July 20 is Glioblastoma Day, which helps raise awareness of one of the rarest and deadliest forms of brain cancer.
The average length of survival for patients after being diagnosed is eight months, according to the National Brain Tumor Society. But doctors are optimistic as advances in research have helped extend patients' lives even for a short period.
"I had always been a relatively healthy person," Israel Lemus said.
For Lemus, glioblastoma came out of nowhere.
"I was getting ready for bed. (I was) brushing my teeth and looked in the mirror, I lost control of my eyes; they started shooting up in the left repeatedly," he said.
Soon after that, he started experiencing full-blown seizures. A few days passed before he was scheduled to have surgery, but at the time, he was only told there was a mass in his brain. It wasn't until weeks later, at just 29 years old, that Lemus received gut-wrenching news. Doctors told him he had very aggressive brain cancer, and he only had two months to live.
"It just turned my life upside down," he said.
But as fate would have it, Lemus found the best team of physicians with UT Health Houston and Memorial Hermann. Now, Dr. Jay-Jiguang Zhu and his colleagues call Lemus a miracle.
"We try to learn from him and many patients we call long-term survivors," Zhu said.
Glioblastoma, or GBM for short, is a fast-growing brain tumor. Zhu said that about 15,000 people a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with this rare cancer.
He explained it comes down to our genes. As our stem cells continue to grow in our brain, sometimes there's a glitch, and that glitch can develop into a mass.
"Our cells (are) dividing all the time," Zhu said. "We don't see it, but that process sometimes, mistakes happen and that mistake allows the cells to grow out of control."
While this is very rare, famous people have lost their battle with GBM. President Joe Biden's son, Beau, died in 2015, and Republican Sen. John McCain died in 2018.
Until now, many of us here at ABC13 had only reported these stories. It soon hit too close to home when we talked about one of our own. Rehan Aslam, our former news director, was diagnosed three months into his dream job at our sister station WABC in 2021. On July 7, he lost his battle.
"I think, one day, we will have more effective treatment on the horizon," Zhu said.
For the time being, he said a family support system, a strong team of doctors, and, above all, faith are what have helped miracle patients like Lemus.
"We don't have this magical answer. 'Oh, this is it. We can copy that to many other patients.' We love to know, but don't," he said.
Treatment for each patient is unique. It all depends on the size of the tumor and where it is. Lemus has had three surgeries to remove parts of the mass safely. He's on two types of medication, rounds of radiation, and several rounds of chemo.
While part of the cancer is still embedded in Lemus' brain, his team of doctors has been able to keep it at bay for an amazing six years.
"I was able to get engaged to my girlfriend at the time," he said. "We got married. We bought our first home."
Lemus hopes he can provide a ray of hope for other patients, and know there is life after diagnosis.
"The first thing I do when I wake up and when I go to bed is, thank God for that day," he said.