Diarrhea can be a symptom of many conditions, but it is particularly key in Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) Syndromes and types, in particular, Carcinoid Syndrome but also in those associated with various other NET types such as VIPoma, PPoma, Gastrinoma, Somatostatinoma, Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma.
Secondly, it can be a key consequence (side effect) of the treatment for Neuroendocrine Tumours and Carcinomas, in particular following surgery where various bits of the gastrointestinal tract are excised to remove and/or debulk tumour load.
There are other reasons that might be causing or contributing, including (but not limited to) endocrine problems such as hyperthryoidism, mastocytosis or Addison’s disease (which may be secondary illnesses in those with NETs). It’s also possible that ‘non-sydromic’ issues such as stress and diet are contributing. It could be caused by other things such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Yes, believe it or not, NET Patients can get normal diarrhea causing diseases too!
I want to give a general definition of diarrhea as there are many variants out there. In general, they all tend to agree that diarrhea is having more frequent, loose and watery stools. Three or more stools per day seems to be the generally accepted threshold, although some sites don’t put a figure on it. It’s not pleasant and just about everyone on the planet will suffer it at some point in their life, perhaps with repeated episodes. Normally it’s related to some kind of bug, or something you’ve eaten and will only last a few days before it settles (acute diarrhea). Diarrhea lasting more than a couple of weeks is considered chronic and some people will require medical care to treat it. It can also be caused by anxiety, a food allergy/intolerance or as a side effect of medicine. Pharmacists and GPs will be seeing many patients with this common ailment every single day of business.
Sorting out the symptoms – post diagnosis
I like to describe this as the Neuroendocrine Cancer jigsaw. It’s a really difficult one and sometimes you cannot find a piece, or the pieces won’t fit. However, metaphorically speaking, the missing piece might be a NET specialist presentation, a comment, statement or view from another patient, a link to an article from a reputable source, or even something you do to improve your lot – there might even be trial and error involved. It might even be this blog post!
This disease is so individual and there are many factors involved including the type of syndrome/NET, patient comorbidities and secondary illnesses, consequences of the surgery or treatments performed, side effects of drugs – all of which is intermingled with suspicion and coincidence – it’s that jigsaw again! I always like to look in more detail to understand why certain things might be better than others, I always challenge the ‘status quo’ looking to find a better ‘normal’. I really do think there are different strategies for syndrome induced diarrhea and that which is a result of treatment or a side effect of treatment. There’s also different prices, with inhibitors costing thousands, whilst classic anti-diarrhea treatments are just a few pennies. Adjustments to diets are free!
When I was discharged from hospital after the removal of my small intestinal primary, I was in the toilet A LOT (I was actually in the toilet a lot before I was discharged – check out my primary surgery blogs here) . My surgeon did say it would take months to get back to ‘normal’ – he was right and it did eventually settle – although my new ‘toilet normal’ was soft and loose and several times daily. My previously elevated CgA and 5HIAA were eventually back to normal and my flushing had disappeared. I didn’t have too many issues with diarrhea before diagnosis. Deduction: my issues are most likely not syndrome induced.
How do you work out whether diarrhea is caused by a hormone producing tumour or by the side effects of treatments? There’s no easy answer to this as both might be contributing. One crude but logical way is to just accept that if you have normal hormone markers, for example 5HIAA (there could be more for other tumour/syndrome types), and you’re not really experiencing any of the other classic symptoms, then your syndrome might be under control due to your treatment (e.g. debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues, or another drug). My Oncologist labels me as ‘non-syndromic’ – something which I agree with. I’m 99.999999% sure my issues are as a result of the treatment I’ve had and am receiving
Diarrhea caused by a Syndrome
When you consider the explanation above, it’s not really surprising that diarrhea related symptoms can delay a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer (and most likely other cancers too, e.g. pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer). For example, diarrhea is the second most common symptom of Carcinoid Syndrome (Flushing is actually the most common) and is caused mainly by the oversecretion of the hormone Serotonin from the tumours. Please note diarrhea in other types of syndromes or NETs may be caused by other hormones, for example it may also be caused by excess calcitonin in the case of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma or VIP in the case of a functional pNET known as VIPoma. I’ve heard stories of people being told they have IBS or something similar for years before they received what is now a late diagnosis and at an advanced cancer stage. This is only one of the reasons why NETs is not an easy condition to diagnose, although it is possible that some people actually had IBS and it was masking the NET. Even after treatment to remove or reduce tumours, many people will remain syndromic and need assistance and treatment to combat diarrhea induced by a NET syndrome (see below).
Like many other NET patients, I’m on a 28 day injection of somatostatin analogues (in my case Lanreotide). Both Octreotide and Lanreotide are designed to reduce the effects of NET syndromes and therefore can often make a difference to syndrome induced diarrhea. These drugs also have anti-tumour effect and so even if you are not syndromic or they do not halt or adequately control syndrome induced diarrhea, they are still a valuable contribution to NET treatment.
Some syndromic patients find they still have diarrhea despite somatostatin analogues and they end up having ‘rescue shots’ or pumps for relief (both of these methods tend to be Octreotide based). (Hopefully they are not getting confused between diarrhea caused by the non-syndrome effects – see above). Some have more frequent injections of the long acting versions of somatostatin analogues which has the effect of increasing the dosage. There’s a new drug available for those whose carcinoid syndrome induced diarrhea is not adequately controlled or perhaps they are unable to have somatostatin analogues as a treatment. Telotristat Ethyl works by inhibiting tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor involved in the manufacture of serotonin, which is the main cause of syndrome induced diarrhea. It was approved by the US FDA in February 2017, EU areas in September 2017, and is on the way to being approved elsewhere. Read about this drug here.
Diarrhea as a Consequence (Side effect) of Treatment for Neuroendocrine Cancer and Other Conditions
(i.e. not caused by a syndrome)
All cancer treatments can have consequences and Neuroendocrine Cancer is definitely no exception here. For example, if they chop out several feet of small intestine, a chunk of your large intestine, chunks (or all) of your stomach or your pancreas, your gallbladder and bits of your liver, this is going to have an effect on the efficiency of your ‘waste disposal system’. One effect is that it will now work faster! Another is that the less effective ‘plumbing’ may not be as efficient as it was before. There are also knock-on effects that may create additional issues with the digestive system including but not limited to; Malabsorption and SIBO. The latter is evolving scientific evidence. I recommend you read my posts on Malabsorption and SIBO.
Surgery can often be the root cause of diarrhea. This is particularly involving terminal ileum resection in cases of midgut primary surgery but can also be attributed in part to removal of the gallbladder. One of the causes can be Bile Acid Diarrhea. See the special “jigsaw piece” section below or click here.
Surgery of the pancreas can also produce effects such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which can lead to a malabsorption condition known as steatorrhea which may be confused with diarrhea (although some texts call it a type of diarrhea). It isn’t really diarrhea but it may look like it given the presentation of the faeces and patients may suffer both diarrhea and steatorrhea concurrently. Patients will recognise it in their stools which may be floating, foul-smelling, greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Treatment options will mainly include the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy or PERT for short (Creon, Nutrizym, etc).
Many non-surgical treatments can also cause diarrhea, including but not limited to; somatostatin analogues (see below), chemotherapy, biological targeted therapy (e.g. Everolimus, Sunitinib), radiotherapy.
Somatostatin analogues are an interesting one as they are designed to inhibit secretion of particular hormones and peptides by binding to the receptors found on Neuroendocrine tumour cells. This has the knock-on effect of inhibiting digestive/pancreatic enzymes which are necessary to break down the fat in our foods leading to Malabsorption of important nutrients. This may worsen the steatorrhea in pancreatic NET patients but also lead to steatorrhea in others with non-pancreatic locations who have been prescribed these drugs.
Other conditions may actually be the cause of diarrhea or the treatment for those conditions. For example, it is possible that people actually do have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Treatment therapy for common conditions may also be contributing, for example, the use of Proton Pump Inhibitors for acid reflux.
I read that many people find basic ‘Loperamide’ (Imodium) helps, and I tend to agree with that if you are non-syndromic and just need that little bit of help. I decided a long time ago I would not become ‘hooked’ and only really take it for two purposes: 1) if I have a bad patch and 2) if I’m going on a long journey (i.e. on a plane perhaps). I estimate I’ve used 4 packets in as many years. Loperamide decreases the activity which causes intestinal motility (peristalsis). This has the effect of increasing the time material stays in the intestine, therefore, allowing more water to be absorbed from the fecal matter. Ideal for those with a shorter bowel due to surgery and advice from a medical professional is always advisable.
To reduce the risk of malabsorption-induced diarrhea and steatorrhea, both of which can lead to loss of valuable nutrients, the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) might need to be introduced as required by your NET specialist.
Have a look at Enterade – the results from trials look good and being studied by Markey Cancer Centre. This works by replacing essential amino acids which are lost because of treatment.
The differential diagnosis of diarrhea in a NET patient is potentially an extensive list of possibilities but I wanted to focus on the area of bile system impairment which leads to a form of malabsorption causing diarrhea. This is an under-reported or at least an under-discussed problem within the community. So, I guess I’m focusing on tumours where there has been some sort of bowel resection and/or gallbladder removal (although other resections may be involved or contributing). I remember one question in a patient group along these lines “surgery and somatostatin analogues have not improved my carcinoid syndrome, I still have diarrhea” ……. cue a long and difficult explanation. They’re difficult because of two things, firstly it’s a complex scenario, and secondly because it isn’t an exact science. But I’ll try to at least give you some food for thought if you think this might apply to you. At the very least I hope to give you some tools in order to have a fairly sensible conversation with your doctors and nurses (and dietitians where applicable). Before progressing, I wanted to emphasise this is not the same type of malabsorption caused by exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) which can potentially lead to something known as steatorrhea (amongst other things). Read about Bile Acid Malabsorption and Bile Acid Diarrhea here or click on the picture.
Clearly, I cannot offer any professional medical advice on coping with diarrhea, I can only discuss my own situation and what I found worked for me. Don’t forget, like many diseases, what works for one, might not work for another. However, I did tackle my problems following the advice of an experienced dietitian who specialises in NETs. That said, I was ‘sleep walking’ for over 2 years thinking my issues were just part of the way things were after my treatment. I was wrong about that!
As for my own strategy, here’s things that helped me:
- made some changes to diet (they were not huge changes),
- included supplementation where necessary,
- reduced stress as far as is practical to do,
- maintained a diary to help with monitoring progress or setbacks,
- hydration is also important (….still working on that one),
- started taking PERT (Creon) on 23 Dec 2017 (changed to Nutrizym Feb 2019) but looks reasonably positive so far.
With no fancy and expensive drugs, I’ve gone from 6-8 visits to 1-2 visits (as a daily average, it’s actually 1.5). This didn’t happen overnight though, it took a lot of time and patience. All of this doesn’t mean to say I don’t have issues from time to time …… because I do!
I think it’s really important that people be sure what is actually causing their diarrhea after diagnosis, so that the right advice and the optimum treatment can be given. Sometimes it’s really difficult for healthcare professionals to pin this down and some experimentation is required. Always check with your healthcare professional before taking any medication/supplement. However, I still struggle sometimes with ‘quality’ of stool and I guess that is possibly a combination of malabsorption plus diet choices.
Listen to Dr Wolin talking about this particular jigsaw puzzle – click here
Also see a nice article that come out of NANETS 2017 – click here
But this recent article is first class – so if you’re not happy with my patient derived view, listen to NET experts. Click here.
Of course, some people sometimes have the opposite effect but that’s in another blog here – Constipation
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