Senator McCain, Brain Cancer, and Dementia


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Photo from The New York Times

I was watching the Comey hearing at my laptop. About halfway through the hearing, it was Senator John McCain’s turn to ask questions. 

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, Senator John McCain’s questions were…odd, to say the least. I remember watching it and saying aloud to myself, “Well, that was weird.”

Items that struck me:

1. John McCain seemed confused about which investigation had been concluded and which was still going on. In fact, through his entire line of questions, he did not seem to understand. 

2. His sentence structure was bizarre, slow, and his pauses were frequent.

3. He referred to “Comey” and “President Comey” instead of saying “Trump” a few times within his line of questioning. His uses of “he,” “she,” and “you,” were also frequent and did not give enough detail as to know who exactly McCain was referencing. 

4. James Comey was clearly unsure of how to answer a few of the Senator’s questions because he wasn’t sure what the question was (and he’s not alone in that.) He actually said, “With respect to Secretary — I’m not — I’m a little confused, Senator. With respect to Secretary Clinton…”

5. When he was told his time had expired, John McCain looked terribly befuddled. The look on his face made me wonder if he realized he had a time limit on his questioning. 

6. The Senator did not seem to notice that he was mixing up pronouns or asking confusing questions.

I have spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time around people with varying forms and degrees of dementia. 

Watching Senator McCain’s performance that day, I really wondered if something else was going on with his brain. I do not agree with many of the Senator’s stances, but I respect his service and work on behalf of America. He’s clearly a strong, intelligent man with a ton of experience. That day, though, he looked—honestly—like a man who had just woken up from a nap.

Brain cancer, particularly glioblastoma, can be considered a form of dementia. Recall that dementia is an umbrella term for diseases that cause cognitive loss over time. “Cognitive loss over time” is exactly what brain tumors do, especially if they are not removable. 

My grandmother had brain cancer (a glioblastoma, like Senator McCain) in her occipital lobe. I was young and didn’t realize it at the time, but I was watching her slowly lose her functioning to dementia. Her speech became confusing and garbled, her use of names and objects was impaired, her walking, vision, and even her ability to read and write eventually faded.

Senator McCain’s line of questioning that day reminded me a lot of my experience working with people who have dementia. Especially in the early stages, their speech is often the first noticeable change: they misplace words, use a lot of pronouns to replace names, and speak slowly.

When I heard a few days ago that he had a blood clot above his eye, I wondered if that had something to do with his bizarre performance during the Comey hearing. Later, when I heard he actually had a brain tumor, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone could have diagnosed it a few weeks or months earlier. 

I’m not a doctor and I don’t know Senator McCain. I haven’t seen his medical charts and I don’t know anything more than what is on the news.

Based on my experience and time working with people who have dementia, though, I really believe that the Senator’s confusing questions that day had something to do with brain cancer.

For the transcript of the questions, see here.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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