Kennedy out of 'successful' surgery

June 2, 2008 8:33:38 PM PDT
Senator Edward Kennedy is recovering in North Carolina after undergoing surgery for a lethal brain tumor.

Doctors who performed a risky surgery on Senator Ted Kennedy's brain tumor are calling it a success.

Just last month, the 76-year-old was diagnosed with a malignant glioma, a very lethal type of brain cancer. The goal was to reduce the tumor's size to give follow up treatments a better chance of succeeding.

Sen. Ted Kennedy reportedly joked with his wife, telling her he felt like $1 million bucks after a risky, three-and-a-half hour surgery that doctors at Duke University are calling a success.

But the long-term benefit may hinge on how much of the tumor surgeons were safely able to reach.

"Removal of part of the tumor can be useful for the perspective of longevity. But the removal of too much of the tumor if it includes normal tissue might harm or could easily harm function," said Dr. Brian Andrews.

Doctor Andrews is Director of Neurosurgery for California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. He says Kennedy's particular tumor is especially challenging.

That's because it intermingles with surrounding brain tissue, controlling functions like speech and balance.

Since Kennedy was awake during the surgery, he says surgeons may have actually asked him to speak, while they probed the area around the tumor.

"So you can then map out where the eloquent speech cortex is, you then dovetail that with where tumor is, if the tumor is right at that spot, then you can't remove it. But if tumor is separate, then you can conceivably remove that part of tumor," said Dr. Andrews.

Precision surgical tools, which work something like a microscopic sander, can then remove cancerous tissue in small fragments, without damaging surrounding blood vessels and healthy tissue.

The result could help to preserve body function, important to the 76-year-old senator who climbed aboard his sailboat just a day after receiving his diagnosis.

Doctors also say that shrinking the size of the tumor may also increase the effectiveness of radiation treatments, as they try to buy Kennedy more time in his fight against the malignant cancer, which typically gives patients a life expectancy of 12-15 months.

Kennedy's doctors say that after he recovers from surgery, the senator will begin a combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital.