The tragic death of Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden and former attorney general of Delaware, has focused attention on brain cancer and its causes.
Brain cancer affects thousands of people each year in the United States. This past year, nearly 70,000 new cases were diagnosed and about 14,000 people died from the disease, according to the Daily Beast.
Brain cancer is not one disease but a variety of malignant and benign tumors that grow in and around the brain, each with unique features. The cancer may be a primary tumor, arising from cells in the brain itself. Or it could be a tumor of the skull or the covering of the brain, or metastatic disease, where a cancer from elsewhere in the body spreads into the central nervous system. Each type of cancer has its own prognosis. For some people, life expectancy is less than a year from diagnosis; others have a normal life span.
It is not known what type of cancer claimed Beau Biden’s life, but there is speculation that he may have had glioblastoma multiforme, and aggressive and often fatal tumor. Glioblastoma has an estimated two-year survival rate of around 17 percent for patients between 40 and 65 years old. Beau Biden was 46. The cause of GBM is unknown but it is thought to arise from astrocytes, the support cells of the brain, and is typically found in the cerebral hemispheres. Most cases of GBM arise directly from mutations in healthy cells. However, a small number may transform into GBM from a previously existing tumor.
Science has not clearly identified the factors associated with the development of GBM but some experts believe environmental risk factors, such as radiation from cell phone use, may contribute to brain cancer, according to the Daily Beast. Cell phones emit radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in the microwave spectrum, which may be cancer causing, although a definitive association has not yet been established.
In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency on Cancer classified this radiation as possibly carcinogenic, Reuters reports. In response to concerns about possible dangers of cell phone radiation, Berkeley, California recently passed an ordinance requiring cell phone retailers to warn purchasers about potential radiation exposure. A study published last year in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that heavy cell phone use—the highest life-long cumulative duration and number of calls—was correlated with an increased risk of glioma and meningioma, though authors caution that some participants may have over-reported their cell phone usage, according to the Daily Beast.
Studies of cell phone usage and brain cancer have focused mainly on adults, but now, because of the dramatic increase in cell phone use among children, researchers are turning greater attention to children’s exposure to radiation from cell phones. Children have thinner skulls and their brains are still developing, and they therefore may be more susceptible to brain cancer from the non-ionizing electromagnetic fields emitted from cell phones, according to the Daily Beast. A study in Sweden found a higher risk for glioma in participants who started using cell phones as children or adolescents.