Neuroendocrine Cancer: a needle in a haystack


It’s no secret that Neuroendocrine Cancer can be difficult to diagnose. Although earlier diagnosis is improving (as reported in the SEER database report issued in 2017), there is still a lot of ground to cover. It’s also no secret that certain cancers are difficult to diagnose (NETs is one) and there are a number of reasons why this happens, including but not limited to: – they grow silently, they often produce vague symptoms which can be mistaken for much more common illnesses, and their complexity is not fully understood.

I wanted to cover two different aspects of the problem of finding NETs. Firstly, in finding the primary tumour so that the type of NET can be properly established – this drives the best treatment regime. Secondly in finding all the tumours, as this establishes the correct and most detailed staging declaration – this drives treatment plans and surveillance regimes that need to be put into place.

Hunting Tumours – Primary vs Secondary

It’s really important to determine which tumours are primary and which are secondary (metastasis). There’s a number of ways to help work this out and knowledge of NETs epidemiology studies can help.

Specialist Knowledge – certain things are known about the behaviour of NETs

Specialists and in particular NET specialists will be aware of the vagaries of NETs in terms of what tumours are normally a primary and which are normally secondary and many of the pitfalls involved in working that out. Many NETs will have metastasized to the liver at diagnosis, so whilst it is not impossible to have a primary liver NET, the vast majority of liver tumours found will be secondary (metastases). NET Specialists are more likely to have the experience than generalists. They know that the varying metastatic potential depending on the primary site clearly indicates differing biology and genetics across sites and they know that NETs are indeed a heterogeneous group of tumours. The differences cannot be explained by whether the NET is situated in the foregut, midgut, or hindgut. For example, Appendiceal NET is known to be less prone to metastasis. This may be due to the high rate of incidental findings during appendectomies, or because the appendix is an immunological organ where malignant cells can therefore be expected to be frequently recognized by the immune system.

The majority of the digestive tract is drained by the portal venous system, explaining the dominance of liver metastases in this group of tumours. This also explains our finding that many nervous system and bone metastases originate from NETs in the lungs. Disseminated tumour cells may directly reach the systemic circulation from the lungs, whereas if originating from the midgut region, they need to first pass both the liver and the lungs.

As an example of this heuristic knowledge, one Swedish study indicated that two-thirds of peritoneal metastases will be attributed to Small Intestine NETs (SI NETs). SI NETs and Pancreatic NETs (pNETs) are the most likely to metastasize. The least likely sites to metastasize are the Appendix and Rectum. The same study indicated that in addition to the common metastatic locations of lymph nodes and liver, Lung NETs are more likely to metastasize to the brain and bone than other types. I believe the findings from this study more or less correlates to other information I’ve had access to and also confirms the technical behaviour paragraph above.

There are many other clues open to those involved in diagnosing a NET:

Patient. Very often the patient plays a big part of determining where the primary and other tumours might be by carefully describing symptoms.

Incidental Finds. NETs are very often found incidentally during trips to the ER/A&E and also during tests for something else. This is particularly the case with Appendiceal NETs and might explain why the average age of a patient is significantly lower in this type of NET.

Blood tests and Hormone Markers. We are not yet in a position where these types of tests can diagnose (but we are moving in that direction). In the case of unknown primaries (CUP), sometimes test results can help to find where some of these cancers started. With NETs, symptomatic patients can often test to confirm an elevated hormone marker which may narrow it down to a specific organ or gland. Read more here.

Scans and Endoscopies. Most cancers of a certain size may show up on conventional scanning such as CT, MRI and Ultrasound. Nuclear scans are now playing a bigger part in finding tumours which betray their location through functional behaviour by lighting up or glowing on these imaging devices. Endoscopies (e.g. gastroscopies, colonoscopies, even gastro intestinal pill cameras can be used) can help but like scans are not foolproof). Generally with NETs, if you can see it, you can detect it. Read more here.

Hereditary Conditions. Around 5-10% of NETs are hereditary in nature, mostly involving the MEN group of syndromes. Many of those people will know they are at risk of developing NETs and their doctors should know the most common locations for primary tumours associated with each gene. So a declared or suspected hereditary syndrome is useful in finding primary tumours if they exist and are proving difficult to find.

Biopsies. “Tissue is the issue”. Pathology can very often give really strong clues as to the type of NET and therefore the likely location of a primary tumour, for example additional tests such as immunostains. Many biopsies will come from secondary cancer (metastases), mostly the liver.  Despite all the potential diagnostic routes above, the place the cancer started is sometimes still not found and this may lead to atypical diagnostic/treatment plans and in certain cases this might even include exploratory biopsies via surgery (invasive/minimally invasive), perhaps combined with opportunistic tumour removal if found during the procedure.

Staging. Simple staging can be given if locations of metastases are known. For example in the case of Liver metastases, the stage is automatically Stage 4. However, the full staging definition relies on knowing distant metastases, loco-regional metastases and the full Tumour/Node/Metastases (TNM) definition (size, spread, etc) cannot be given without a primary. Read more here.

Cancers of Unknown Primary

Cancer is always named for the place where it started, called the primary site. Sometimes doctors can’t tell where a cancer may have started. When cancer is found in one or more places where it seems to have spread, but the site where it started is not known, it is called a cancer of unknown primary (CUP) or an occult primary cancer.

When you look at the ratio of all cancers, the figure for cancers of unknown primary (CUP) is quite startling. Depending on where you look the figure is around 2-10%. That doesn’t seem a lot but when you consider the amount of people diagnosed with cancer, the total figure must be staggering. Interestingly, Cancer Research UK say that 60% of CUP cases are in the over 75s. In another interesting Swedish study, doctors claimed that the rates of metastatic cases were higher with certain NETs than they were in their anatomical counterparts, reinforcing the dangerous and sneaky nature of NETs.

Despite quite advanced scanning and diagnostic testing currently in place, and the extensive knowledge of NET specialists, there can still be reasons for not being able to find the primary tumour:

  • The primary is just too small to be seen and is growing quite slow. Very small cancers might not cause symptoms or be seen on scans. This is a particularly relevant point with NETs.
  • The primary could be hidden in tissue in between different organs causing confusion about the actual primary location.
  • The body’s immune system killed the primary cancer. It’s also possible (but not common) that any secondary cancer (i.e. metastases) is still growing.
  • The tumour has become loose from its primary location and exited the body, e.g. from a wall of the bowel and excreted out in the stool.
  • The primary cancer was removed during surgery for another condition and doctors didn’t know cancer had formed. For example, a uterus with cancer may be removed during a hysterectomy to treat a serious infection.

Summary

I hope this is useful for many NET patients, particularly those who are looking for a diagnosis or looking for a primary tumour.

Neuroendocrine Cancer – at times, it can really be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Author: Ronny Allan

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2 thoughts on “Neuroendocrine Cancer: a needle in a haystack”

    1. This is a brilliant overview, Ronny. I’m between three-monthly CT scans as part of a surveillance regime (PNET primary, liver metastases, both ‘disappeared’ – for now) and your blog keeps me abreast of developments and progress in diagnostic tools and treatments.

      Thank you thank you

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