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Friends rally to Kennedy's side

The diagnosis -- a malignant brain tumor -- is grim, but he's said to be in good spirits. Tributes pour in.

May 21, 2008|Stephen Braun and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

BOSTON — Stricken with a cancerous brain tumor in the autumn of his storied political career, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was facing a daunting treatment regimen with "good spirits," his doctors here said Tuesday, while his family and political friends struggled with the uncertain realities posed by the stark diagnosis.

Medical tests performed over the weekend revealed that the 76-year-old Massachusetts Democrat has a malignant glioma on the left side of his brain. About 9,000 malignant glioma diagnoses are made in the U.S. each year, and survival rates are bleak for severe cases.

Kennedy's doctors took care not to describe the tumor's size or state of advancement. They did say that preliminary tests showed that the tumor was in Kennedy's parietal lobe, a section of the brain crucial for speech comprehension -- and an area that would complicate any immediate efforts to remove the cancer in its entirety.

Kennedy was airlifted from his Cape Cod home to Massachusetts General Hospital after a seizure Saturday. His doctors said Tuesday that he "has had no further seizures, remains in good overall condition, and is up and walking around the hospital."

In the clubby Senate anterooms of Washington's Capitol, where Kennedy has held forth since 1962 after filling the seat vacated by his brother, President Kennedy, fellow lawmakers struggled with their emotions and memories.

Democratic senators emerged ashen-faced from their weekly luncheon after Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada broke the news. West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 90, wept from his wheelchair on the Senate floor when he tried to deliver a tribute. "Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you and miss you," Byrd said haltingly.

In the 28 years since he gave up his dream of a presidential bid, Kennedy has fashioned himself as the premier architect of across-the-aisle legislative dealmaking in the Senate. He was intimately involved in crafting and shepherding definitive healthcare, pension and immigration bills.

When necessary, the eight-term senator has transformed himself into an agile compromiser, one who coaxed fellow Democrats into backing President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education bill.

Bush saluted Kennedy on Tuesday as "a man of tremendous courage."

The three leading presidential candidates, all fellow members of the Senate, also offered paeans. But Kennedy's illness may have the deepest effect on Illinois Democrat Barack Obama's campaign. Obama -- who won the Oregon primary Tuesday night after a loss in Kentucky to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- has been endorsed by Kennedy and had planned for his presence on the campaign trail.

Obama called Kennedy "a fighter for his entire life." Clinton said he was "one of the greatest legislators in Senate history." And John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, hailed Kennedy as the Senate's "last lion" and its "most effective member."

In their terse assessment of Kennedy's condition, released midday Tuesday, the doctors at Massachusetts General said his immediate treatment would "be determined after further testing and analysis." Dr. Lee Schwamm, vice chairman of neurology at the hospital, and Dr. Larry Ronan, a primary-care doctor, added that the "usual course of treatment includes combinations of various forms of radiation and chemotherapy."

Neither doctor speculated on Kennedy's chances of survival. While malignant gliomas are among the most common forms of brain tumors, they are not easily eradicated, several neurosurgery specialists said.

"The median survival figures are not great -- typically no more than 14.6 months" for the most pronounced malignancies, said Dr. John S. Yu, co-director of the Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

In standard cases of malignant gliomas in the parietal lobe, Yu said, patients would receive a seven-week course of radiation and chemotherapy. If an MRI showed no improvement at that point, cancer specialists could consider surgery -- a delicate procedure that could drastically affect a patient's ability to speak and understand language.

There also are several aggressive experimental options, said Dr. Keith L. Black, chairman of the neurosurgery department at Cedars-Sinai. Those include the use of Avastin, a drug that blocks the formation of new blood vessels that nourish the tumor, or therapeutic vaccines aimed at activating the body's immune system to fight the malignancy.

Kennedy's chances for recovery could be adversely affected by his age. "Generally, older than the age of 55 is associated with the worst prognosis," Yu said. But, he added, Kennedy's agile mind could provide an edge. "People who are in good mental shape tend to do better."

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