Journalist Robert Novak Dies of Brain Cancer

Conservative journalist, CNN reporter, and co-host of the program “Crossfire” for 25 years, Robert Novak died today from brain cancer at the age of 78. Novak became infamously known as the first journalist to reveal the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame by the Bush White House, possibly in retaliation for a statement made by her husband Joseph Wilson. Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2008, after his car struck a pedestrian in Washington DC, and did not realize what had happened until he was stopped by a passing bicyclist. A few days later, he began to have seizures. Tests later revealed that he had lost nearly all the vision in his left eye, and there was a tumor in his brain. In August 2008, Dr. Allan H. Friedman of Duke Medical School performed surgery to remove most of the tumor. Dr. Friedman was the same physician who had operated on Senator Ted Kennedy. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Although the specific type of tumor has not been reported, it is most likely an astrocytoma, the most common cause of primary brain tumors in adults. A primary tumor means that the cancer started from cells within the brain tissue, rather than originating (metastasized) from a cancer elsewhere in the body. There are two types of cells in brain tissue- neurons, which send and receive messages, and glial cells, which protect, nourish, and physically support neurons. Astocytomas develop from star-shaped glial cells (astrocytes) that support neurons. Although they can occur anywhere in the brain, they are most commonly found in the frontal lobes. Because the brain is enclosed in the skull, symptoms from brain tumors are caused by increased pressure in the brain, damage to brain cells, or injuries to the nerves coming from the brain. This leads to symptoms which include:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in the ability to talk, hear or see
  • Problems with balance or walking
  • Problems with thinking or memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures)
  • Numbness or tingling in arms or legs

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The diagnosis is made by imaging studies of the brain–either CT scan or MRI scan–and followed by biopsy to reveal the specific tumor type. Treatment will depend on the tumor type, size, and location, and may consist of surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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