When Beau Biden died of brain cancer May 30, the outpouring of grief was as palpable as the contempt for the disease that swiftly takes down adults in their prime.
The vice president’s son was 46 years old and had lost his battle nearly two years after his diagnosis. He left behind a wife, two young children and a promising political future.
While the family has not disclosed which type of brain tumor Biden suffered from (there are more than 120 types of different brain tumors), experts say it’s likely he had a primary brain tumor, which arises from cells that actually compose the brain itself.
Nearly 70,000 new cases of primary brain tumors will be diagnosed this year, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. The disease will account for 14,000 deaths this year. Despite years of research, only about one-third of those diagnosed with the disease survive five years or more. While scientists aren’t sure why, the incidence of these tumors have been steadily rising for as much as 50 years.
Nobody understands that bleak assessment better than Krzysztof Wszedybyl of Shelby Township. The automotive designer for Tata Technologies in Troy is 55 years old and the father of Matthew, 23, and Victor, 18. In late April, Wszedybyl had brain surgery at Providence Hospital in Novi to remove a tumor.
On May 2, Wszedybyl and his wife, Iwona, received the pathology results that would turn the family’s life upside down. The tumor that surgeons removed from his left frontal lobe was a stage four primary brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).
Most cases of GBM arise directly from mutations from healthy cells in the brain. While it is one of the most common types of primary brain tumor, it is also the most aggressive and the most deadly; with an estimated two-year survival rate for patients between 40-65 years old.
“It is the most hostile cancer, very aggressive,” Wszedybyl explained recently, sitting in his contemporary-styled home with high ceilings, lots of natural light and brightly-colored modular furniture. “And we know it is coming back.”
By that he means, his son Victor interjects, that there is a 90-percent chance the cancer will return. Wszedybyl asked Victor to be on hand for “translation help.”
In 1989, Wszedybyl, then 29, arrived in Hamtramck after escaping from Poland and spending two years in a refugee camp in Italy. He met his wife shortly after arriving here. They married two months later.
Now, 25 years later, Wszedybyl said time seemed to stand still when they were sitting in a Polish oncologist’s office while the doctor explained in his native language the dire circumstances of his illness.
“The doctor cannot lie; she said it is bad news,” Wszedybyl said.“But it is not so bad because I am not too old to fight. And I am in good shape. So, there are some positives. Still, my wife, she broke down into tears.”
Wszedybyl’s symptoms came from out of nowhere. In late March, he said he was raking in his backyard when he had pain and tingling in his fingers. Later, he had trouble pronouncing words. “I couldn’t talk to my wife. It felt like my tongue was paralyzed.”
After several MRIs and second, third, and even fourth opinions, Wszedybyl had “intraoperative” or awake brain surgery. Conscious but sedated, “they would talk to me and ask me questions because the cancer was very close to the speech part of my brain,” he said.
Now, Wszedybyl is in the second week of a six-week chemotherapy and radiation treatment plan. He has taken a leave of absence from work and is focused on researching all of his options. “Because I have a 90-percent chance of it growing back, I have to be prepared,” he says. “I want to find a way to kill this cancer more than just this one way.”
To that end, all food in the house is organic. He avoids the fruit he loves because he worries about sugar and he’s looking into alternative therapies. Of particular interest is the much-publicized Duke University clinical trial involving the polio vaccine and brain cancer. “I want to be 100 percent. I’m doing everything I can,” he says. “Every day is an important day. I have to live. But how? Which way? I don’t know.”
News of Beau Biden’s death hit hard.
“The vice president’s son’s death was very sad news,” he says, “but I’m hearing different stories now about how people fight this and I feel there are lots of different ways for this to go.”
Above all, balance is key. “I know I’m always going to be nervous because if I have symptoms again, I know it’s coming back,” he says. “I’m trying to be in-between and not go to extremes. Not be too happy or too sad. I have to come to the center and stand on middle ground.”