One of the most controversial aspects of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) is the ‘benign vs malignant’ question. It’s been widely debated and it frequently patrols the various patient forums and other social media platforms. It raises emotions and it triggers many responses ….. at least from those willing to engage in the conversation. At best, this issue can cause confusion, at worst, it might contradict what new patients have been told by their physicians (….or not been told). This post will not cover Neuroendocrine Carcinoma which by definition is malignant.
Any definition of the word ‘tumour’ will confirm it can either be benign or malignant. However, and while I’m sure there are benign NETs, the key statement to explain any slow growing or indolent NET is that they all have malignant potential – thus why surveillance and follow up is really important. This is the key factor in the changes found in the 2010 Digestive System World Health Organisation (WHO) classification system from the previous ‘flaky’ version. This reinforcement of the malignant potential of all NETs was duplicated in the recent 2017 Endocrine System equivalent, which is now proposed as a classification scheme for all NETs (see below).
Of course we are not helped by the continued use of the term Carcinoid which decodes to ‘Cancer Like’ – that is potentially regressing the work of those specialists who are trying to undo the last 100 years of complacency in the medical world (and not really the type of awareness we need). The word is gradually being erased from NET nomenclature and the recent 2018 proposal by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and WHO NET expert consensus panel to ditch it from the remaining versions of out of date WHO classifications (e.g. Pulmonary/Lung, Pituitary, Head & Neck, Genito-urinary, Adrenal and Paraganglia, Skin), is the final nail in the coffin for Carcinoid. RIP Carcinoid. This also supports our awareness issues with the media reporting the wrong cancer types based on anatomy of the primary tumour. Dear Doctors, Patient Advocates and Patients ….. please stop using the word!
I have lost count of the stories from Neuroendocrine Cancer patients who have been told their tumour was benign but then returned with incurable and metastatic cancer sometime downstream. Clearly there are doctors who do not understand NETs and/or are not aware of the changes in WHO classification schemes since 2010. Sure, some will prove to be ‘benign’ in nature and may not cause many issues but any Ki-67 below 3% is a formal grade of Neuroendocrine Neoplasm. I accept that it’s currently difficult to work out which cases will turn more aggressive and when, thus why surveillance and follow up are really important and also why patients should be seeing doctors who understand NETs. Worth also noting that many slow growing and indolent tumors can still often produce troublesome NET syndromes.
I’ve even heard one patient story where it was claimed a doctor called a metastatic NET case benign! Any definition of ‘benign’ will include the statement that they do not spread to other parts of the body. The NET Patient world is full of slow growing Grade 1 Stage 4 patients – by definition, they’re all malignant.
My chest infection is now settled, as too is the excitement and apprehension behind my first ever Ga68 PET – the outcome of that is still a work in progress. Earlier this year, my thyroid ‘lesion’ on watch and wait was given a ‘damping down’ with the prescription of a thyroid hormone supplement but I await a re-ignition of that small bush fire downstream.
Bubbling behind the scenes and clamoring for attention is the spiking of my blood glucose test results and I was very recently declared ‘at risk’ for diabetes One of my followers entitled a post in my group with “The hits keep coming” in reference to encountering yet another problem in the journey with Neuroendocrine Cancer. I now know how she feels, this issue is a bit of a ‘left fielder’. However, having analysed the situation and spoken to several doctors, I can now put pen to paper.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is not a household name (…… I’m working on that) but diabetes certainly is. The World Health Organisation reports that the number of adults living with diabetes has almost quadrupled since 1980 to 422 million adults. In USA, estimates from CDC stated around 10 million people diagnosed with diabetes with a further 84 million in pre-diabetes state (at risk). In UK around 3.7 million people have diabetes with about 4 times that amount ‘at risk’. It’s a growth industry (…….. but so is NETs – in the last 40 years, the incidence of NETs is rising at a faster rate than diabetes, a disease which some writers have described as an epidemic).
With those numbers, it follows that many NET patients will be diabetic before diagnosis, some will succumb to diabetes whether they have NETs or not, and some may have an increased risk of succumbing due to their treatment. Some may even be pushed into diabetes as a direct result of their NET type or treatment. It’s important to understand diabetes in order to understand why certain types of NET and certain treatments could have an involvement.
For understanding of this article, it’s worth noting the pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar. I have talked about the exocrine function in relationship to Neuroendocrine Cancer at length – check out this article on Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy. In this article, I now want to cover the issues with the endocrine function and blood sugar. First a short primer on diabetes – it is necessarily brief for the purposes of this article.
TypeS OF DIABETES
Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes are fairly well-known. There’s actually more than two types, but these are the most common. Type 2 is the most prevalent with around 90% of diabetes cases. When you’ve got Type 1 diabetes, you can’t make any insulin at all. If you’ve got Type 2 diabetes, the insulin you make either can’t work effectively, or you can’t produce enough of it. Additional types may come up in the subsequent discussion.
What is the problem?
What all types of diabetes have in common is that they cause people to have too much glucose (sugar) in their blood. But we all need some glucose. It’s what gives us our energy. We get glucose when our bodies break down the carbohydrates that we eat or drink. And that glucose is released into our blood. We also need a hormone called insulin. It’s made by our pancreas, and it’s insulin that allows the glucose in our blood to enter our cells and fuel our bodies.
If you don’t have diabetes, your pancreas senses when glucose has entered your bloodstream and releases the right amount of insulin, so the glucose can get into your cells. But if you have diabetes, this system doesn’t work properly. Diabetes is associated by being overweight but there isn’t a 100% correlation with that. However, when an individual becomes overweight, there is an increase in free fatty acids in the blood stream which may contribute to reduced insulin sensitivity in the tissues, leading to increased glucose levels in blood.
Symptoms and diagnosis of Diabetes
Different people develop different symptoms. In diabetes, because glucose can’t get into your cells, it begins to build up in your blood. And too much glucose in your blood causes a lot of different problems. To begin with it leads to diabetes symptoms, like having to wee a lot (particularly at night), being incredibly thirsty, and feeling very tired. You may also lose weight, get infections like thrush or suffer from blurred vision and slow healing wounds.
I see these symptoms mentioned very frequently and normally people are trying to associate them with NETs and/or the treatment for NETs.
Diabetes diagnosis is normally triggered diagnosed based on blood tests such as fasting Blood Glucose (snapshot) and/or Glycated Hemoglobin (A1C) or HbA1C.
Over a long period of time, high glucose levels in your blood can seriously damage your heart, your eyes, your feet and your kidneys. These are known as the complications of diabetes.
But with the right treatment and care, people can live a healthy life. And there’s much less risk that someone will experience these complications.
What are the direct connections with Diabetes and NETs?
It’s not surprising that diabetes is mostly associated with Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas but there are other areas of risk for other types of NETs including to those who are existing diabetics – see below.
The main types of surgery for Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas are Distal Pancreatectomy (tail), Sub-total pancreatectomy (central/tail), Classic Whipple (pancreaticoduodenectomy – head and/or neck of pancreas), Total pancreatectomy (remove the entire pancreas) or an Enucleation (scooping out the tumour with having to remove too much surrounding tissue). From the PERT article link above (exocrine function), you can see why some people need this treatment to offset issues of reduced production of pancreatic enzymes. The same issue can develop with a reduced endocrine function leading to the development of diabetes.
The different types of functional pancreatic NETs often called syndromes in their own right due to their secretory role. One might think that Insulinomas are connected to diabetes issues but this hormonal syndrome is actually associated with low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), although low blood sugar can turn out to be a complication of diabetes treatment.
A NET syndrome known as Glucagonoma (a type of functional pancreatic NET) is associated with high blood glucose levels. About 5-10% of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are Glucagonomas, tumors that produce an inappropriate abundance of the hormone glucagon. Glucagon balances the effects of insulin by regulating the amount of sugar in your blood. If you have too much glucagon, your cells don’t store sugar and instead sugar stays in your bloodstream. Glucagonoma therefore leads to diabetes-like symptoms (amongst other symptoms). In fact Glucagonoma is sometimes called the 4D syndrome – consists of diabetes, dermatitis, deep venous thrombosis (DVT), and depression.
Another functional pancreatic NET known as Somatostatinoma is prone to developing insulin resistance. Somatostatinomas produce excessive amounts of somatostatin which interferes with the insulin/glucagon function and could therefore lead to diabetes.
Diabetes caused by cancer or cancer treatment
Worth noting that this type of diabetes is sometimes known as ‘Pancreatogenic diabetes’ and this is actually classified by the American Diabetes Association and by the World Health Organization as type 3c diabetes mellitus (T3cDM) and refers to diabetes due to impairment in pancreatic endocrine function due to acute cancer and cancer treatment (and several other conditions). The texts tend to point to cancers (and other conditions) of the pancreas rather than system wide. Prevalence data on T3cDM are scarce because of insufficient research in this area and challenges with accurate diabetes classification in clinical practice. (Authors note: Slightly confusing as many text say that type 3 diabetes is proposed for insulin resistance in the brain (diabetes associated with Alzheimer’s disease). There’s another term for a complete removal of the entire pancreas – Pancreoprivic Diabetes
Other treatment risks
Somatostatin Analogues (e.g. Octreotide and Lanreotide) are common drugs used to control NET Syndromes and are also said to have an anti-tumor effect. They are known to inhibit several hormones including glucagon and insulin and consequently may interfere with blood glucose levels. The leaflets for both drugs clearly state this side effect with a warning that diabetics who have been prescribed the drug, should inform their doctors so that dosages can be adjusted if necessary. The side effects lists also indicates high and low blood glucose symptoms indicating it can cause both low and high blood glucose (hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia). For those who are pre-diabetic or close to pre-diabetic status, there is a possibility that the drug may push blood tests into diabetic ranges. Afinitor (Everolimus). The patient information for Afinitor (Everolimus) clearly states “Increased blood sugar and fat (cholesterol and triglycerides) levels in blood: Your health care provider should do blood tests to check your fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood before you start treatment with AFINITOR and during treatment with AFINITOR” Sutent (Sunitinib). The patient information for Sutent (Sinitinib) clearly states that low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is a potential side effect. It also advises that low blood sugar with SUTENT may be worse in patients who have diabetes and take anti-diabetic medicines. Your healthcare provider should check your blood sugar levels regularly during treatment with SUTENT and may need to adjust the dose of your anti-diabetic medicines.
In rare cases, certain NETs may produce too much Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a substance that causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol and other hormones. This is often associated with Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol increases our blood pressure and blood glucose levels with can lead to diabetes as a result of untreated Cushing’s syndrome.
I think it’s sensible for all NET patients, particularly those with involvement as per above and who are showing the signs of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, to be checked regularly for blood glucose and if necessary HbA1c. Many patient information leaflets for the common NET treatments also indicate this is necessary. Always tell your prescribing doctors if you are a diabetic or about any history of low or high blood glucose before treatment for NETs.
My brush with Diabetes (as at Nov 2018)
My blood glucose levels started to climb slightly in 2016 but HbA1c remained normal. However, an HbA1c test in early 2018 put me into pre-diabetic range (44 mmoL/moL). I explained some of the above article to my GP who is corresponding with a diabetes expert at secondary care – the expert suggested that I need to be monitored carefully. I have kept my NET team up to date.
At the time of writing, a retest of HbA1c (3 month interval) came back normal (36 mmoL/moL). I’m now attending a Diabetes Prevention Programme as the request of my GP (voluntary attendance). I have yet to see a trend so will continue doing the course which I think is very educational and am pragmatic enough to know that I do not need to lose weight as one of the aims of reducing my blood glucose and HbA1c levels (something emphasised by the above mentioned diabetes specialist.
I even got on my bike to do a little bit more exercise just in case!
At this point, I cannot yet say if this is the beginning of progressive Type II diabetes or if my medication is causing these spikes in my blood glucose and HbA1c. I will keep you posted.
Summary – if you are noticing these symptoms, get your blood sugar checked (with acknowledgement to Dr Pantalone from Cleveland Clinic)
1. You’re making more trips to the bathroom
Having to go to the bathroom more than normal, particularly at night, is a sign that your blood sugar might be out of whack.
Dr. Pantalone says one of his patients came in for a diagnosis after a family member noticed that he was using the bathroom during each commercial break when they watched TV.
2. You’re getting frequent urinary or yeast infections
When your blood sugar is high and your kidneys can’t filter it well enough, sugar ends up in the urine. More sugar in a warm, moist environment can cause urinary tract and yeast infections, especially in women.
3. You’re losing weight without trying
If you have diabetes, your body isn’t able to use glucose (sugar) as effectively for its energy. Instead, your body will start burning fat stores, and you may experience unexpected weight loss.
4. Your vision is getting worse
High sugar levels can distort the lenses in your eyes, worsening your vision. Changes in your eyeglass prescription or vision are sometimes a sign of diabetes.
5. You’re feeling fatigued or exhausted
Several underlying causes of fatigue may relate to diabetes/high sugar levels, including dehydration (from frequent urination, which can disrupt sleep) and kidney damage.
This feeling of exhaustion is often persistent and can interfere with your daily activities, says Dr Pantalone.
6. You’re noticing skin discoloration
Something that Dr. Pantalone often sees in patients before a diabetes diagnosis is dark skin in the neck folds and over the knuckles. Insulin resistance can cause this condition, known as acanthosis nigricans.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is one of a number of “difficult to diagnose” conditions. Many types of Neuroendocrine Cancer come with an associated syndrome and these syndromes can mimic everyday illnesses. In some cases, many people don’t feel ill while the tumours grow. Most types of this cancer are slow-growing but there are also aggressive versions. Although things appear to be improving in diagnostic terms, it can sometimes take years for someone to be finally diagnosed correctly and get treatment, albeit in some cases, too late for any hope of a curative scenario. It’s a very sneaky type of cancer and if left too long it can be life threatening – CLICK HERE to find out why.
The road to a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer is often not straight or easy to navigate. It’s not only a sneaky type of cancer but it’s also very complex. It’s a heterogeneous group of malignancies with a varied and confusing histology and nomenclature to match. As I said above, many people are asymptomatic for years whilst the tumor grows and some might say that it’s somewhat ‘lucky’ to have symptoms to help aid a diagnosis. Many find that a lack of knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer in primary care, doesn’t always produce results. Common misdiagnoses include (but not limited to), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other common digestive diseases, menopause, appendicitis, hypertension, gastritis, asthma. Neuroendocrine Cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed at secondary care if a referral for ‘something’ can be achieved.
……..cue internet searches (Dr Google)
I think the rise and the power of the internet and rise of social media applications is very much helping generate awareness and knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer and those looking for a diagnosis may find help in this way. I suspect this instant access to information has played its part in the diagnostic improvements I mentioned above. Take my own efforts for example, I’m a wee Scottish guy with a computer and I’m already accelerating towards a million blog views – there’s clearly a market for what I produce. In terms of those looking for a diagnosis, if only one gets an earlier diagnosis due to my site, I’ll be happy.
Unfortunately, the internet can often be a minefield and in many cases, can lead to quite unnecessary worry for those looking for a solution.
I’m contacted almost daily by the ‘undiagnosed’ who suspect they have Neuroendocrine Cancer, often because they appear to be displaying the symptoms of one of the associated syndromes. These are some of my most difficult questions. I’m always very wary of initially agreeing with their assumptions and logic, instead opting for straightforward detective work based on my knowledge of the different types of Neuroendocrine Cancer, knowledge of the best scans, tumour markers, hormone markers. And I always warn them that statistically, they are more likely to have a common condition than the less common Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Many have already had multiple doctor’s appointments and tests. If they have not yet had a scan, I encourage them to try to get one ‘by hook or by crook’. Despite what you read on patient forums and surveys, the vast majority of Neuroendocrine diagnoses will be triggered by a conventional imaging such as CT and/or MRI. If you can see it, you can detect it.
When I first chat with the ‘undiagnosed’, I find many of them are fairly knowledgeable about Neuroendocrine Cancer and other health conditions, again confirming the power of the internet and the savvy ‘internet patient’. This is fine if you look in the right places of course – for certain things there are more wrong places on the internet than right ones.
If I have time, I’m happy to chat with these people, some are very frustrated – in fact some are so frustrated that they just want a diagnosis of something even if that something is really bad. However, what do you say to someone who is utterly convinced they have Neuroendocrine Cancer but CT/MRI/Octreoscan/Ga68 PET are all clear, Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are in range but they still say they have diarrhea with its potential for literally thousands of differential diagnoses. It’s a tough gig.
My scan came back normal. That should be good news. But, if there is no tumor, how can I be suffering from all the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome? Is that diagnosis wrong? Are the urine and blood test results wrong? I’m awaiting a MRI scan to take another look to see if the doctor can find anything. I don’t know what they’ll find. I don’t want them to find anything. But I’m afraid of what will happen if they don’t.
I always let the undiagnosed know that Neuroendocrine Cancer patients are some of the most friendliest and helpful people you can meet, they will treat you as one of their own. There will be a number of diagnosed people online who have gone through what the undiagnosed are going through, so they will both sympathise and emphasise. But … this can often have the adverse effect of pushing them into believing they must have Neuroendocrine Cancer. This makes for interesting discussions given the number of people who automatically assume that ‘flushing’ or ‘diarrhea’ (as described by the undiagnosed) must be Neuroendocrine Cancer without any reference to the many differential diagnoses and the context of what that actually means in Neuroendocrine Cancer terms.
10 Questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those Diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer (and where to find a specialist)
I once wrote an article for DIAGNOSED NET Patients suggesting 10 Questions to ask their doctor. So I wanted to take a step back in context, using the knowledge I now have, and put myself in the shoes of someone who thinks they may have Neuroendocrine Cancer but is not yet diagnosed.
Key questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those trying to confirm or discount Neuroendocrine Cancer
Dear undiagnosed people. I totally understand your fear. There’s nothing worse than being ill and not knowing what illness you have. I’ve therefore compiled a list of 3 key questions for you to ask – think of it as a tick list of things to ask your doctor to do or check . I have linked several background articles for you to prepare your case. However, I cannot promise your doctor will agree or take any action, in fact some might be annoyed about the lack of trust. However, doing your homework really helps, including diaries and other evidence.
I also wouldn’t say that a negative to all the questions will mean you definitely do not have Neuroendocrine Cancer but at least these questions might provide your doctor and yourself with some food for thought, perhaps leading to the diagnosis of ‘something’. The questions below assume that routine blood tests have been done, including Full Blood Count, Liver, Renal, Bone, Glucose.
Questions for the UNDIAGNOSED to ask their treating physician
“I think I might have a type of cancer known as Neuroendocrine Cancer or Neuroendocrine Tumours (NET) because <<< insert your own story>>>. Would you please consider the following tests and checks:”
1. Chromogranin A (CgA) is a marker which is quite sensitive for Neuroendocrine Tumours, essentially measuring tumour bulk potentially indicating the presence of Neuroendocrine Tumours. There can be other reasons for an elevated CgA figure, including the patient’s use of proton pump inhibitors (PPI) (see the article for an alterative test where this is the case). Read more here – Neuroendocrine Cancer – Tumour and Hormone Marker tests.
3. Scans. Most NETs can be seen on a CT scan although liver metastasis can often show more clearly on an MRI. There are also nuclear scan options to confirm conventional imaging findings. Some NETs may be accessible via endoscopy and ultrasounds can also give hints for further investigation. In some cases, nuclear scans will find things that conventional imaging cannot because radionuclides can normally pick up oversecreting tumours. Read more in my article “If you can see it, you can detect it”.
Now the dust has settled on the death and funeral of Neuroendocrine Cancer patient Aretha Franklin, the community needs to review the strategy for how we explain the nomenclature of Neuroendocrine Cancer to outsiders including the media, and including doctors.
About 95% of the articles I read about Aretha Franklin stated she had Pancreatic Cancer. Only a few quoted her physician who clumsily said “Pancreatic Cancer of the Neuroendocrine Type”. Her death certificate quoted “Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer”. Despite this, the media outlet which published her death certificate still led the article with the headline “Pancreatic Cancer”. Exactly the same thing happened with Steve Jobs and a few others. And that’s only the ones we know about – how many other pe0ple are being labelled and documented with the wrong cancer type?
I cannot read the minds of the healthcare professionals and media when they compile their press releases and articles but I’m fairly certain they simply do not understand that Neuroendocrine Cancer is a cancer within its own right and is not a type of another cancer. They simply do not understand the term ‘Neuroendocrine’ and they think the readership won’t either, and so it’s probably easer just to leave that bit out. The result is that a person has, or dies with, is labelled with the wrong cancer type, which is then published and embedded into the annals of the internet and spreads like wildfire (fake news), and Neuroendocrine Cancer is once again robbed of much needed awareness. Our community needs to start focusing more on these types of awareness issues rather than continually flaunting pictures of black and white striped animals.
I’m even starting to think that the well known term used in Neuroendocrine Cancer circles, ‘Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor’ or pNET for short, is actually working against us because of the inclusion of the organ as the first word of the term. Going forward, I will be using Neuroendocrine Cancer with a pancreatic primary, etc.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is NOT a type of another cancer PERIOD!