Dreaded Disease

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Bob Marley died in 1981 as the result of a metastatic brain tumor. In 1977, a malignant melanoma (skin cancer) was discovered in Marley’s toe. The singer elected not to heed his doctor’s recommendation to have the toe amputated, as it contradicted his Rastafarian beliefs (which also forbade cutting one’s hair, hence the dreadlocks). The cancer spread to other parts of his body, including his brain and lungs, leading to Marley’s death in May 1981 at the age of 36. Fortunately, his music, which introduced countless listeners all over the world to the sound of reggae and inspired future generations of artists, lives on. 

A photo of Bob Marley, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated exhibit at Tufts Medical CenterBob Marley’s name today is synonymous with reggae music. Born in Jamaica in 1945, during his short musical career he sold over 20 million records and helped to popularize reggae music around the globe. Though his mother wanted him to take up a practical trade, namely welding, Marley became involved in the Jamaican music scene as a youth. In the early 1960s, ska was the most popular style, but by the late 1960s it had given way to reggae. Around this time, Marley abandoned Catholicism, formally converted to Rastafari, and began growing his signature dreadlocks. During a trip to London, Marley met with a producer of Island Records, which offered his band The Wailers a contract in 1972. Their first album, “Catch a Fire,” was released in early 1973, with a second album, “Burnin’,” produced later that year, both to great acclaim. The third album, “Natty Dread” in 1975, was the first credited to Bob Marley and The Wailers. Marley had great critical and commercial success throughout the 1970s, with tours in the United States and Europe. In 1978, Marley traveled to Africa, visiting Kenya and Ethiopia, the home of the Rastafari movement. Marley championed Pan-Africanism, wanting to unify African people worldwide. He was a strong opponent of apartheid in South Africa, and in April 1980 performed at Zimbabwe’s official Independence Ceremony.

In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma under the nail of his big toe. Contrary to popular belief, the melanoma was not caused by a football injury, but rather was a symptom of the already-existing cancer. Though his doctor recommended amputating the toe, Marley refused, as it went against his religious beliefs. Instead, the nail and nail bed were removed, with a skin graft taken from this thigh to cover the area. He continued to tour and record music, despite his illness. However, after his health deteriorated in late 1980, he was forced to cancel his remaining concert dates. Marley travelled to Germany to receive treatment at the clinic of Dr. Josef Issels, which involved a controversial therapy that included a special diet. In May 1981, with his health not improving, Marley wished to return to Jamaica. However, his plane was forced to land in Miami and he was rushed to a hospital where he died on May 11, at age 36. Cause of death was the spread of the melanoma to his lungs and brain. Marley was awarded an Order of Merit by the Jamaican government and given a state funeral, attended by the Prime Minister. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Brain tumors are amongst the most feared of all cancers, but, fortunately, are relatively rare. There are over 100 types of nervous system tumors. The treatment and prognosis are determined by the kind of tumor, its location, and size. The most common tumor in the brain is actually not a tumor from the brain, but a metastasis, that is, a secondary tumor that started somewhere else (the primary tumor) and then spread to the brain. Tumor cells can escape into the blood stream, end up in the brain, and start growing there. The cancers that do this most frequently are breast, lung, colon, kidney, and, as with Bob Marley, cancers in the skin, like melanoma.

Of the primary brain tumors, the most common, meningioma, is, thankfully, the most benign. They account for about a third of tumors that start in the nervous system. Meningiomas that are located on the three-layered covering of the brain (the meninges) may not even require treatment. If they become too large and push into the brain itself then surgery or radiation can be curative. Women are more often affected than men. Some high-profile women have undergone meningioma removal with very little consequence, including Sheryl Crow, Mary Tyler Moore, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Unlike meningiomas, which are usually well-tolerated, the next most common brain tumor—glioma—is not. The gliomas arise within the brain and can be quite advanced before they are discovered. The worst kind of glioma is the most frequent one: glioblastoma multiforme. It is very rare for patients to survive longer than a few months or, perhaps, a year or two after diagnosis. Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden, Ethel Merman, and Edward Herrmann all died within two years of their diagnoses. The dismal prognosis for this aggressive tumor is being challenged by new treatment approaches, some of which have been researched at Tufts Medical Center and hold out hope for future sufferers.

The symptoms of brain tumor can vary widely and depend on where the tumor is located. A tumor growing in the part of the brain that controls movement can cause weakness in an arm or a leg on the opposite side. One growing on the nerve to the ear can cause hearing loss or dizziness. Although brain tumors can cause a wide array of symptoms, very, very few people with those symptoms are found to have brain tumors. In other words, most people with headache, hearing loss, memory loss, hearing symptoms, and so forth will be found to have an explanation other than a tumor in the head.