disbelief” when Graham brought them the news.

Hoeven told reporters the senators prayed for McCain, led by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma.

Read more: What happens if McCain resigns?

Over the weekend, McCain's office had said he would remain in the state for a week to recover before returning to Washington, D.C.

With the news of the cancer diagnosis, his office said that "further consultations with Sen. McCain's Mayo Clinic care team will indicate when he will return to the United States Senate."

McCain's absence hampered the ability of GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to push legislation to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes on the wealthy. McConnell had announced last week that he would cut in half the traditional August recess of the Senate, pushing it back by two weeks in order to take action on Republican priorities.

With McCain out, and other GOP senators declaring that they would not vote for the Republican "repeal and replace" legislation, McConnell's plans fell apart early this week.

McConnell announced that the Senate would instead vote on a simple repeal of Obamacare. But the closed-door meeting of Republican senators last night was an attempt to bring a replacement bill back into play, which could make a McCain vote critical again.

But while he has been recuperating in Arizona, McCain has not been detached from Washington politics. He issued a statement Monday, after the apparent collapse of the replacement effort, calling on senators on both sides of the aisle to take a step back, drafting a bill from scratch out in the open.

Glioblastoma is the same variety of cancer that killed Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 2009. Kennedy was diagnosed in 2008 after a seizure. It is also the research focus for the Ivy Foundation – for which McCain was a featured speaker in an undated testimonial video.

According to the American Cancer Society, glioblastoma tumors are a fast-growing category of brain tumors that begin in the glial cells, which surround the central nervous system.

McCain's office said he is "grateful to the doctors and staff at Mayo Clinic for their outstanding care, and is confident that any future treatment will be effective."

He has had less-aggressive cancers before. McCain had surgery to remove Stage IIa melanoma in 2000, including removing the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck. He has had four operations to remove skin cancers since 1993, and at least one non-cancerous mole removed as a precaution, in 2008.

McCain was reelected to a sixth six-year term in 2016.


Political leaders praised McCain's service, and offered prayers and encouraging words about his potential to recover.

"John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known," wrote former President Barack Obama. "Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John."

"Just spoke to @SenJohnMcCain. Tough diagnosis, but even tougher man," tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain's Republican colleague from Arizona.

McCain is "a hero to our conference and a hero to our country," said McConnell. "He has never shied from a fight and I know that he will face this challenge with the same extraordinary courage that has characterized his life. We all look forward to seeing this American hero again soon."

"John McCain is undoubtedly the toughest man in the United States Senate. He is an American hero and has served our country like few ever will," said Gov. Doug Ducey. "‪Senator McCain has set an example for all Americans in the toughest of fights, in the most difficult circumstances. I have no doubt he'll do it again."

"John McCain is as tough as they come," tweeted Hillary Clinton. "Thinking of John, Cindy, their wonderful children, & their whole family tonight."

Read more from other politicians: 'Cancer doesn't know what it's up against' — leaders react to McCain's cancer

Related: McCain diagnosed with aggressive, deadly brain cancer

Cronkite News reporters Ben Moffat, Nathan Fish, J.T. Lain and Brianna Stearns contributed to this report.

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