NANETS (North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society) is one of the biggest NET conferences, bringing together NET Specialists from around the world to discuss state-of-the-art treatment modalities, new therapies, and ongoing controversies in the field of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (Tumors and Carcinomas). This is fairly complex stuff but much of it will be familiar to many. I’ve filtered out several outputs from the conference which I think are both relevant and topical to patients. The list is below allowing you to easily peruse and read further via linkages if you need to read more. Remember, some of these are extracts so do not contain all the details of the research or study – although some of the linkages will take you to in-depth information if that’s your bag. Where applicable, I’ve also linked to some of my blog posts to add context and detail in patient speak. The list comprises articles which were published in medical news media and for which I received alerts. It does not comprise the entire schedule of NANETS 2017. I may add more to the list if other relevant and interesting articles are published downstream.
Please note: Some of the output from the conference is in ‘study form’ and has not yet been published as peer-reviewed data (important notice to readers).
NANETS to Bring All Specialties in the NETs Community Together for 10th Annual Symposium
Interview with Michael Soulen MD. Nice introduction.
PFS and OS After Salvage Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT) with 177-Lu[Dota⁰,Tyr³] octreotate in Patients with GastroEnteroPancreatic or Bronchial NeuroEndocrine Tumours (GEP-NETs) – The Rotterdam Cohort
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, my health was in reasonable condition. I had minor irritants that seemed to come back now and then, nothing that was going to kill me. So I just put up with most of it and time was frequently a good healer. Occasionally, I would use medicine to speed up the healing or ask a doctor for advice. Even leading up to my diagnosis, this was my strategy despite some strange things going on. Luckily for me, the ‘system’ picked up something suspicious and I am where I am today. It’s amazing to think a cancer can grow inside you for years causing a lot of damage but without a grand announcement.
Following diagnosis, I got quite a lot of attention in the first 2 or 3 years as I went through various surgical and other types of treatment, and I eventually earned the accolade of ‘stable’. Not cured, not in remission, not totally free of disease, just ‘stable‘. I guess I’m one of millions of people who now have a condition to live with for the rest of their life.
I may be stable but I still need support and surveillance!
But I haven’t really been left alone, I have meetings with my specialists every 6 months plus routine surveillance testing. I have my GP (PCP) on tap via same day appointments. Thankfully, my tumours are slow growers and the biochemistry results that check their growth and function have been normal for some years now. I also have my specialists’ telephone numbers in the event of an emergency. The other great thing is that I’m lucky to have a direct line to a specialist Neuroendocrine Cancer Nurse for routine stuff. So I can sit back and relax, right? ……… Sounds good but not really the whole story.
I’m in tune with my body
I can honestly say I’ve never been more in tune with my body – there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to force you into a change of attitude. Not just about how you look after your body but learning how to read the signs and assess risk. However, the difficult area with this disease is that many of the side effects of treatment can mimic the symptoms of a recurrence or further spread and vice versa. And sometimes there can be no rhyme or rhythm (or logic) when patients experience these things. I once wrote about the “Neuroendocrine Cancer Jigsaw” where patients had pieces called Signs, Symptoms, Side Effects, Secondary Illnesses, Syndromes, Comorbidities and Coincidences. I also include the proverbial ‘missing piece’ as part of the jigsaw! However, I do think the ‘missing piece’ can sometimes be a metaphor for an instantly contactable NET expert or even some experience and education by the patient or a trusted advocate.
Sorting out the symptoms
The comorbidity and coincidence pieces were belated add-ons to the list because sometimes it not all about the cancer – even cancer patients get regular diseases and ailments. The difficulty is working out if there is a connection or not. Take my 2017 issue of back/hip/leg pain for example. I analysed all the timings in my diary (…top tip, keep a diary), there were no common connections to any particular occurrence or activity for all occurrences of the pain. I got some pain killers and decided to tough it out. After 14 days, I got fed up and saw my GP (PCP). I also ran it past my NET Specialist Nurse for assurance. After 22 days, I was still doing pain killers, waiting on a physiotherapy appointment; and doing back exercises at home. Why is my back pain suddenly a lot worse? My Calcium and Vitamin D are checked regularly and everything is in range. I’ve been receiving somatostatin analogues for over 6 years, so that might be a factor. I also reminded myself I’m no longer 21 (so did my NET Nurse!). Three months later, after seeing a physiotherapist, things improved. However, I would be lying if it didn’t cross my mind that the problem could be bone metastasis. I studied the symptoms of bone metastasis and concluded that I have none of those other than the pain. I analysed my recent scan which said there were “no bony lesions”. I also registered the fact that my biochemistry results are rather good and have been for 6 years.
And then there were the 3 episodes of constipation where the possibility of a bowel obstruction floated around in my thoughts. However, time was once again a healer (along with some quick advice from my specialist NET Nurse!).
A couple of years ago, I thought I felt a lump on my right clavicle by the sternum. However, an MRI later dismissed it as nothing. Due to a piece of metal in my body, to be honest I was more scared about the MRI than the potential lump!
I always remember a great quote from Dr Eric Liu “Even NET Patients get regular illnesses“. He’s right. But it’s also right that people living with a long-term cancer can live in perpetual fear of a worsening state of health or a recurrence of the cancer. For the incidents I highlighted above, the fear that these things were related to cancer growth or recurrence did go through my mind.
Fear can actually be a side effect of cancer
I think all those living with cancer need to be alert and be proactive via education and communication with their medical team and GP (PCP). However, stopping yourself thinking that anything wrong with your body is somehow connected to the cancer, perhaps needs a different approach, particularly if you have a higher than average risk for recurrence. Fear of cancer relapse or recurrence, is said to be associated with poor quality of life, greater distress, lack of planning for the future, and greater healthcare utilisation. However, if you do suffer from this type of fear, you’re not alone. A recent study stated that 50 percent of all cancer survivors have moderate to high, or clinically significant, fear of cancer relapse, which could persist over the whole trajectory of their illness. Younger patients might have a bigger challenge on their hands as their future is uncertain. Patients with young children have an additional concern, that’s another fear area and a very difficult and tough one.
Psychological problems – another unmet need? Probably.
Conquering fear is difficult and no one size fits all. However, in the most general terms I would suggest the following 8 tips:
Accept your diagnosis – you have cancer, it has the potential to change your life, you most likely need to make adjustments. But this is not to say you also accept that improvements cannot be made and things will not get better …. because they can. This is particularly important for those with incurable cancers needing treatment for the foreseeable future. I accepted my situation very early on and I think that has been helpful in the long-term. Prognostic detail is a worrying thought and a difficult one. However, no-one really knows for sure. After 8 years with an incurable metastatic cancer, I’m still here and continue to be heartened by comments such as these here (click here).
Accept that your road will probably not be straight and smooth. There will be bumps and bends and you will need to deal with them as and when they arise. Don’t try to second guess what the bumps and bends might be and then worry in case they happen. No-one really knows for sure and they might not happen.
Identify your triggers – what is it that is triggering your thoughts? For me it’s more physical things like the lump, constipation and back pain. Other triggers for some might simply be an anniversary of a diagnosis or a treatment etc (or both), or an upcoming treatment. Think about how you can get past these obstacles. For example, on ‘cancerversaries’, plan to be doing something that’ll take your mind of it. For physical things including upcoming treatment, it’s all about what I said above, education, risk management and communication with your medical team ….. put yourself in control. I also have great sympathy for younger patients and those with young dependent children. I can’t put myself in their shoes and all I can suggest is that these tips are still relevant in some way.
Talk about it. Family, friends, other patients, your medical team. I don’t’ have any issues talking about it – writing posts in my blog is also really therapeutic for me (even this one!) and I hope others appreciate it too. Patient forums can be frighteningly good but …. be careful, many can also be good at frightening and stressful.
Social Media and the Internet. Although talking about your cancer can be a stress reliever, clearly social media can actually be fraught with danger. As I said above, patient forums can be frighteningly good but also good at frightening. You can extend this issue to the entire internet, which is full of false claims of internet cures spreading false hope, out of date prognostic data causing unnecessary fear and anxiety. Pick your social media and internet sites carefully, fake news, incorrect healthcare news, and bad advice is very easy to find.
Focus on Wellness. This is a huge area and it’s pretty much up to you to resolve. Yes, some willpower is involved and it includes both physical and mental wellness. For me I try to do exercise when I can (mostly walking) and I try to make sure I get 8 hours sleep (this is a fairly recent tactic which is really helping with fatigue). With diet, I try to avoid anything that greatly exacerbates the side effects of my treatment. Travelling, family and visiting places with fantastic views is most definitely a tonic for me (and that normally means exercise to get there). Anything that makes you relaxed!
Be patient. Fear of your condition taking a downwards movement will probably never completely go away but perhaps as I said above, time is a healer. It took me over 3 years to become more relaxed about my own future.
If all the above doesn’t work, perhaps professional counselling is required? There are specialists who work with cancer patients to help them accept that fear of recurrence/relapse is a normal part of the cancer experience. They can help you develop strategies to cope with your fears and move forward with your life.
If you think your psychological issues are unmanageable, I strongly encourage you to talk with your doctor or a counsellor. In fact, you may appreciate this excellent videofrom NET Patient Foundation presented by Kym Winter, a qualified Psychotherapist and Counsellor – click here.
I also liked this videoby Dr Michael Burke, a Psychiatric Oncologist – click here
Remember …….. “Googling your symptoms when you’re ill can sometimes be the most efficient way to convince yourself you’re dying”. Anon
I spend a lot of time talking about the most common forms of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), but what about the less well-known types? As part of my commitment to all types of NETs, I’d like to shine a light on two less common tumour types known as Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas – incidence rate approximately 8 per million per year. They are normally grouped together and the definitions below will confirm why. If you think it’s difficult to diagnose a mainstream NET, this particular sub-type is a real challenge.
So, let’s get definitions out of the way:
Pheochromocytomas (Pheo for short)
Pheochromocytomas are tumours of the adrenal gland that produce excess adrenaline. They arise from the central portion of the adrenal gland, which is called the adrenal medulla (the remainder of the gland is known as the cortex which performs a different role and can be associated with a different tumour type). The adrenal medulla is responsible for the normal production of adrenaline, which our body requires to help maintain blood pressure and to help cope with stressful situations. The adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys (i.e. there are two). Adrenaline is also called ‘epinephrine’ which is curiously one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome.
Paragangliomas (Para for short)
Paragangliomas are tumours that grow in cells of the ‘peripheral’ nervous system (i.e. the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). Like Pheochromocytomas, they can release excess adrenaline. There can be confusion between the two types of tumour as Paragangliomas are often described as extra-adrenal Pheochromocytomas (i.e. a Pheo external to the adrenal gland).
Going forward, I’m going to talk about both using the single term of ‘Pheochromocytoma’ in the context of an adrenaline secreting tumour but may refer to Paraganglioma where there might be a difference other than anatomical location.
Pheochromocytomas are often referred to as the “ten percent tumour” because as a rule of thumb they do many things about ten percent of the time. However, these figures are slowly changing, so this label is gradually becoming less apparent. The following is a fairly exhaustive list of these characteristics:
A few facts about Pheochromocytomas
As much as 1 in 3 are Malignant but most have undetermined biologic potential. A recent document issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that “Paragangliomas should not be termed benign”.
Around 10% of Pheochromocytomas are Bilateral (i.e. found in both adrenal glands: 90% arise in just one of the two adrenal glands)
Around 10% are Extra-Adrenal (found within nervous tissue outside of the adrenal glands … i.e. 10% are Paragangliomas)
Around 10% are found in Children (i.e. 90% in adults)
Up to 30% are Familial potentially rising to 50% for metastatic cases and Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) involvement.
The recurrence rate is around 16%, i.e. about 1 in 6 patients have a tumor that comes back after surgery. Tumors that come back also have the potential to be malignant. If you have pheo or para and have surgery to remove it, be sure to continue to check in with your doctor to monitor for any returning tumors.
Present with a stroke (10% of these tumours are found after the patient has a stroke)
The classic symptoms of Pheochromocytomas are those attributable to excess adrenaline production. Often these patients will have recurring episodes of sweating, headache, and a feeling of high anxiety.
Headaches (severe)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Excess sweating (generalized)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Racing heart (tachycardia and palpitations)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Anxiety and nervousness
Nervous shaking (tremors)
Pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
Nausea (with or without vomiting)
According to the ISI Book on NETs (Woltering, Vinik, O’Dorisio, et al), Pheochromocytomas present with a classic triad of symptoms and signs: headache, palpitations and sweating. This symptom complex has a high specificity and sensitivity (>90%) for the diagnosis of Pheochromocytomas. The figure is much lower in individual symptom presentations (palpitations 50%, sweating 30%, headaches 20%). In addition to correctly diagnosing from these symptoms, Pheochromocytomas may also be found incidentally during a surgical procedure even after a diagnosis of an ‘adrenal incidentaloma’
Markers. Like serotoninsecreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions). It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines. This test is designed to measure production of the different types of adrenaline compounds that the adrenal glands make. Since the body gets rid of these hormones in the urine, we simply collect a patient’s urine for 24 hours to determine if they are over-produced. Like 5HIAA, there is also a plasma (blood draw) version of the test. According to the ISI Book on NETs, there is also an additional test called ‘Vanillylmandelic Acid (VMA). This reference also indicates the most sensitive test is plasma free total metanephrines. Also read more here.
Genetics. The familial connection with Pheo/Para is complex. Up to 13 genes have been identified including NF1, RET, VHL, SDHA, SDHB, SDHC, SDHD, SDHAF2(SDH5), TMEM127, MAXm EPAS1, FH, MDH2. Read more here (very recent update)
Scans. Other than the usual range of scanners, ultrasound, CT/MRI, all of which may be used to find evidence of something, the other scan of note is called MIBG. This is a nuclear scan similar in concept to the Octreotide Scan given to many NET patients (in fact some Pheo patients my get an Octreotide scan if they have somatostatin receptors). The key differences with MIBG is the liquid radioactive material mix which is called iodine-123-meta-iodobenzylguanidine or 131-meta-iodobenzylguanidine (this is where the acronym MIBG originates). Together with the markers above, the results will drive treatment. Depending on availability, the latest PET scans may also be available potentially offering greater detail and accuracy i.e. 18F-FDOPA, 18F-FDG and Ga68. Read more on scans here.
This statement and diagram was provided by Dr Mark Lewis who is an Oncologist and MEN patient. “The algorithm for working up a hyperadrenergic state is attached (and was developed by Dr. Young at Mayo Clinic). It outlines the most reliable testing for a pheo or Paraganglioma”
Additional Factors and Considerations
This is an awareness post so I’m not covering treatment options in any detail except to say that surgery if often used to remove as much tumour as possible. Somatostatin Analogues may also be used in certain scenarios in addition to other hormone suppression or symptom controlling drugs. That said, Pheo/Para patients may be interested in a PRRT trial exclusively for Pheo/Para – read more here (see section entitled – “What about Pheo/Para”)
The adrenal cortex mentioned above is actually the site for Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC) – this is a totally different cancer.
Pheochromocytomas are probably difficult to diagnose (you only have to look at the symptoms to see that). The differential diagnoses (i.e. potential misdiagnoses) are: hyperthyroidism, hypoglycaemia, mastocytosis, carcinoid syndrome, menopause, heart failure, arrhythmias, migraine, epilepsy, porphyria lead poisoning, panic attacks and fictitious disorders such as the use of cocaine and benzedrine.
Many Pheochromocytoma patients will also be affected by Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN), in particular MEN2 (there are some wide-ranging percentage figures online for this aspect). There can also be an association with Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome and lesscommonly with Neurofibromatosis type 1.
Given the nature of the hormones involved with Pheochromocytomas, there is a risk of intraoperative hypertensive crises. This is similar in some ways to Carcinoid Crisis but needs careful consideration by those involved in any invasive procedure.
Newly Approved Drug – AZEDRA
On 30th July 2018, Progenics Pharmaceuticals Announces FDA Approval for AZEDRA® (iobenguane I 131) to Treat Unresectable, Locally Advanced or Metastatic Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma – read more by clicking here.
Pheochromocytomas are very complex involving many of the challenges found in the more abundant and common types of NETs. To underscore this statement, please see this case studywhere one patient was misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems for 13 years before being correctly diagnosed with a metastatic Pheochromocytoma.
This is an extremely basic overview offered as an awareness message about the lesser known types of NETs. I refer you to my disclaimer. If you wish to learn more about Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas, check out the links below.
I’d never heard of Serotonin until I was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer in 2010. It is frequently discussed, often with contrasting views from the respondents. One common assumption/question is that it is responsible for many things that can go wrong with Neuroendocrine Cancer patients who have serotonin-producing tumours. “It’s the hormones” is an easy assumption to make or an easy answer to give in response to a complex set of circumstances. It’s difficult to get a definitive answer and the science behind the behaviour of our hormones isn’t really 100% tied down.
You may see serotonin referred to as a ‘neurotransmitter’, a ‘chemical’ and a ‘hormone’ – this is complex but it is my understanding that it can add context in respect the role/location of the serotonin, e.g. chemical and hormone are essentially synonymous and are endocrine related whereas neurotransmitter is concerned with the nervous system (the neuro in neuroendocrine) and the brain (more on this below). Consequently, I’ll keep this as basic as I can (author’s note on completion – it was not easy!).
Serotonin and NETs
One thing which is widely accepted and agreed…… Serotonin is definitely involved in Neuroendocrine Tumours, in particular, those resulting in carcinoid syndrome which can manifest as a number of symptoms including but not limited to flushing and diarrhea. Although serotonin is one of the main ‘hormones’ released in excess by certain NETs (mainly midgut), it is not thought to be the main culprit behind some of the symptoms produced by Carcinoid Syndrome. For example, flushing, the most common symptom (and a cardinal one) is thought to be caused by a number of hormones/peptides – too many to list but the main ones are histamine (particularly foregut), tachykinins (Substance P), bradykinins, prostaglandins …….. and I’m sure serotonin’s in there too! It does, however, appear to be massively guilty in causing carcinoid syndrome diarrhoea, desmoplasia, and carcinoid heart issues.
Where does Serotonin come from?
Serotonin’s technical name is 5-hydroxyltryptamine (5-HT). It is converted from 5-Hydrotryptophan (5-HTP) which is also known as oxitriptan. 5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and chemical precursor as well as a metabolic intermediate in the biosynthesis of serotonin (…..and melatonin) from tryptophan. Tryptophan is interesting as that brings in one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw – food! Tryptophan cannot be manufactured in the body, it must be brought in via diet. There is no serotonin in food, it is only manufactured in the body.
Tryptophan in food enters the body and serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process which combines tryptophan (essentially a protein) with tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor. I suspect other substances might be involved in that process. There are two forms of tryptophan hydroxylase – TPH1 and TPH2, which are encoded on two independent genes. TPH1 is linked to peripheral serotonin while TPH2 is related to brain serotonin.
While serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, tryptophan can, and almost all of it is converted to serotonin. Just to emphasise that NET dietitians do not say to avoid foods containing tryptophan other than at the time of marker testing (see below andnutrition Blog 4).
The introduction of Somatostatin analogues (SSAs) such as Octreotide and Lanreotide, help reduce the secretion of “tumour-derived serotonin” by binding to its receptors on the outside of the cell. If you ever wondered why receptors are important, please check out my blog on this subject (click here).
I mentioned tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH) above and that is actually very interesting as this is how Telotristat Ethyl (XERMELO) is able to help with the symptoms of Carcinoid Syndrome diarrhea (not adequately controlled by SSAs) or where patients are unable to be treated by somatostatin analogues for whatever reason. It’s a potent inhibitor of TPH which will disrupt the manufacturing of tumour-derived serotonin. There is also evidence that it can help reduce the effects or halt the growth of the fibrosis leading to carcinoid heart disease. Slight digression but useful to aid/enhance understanding at this point. Read about Telotristat Ethyl here.
Serotonin and the Brain
There is constant discussion and assumption that serotonin-producing tumours are somehow causing depression, anxiety and rage. If you think about the role of serotonin, to my simple way of thinking, there doesn’t appear to be any concrete evidence to back up this suspicion. Certain NETs can overproduce serotonin in the gut but the issues concerning depression and anxiety are normally associated with low levels of serotonin in the brain.
“Cancer anger” is a normal response to fear, despair and grief – a range of feelings which cancer brings into our lives. It can show as frustration, irritability, emotional withdrawal or aggression. You can feel it whether you have been diagnosed or you are a relative or friend. Cancer anger can happen at any stage of the illness, even years after treatment.
I know many people with cancer who suffer from depression, anxiety and rage but they do not have serotonin-producing tumours. What they do have is a life threatening and/or life changing condition which is bound to have an effect on mind as well as body. Serotonin is a natural substance found in the body and not just there to service NETs. If you didn’t have any, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed according to one of my ‘favs’ Dr Gene Woltering.
Serotonin is separately manufactured in the brain (~10%) and in the gastrointestinal tract (~90%). The serotonin in the brain must be manufactured in the brain, it cannot be directly increased or reduced external to the brain, i.e. it cannot be directly reinforced by gut serotonin (peripheral serotonin). It follows that ‘brain serotonin’ and ‘gut serotonin’ are held in separate stores, they are manufactured in those stores and remain in those stores – there is no cross-pollination. This is managed by something called the blood-brain-barrier (BBB). Therefore, excess serotonin from NETs does not infiltrate the brain. As low-level of ‘brain serotonin’ is often linked to depression, it also follows that it’s possible to have high levels of serotonin in the gut but low levels in the brain.
My simple way of thinking about such things as outlined above, is that low levels of tryptophan in the brain might be contributing to low levels of serotonin in the brain.
Measuring Serotonin levels
Measuring levels of serotonin is important in both diagnosis and management of certain NETs – although it’s probably sensible to test all potential NET patients during diagnosis when the type of tumour is not yet known. Testing for tumour markers will differ between countries and within countries but the most common standard for testing Serotonin appears to be 5-HIAA (5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid) either via a 24-hour urine test or via a plasma version (mainly used in USA but now creeping into UK). 5-HIAA is the output (metabolite) of 5-HT (Serotonin). Not to be confused with the less reliable ‘serum serotonin’ which is a different test.
Another frequently asked question about serotonin tests is whether they are testing the amount in the brain or the gut. The answer is …… they are testing the levels in the blood. Furthermore, if you are measuring serotonin as an indicator for Carcinoid Syndrome, it has to be remembered that the majority of serotonin is in the gut, so even if serotonin levels in the brain were being measured alongside the gut levels, I don’t believe it would influence the result in any significant way (but I have no science to back that up). It also has to be remembered that serum serotonin and 5HIAA are not absolute tests, they are not 100% sensitive, they are simply indicators of a potential problem. There are methods of measuring brain serotonin but it is very complex and beyond the purposes of this article. However, I would just add that it is the reuptake of Serotonin in the brain (plus some other stuff) that can cause depression, not the actual level or amount in the brain.
I intentionally did not mention the other common test (Chromogranin A) or other markers as they are measuring different things but you can read about in my Testing for Markers blog.
When I was diagnosed, I was happy with my own research and kept away from forums on the advice of a fellow patient who said they can be negative. Just before my second major operation in 2011, I decided to take the plunge and registered with an online web forum (not a Facebook one). Looking back to that period, I wasn’t really a major player, more of a ‘lurker’. I found it quite ‘cliquey’ and I should have listened to the initial advice of that fellow patient! So I left it.
In 2013, I joined several large Facebook closed groups which function as forums. After 4 years, I felt more experienced and knowledgeable and I wanted to learn more about the disease to help with my blog activity.
I really was not prepared for what I found in these groups. It seemed many people were in a much worse condition than me (I now know this to be incorrect) and I was shocked by some of the things I read (and saw) and I considered leaving pretty sharpish – quite frankly, the content of these forums was stressing me out!
Remember, forums don’t represent the whole NET Patient population
It suddenly became obvious to me that the actual ratios found on forum sites do not equate on the outside, i.e. even on the bigger forums of 2000+ this is not a good representation of the NET patient community when you consider there must be well over 500,000 patients worldwide. For example, on forums, it often appears that everyone has some form of ‘syndrome‘ when in actual fact the ratios are much much lower. If you agree with the logic above, this forum ratio of patients is a particularly relevant point for new forum members who, upon joining, will suddenly find that every symptom in existence seems to be continuously (and repeatedly) associated with the disease, causing further distress. If you think about it, on a forum, more people are likely to say “yes I have that problem” than “no I don’t have that problem” in response to any question. Regardless of how bizarre or outlandish the question is, someone will nearly always respond saying they also have that issue ……. cue epidemic. This can unfortunately make it seem more prevalent than it actually is. Perhaps more patients should say “no, not me” to prevent these frequent perceptions and misunderstandings.
Diagnosing the Undiagnosed
There are also many ‘undiagnosed‘ people on forums searching for clues for their long-standing illnesses. This isn’t surprising as Neuroendocrine Cancers are notoriously misdiagnosed as routine ailments, in some cases for years. I guess the ‘power of the internet’ leads these people to forums. These cases tend to come and go and you can almost sense the frustration of those who believe they have NETs but are not yet medically diagnosed with any illness. I really feel for someone with any illness that cannot be pinned down. I feel helpless that I’m unable to wave a magic wand. However, I can’t help feeling that some might be convincing themselves they have Neuroendocrine Cancer by what they read, or perhaps have even been nudged (further) into this belief by their well-meaning audiences who, like me, are simply trying to help? Only my opinion.
Be prepared for different opinions
If you want a very wide-ranging set of opinions on very basic NET information – join a forum. Nothing is a myth, everything is possible, even the seemingly impossible. Much of this misinformation starts on forums, tne spreads to other forums and the anecdotal takes over from fact. As difficult as it may seem, moderators and experienced/knowledgeable members need to correct blatantly incorrect statements to maintain group integrity and educational aims (where applicable).
Be prepared for fake healthcare news, celebrity fad diets, miracles cures
Social media including patient forums is a targeted medium for those who wish to spread fake, unscientifically proven, believable and solicited news and articles, in many cases to sell a product, i.e. a book, a video, a celebrity diet or product. Some of this information may result in harm to some patients. Very often, administrators of forums lack the knowledge and initiative to prevent these posts making it to their communities. In many cases, this (mis)information will be shared by another patient or family member who may just be well-meaning but has fallen for the trap set by the purveyor of this clap-trap. This can lead to great upset or fear for those already in a delicate state. Check out my 3 articles on the subject:
A much discussed topic and sometimes not for the very squeamish. I’ve seen some unusual pictures on forums but the worst by far was one of someone’s faeces. I struggled to understand why anyone would post that – moreover, I was amazed the site administrators allowed it. No thank you!
Be prepared for religious conversations
There is a lot of spiritual and religious content on certain forum sites. I’m not a religious person but I totally respect that many people are. However, on some forums, there can be a very heavy religious and spiritual message presence. This may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, particularly if it consistently overrides the main aims of the group.
Be prepared for strange behaviours
One of the most hideous aspects of forums is the appearance of ‘on-line bullying’ or arguments which happen now and then. Be prepared to see disagreements and many ‘one to ones’ or ‘one to manys’. However, definition is important here. Cliques of core users can appear overpowering particularly when someone disagrees with one of the ‘clique’. All this is going to do is to drive people away and make people more reluctant to ask or answer a question for fear of upsetting someone or being ridiculed. The vast majority of forums I’ve experienced, have little or no moderation and inadequate or untimely policing. A well-administered site will deal with it quickly and have round the clock moderation given the international nature of many forums. Administrators need to stamp on this sort of behaviour when it happens and not 48 hours after the event. I once left a forum after very politely suggesting a different opinion to the ‘reigning clique’ which resulted in a coordinated and personal tirade against me (i.e. online bullying). The posts were removed, indicating the administrators agreed with my complaint. My advice is not to join an unmoderated forum, and if you see this type of issue and sense they are not being resolved, you should consider leaving that forum to prevent unnecessary stress. In another but different example of bullying, I was blocked from one US site without notice or reason and to this day I have never found out why, despite trying very hard (…..although I suspect ‘politics’).
Be prepared for masses of ‘tat’
Another area which puts me off most NET forums is the masses of ‘memes’, pictures, quotes, miracle ‘snake oil’ cures/medical myths and stuff you see plastered all over the internet – these things are the ‘junk mail/spam’ equivalent on Facebook and some can also be a security problem. I’m very surprised the administrators allow so many of them as they clog up the timeline making it easy to miss an important post and they can present security risks for those who click on them. I get enough of this on my personal Facebook – no thanks!
Be prepared for masses of black and white striped stuff
I don’t do zebras, I’d rather talk with people and the things that actually matter to those people. I therefore find myself strongly objecting to being described as a ‘Zebra’ and part of a ‘herd’. As soon as I sense a ‘zebra infested’ site, I’m off straight away. The NET community sometimes appears so infatuated by this aged, out of date, and misleading analogy, that it denies the correct level of support to those who are asking for help. For example, side by side, a post (say) where someone is asking about side effects of a treatment or how to improve quality of life, or someone just asking for help, is likely to get much less views/likes/comments than a picture of a Zebra or something with stripes …… quite simply, that is not right and is why I won’t allow it in my own group.
The strange thing is that in contextual terms, the zebra represents the disease, so when someone says “I am a zebra”, this is in effect saying “I am a disease” or when they say “Dear Zebras” they are saying “Dear Diseases” or my pet hate, the cringeworthy “Dear Fellow Diseases”. The problem is that the NET community has become “too cute” with the term and it now lacks any ‘kerb appeal’ to the outside world (who should be the key recipients of awareness messages). It’s really holding back NET Cancer external awareness and is a PR disaster area. Even NET specialists are denouncing this infatuation, with one saying “we’re beyond that now”.
I have my own strategy for spreading awareness which seems to be well received and more understandable to EXTERNAL audiences and many NET patients. Moreover, my awareness strategy covers a much bigger spectrum than offered by the narrow and blinkered diagnostic messages inferred by this aged, totally useless and often misquoted equine analogy. I say Let’s stop dehumanising NET patients.
I’ve recently cut down my membership of groups, not only because they were not a good fit for me but because forums were actually stressing me out, mostly due to all the issues outlined above. So, I’ve left most groups, remaining in those which fit my requirements. I advise you to do similar if you value your sanity.
Are forums ‘frighteningly good’?
There can be a lot of positive outputs from many forums and to be truthful, I have learned a lot and made some online friends too. I’m sure the forums are very useful for some people who are able to prioritise and filter to take what they want from the sites. Some people also use them as a lifeline due to a lack of support in their local area. In that respect, they are frighteningly good.
Are forums good at ‘frightening’?
Yes, they can be good at frightening for those already in an anxious or delicate state or who want to discuss issues in a slow, deliberate and non-confrontational manner without being inundated with tat, myths, abuse, etc as per above. I like to help people but for the first couple of months after joining forums in 2013, I found myself feeling totally helpless with the sheer number and range of problems. Unfortunately, well-meaning people give totally different and dangerously conflicting answers, even to simple questions. I was also deeply concerned that ‘miracle cures’ which I knew to be internet myths were not challenged by the group administrators.
I ended up very frustrated even though I learned to prioritise and filter – I just felt bad that the questioner was getting no answer (50 different answers is no answer) or the fundamentally wrong answer. It also infuriates me to see a pathetic response to a cry for help right next to 100 likes for someone’s zebra coloured fingernails.
I now receive dozens of messages/emails every week but I find myself increasingly hesitant to recommend people I don’t know too much about to certain forums. Don’t get me wrong, I think some forum sites do a great job but they can be pretty frightening places for the unwary (and on occasion…. the wary!).
Thanks for reading
Please note, since writing this article, I have established my own group and my aim is to minimise the issues above as much as possible in order to focus on education with a supporting slant. You can join my group by answering 2 simple questions. Click here
It’s that time again, every 6 months I need some checks. I’ve done the specialist blood test (Chromogranin A – CgA) and the 24 hour urine (5HIAA) and am waiting on my CT scan appointment. It’s also time for my annual Echocardiogram. I then see my Consultant and he delivers the news. Happy days 🙂
I positively look forward to my tests and I cannot wait to get into that scanner! ‘Scanxiety’ isn’t in my dictionary. Why? Because testing is one thing that’s going to keep me alive for as long as possible. If I don’t get regularly tested, then one day I might just ‘keel over’ because something wasn’t spotted early enough. Even in the event of ‘not so good news’, I still see that as a positive because it means the testing is working and an investigation or further testing can be put into place to find the problem – and the sooner the better. Where’s that scanner, get me in it!
One of the most common posts on NET Cancer forum sites is to express personal concerns or worries about upcoming appointments or waiting on the test results. Thinking back to my own countless appointments either for testing, treatment or for receiving results, I appear to be consistently pragmatic in my approach.
The test results will be what the test results will be. Worrying about them is not going to change them!
Bring it on!
You may enjoy my article “Living with Neuroendocrine Cancer – 7 tips for conquering fear”. Read here
Whenever I need to know anything nowadays, I mostly just look on the internet and sometimes I ask my virtual PA ‘Alexa’ to look for me! However, you need to be very careful in acceptance of what is credible information and what isn’t.
As a relatively experienced health blogger and activist, I like to think of myself as ‘internet savvy’, so I occasionally find myself using ‘Dr Google’ to diagnose my aches, pains and unusual feelings (and I confess to using it to help others). I mostly find there are no real or definitive answers online for patient issues. Although I seem to learn something on each piece of research, I also find some really worrying stuff. Some symptoms can have dozens of reasons and I often realise how difficult it can often be for a doctor faced with unusual, vague and nonsensical symptoms!
On a recent online symptom check for lower left abdominal spasms, I discovered I was pregnant with an alien baby!
The internet is really powerful but also really dangerous. For example if you look up “best treatment for cancer”, you have an astonishing 300 million offerings. Right there with rigorous, evidence-based sites, there are those offering fermented foods and DIY cancer cure kits (e.g. fake healthcare news and cancer myths). Worried patients sometimes need help to distinguish between sensible advice and fanciful claims/ miracle cures.
When I combine my own experience with what I read on patient forums, I can see that internet searching is not for the faint of heart. Some people are already in a state of anxiety before they started searching Dr Google’s archives, and what they find has probably made their anxiety worse. In fact, the rise of the internet has created a new term for those who worry themselves sick and continually misdiagnose symptoms on the internet – ‘Cyberchondriac’.
Even when we know ‘googling’ our symptoms won’t end well, we don’t seem to care, we just need answers! Searching authoritative sites is therefore really important and the availability of proper medical information online is actually putting more power in the hands of patients. It’s how we as patients exploit it that is really important. Just as you can find examples of ‘cyberchondria’ online, you can also find examples of patient power in a doctor’s office. Worryingly, you can also find examples of ‘Dr Google’ being right after being dismissed by real doctors, sometimes resulting in patient illness or even death.
The medical community need to accept that searching for more information is a natural patient instinct, not a slight against one’s doctor. The profession will have to get better at educating the next generation of doctors now that Dr Google is here to stay and, I think, to help. That said, I don’t believe the internet will ever replace the profound human dimension of the doctor-patient relationship.
Tips for online searching:
1. Don’t actually use internet search engines if you can help it, go to a reputable site and then search that. For NETs try RonnyAllan.NET
2. Try to be specific as possible because vague search terms will result in frightening answers, and in practice any symptom can be read as a sign for nearly every single horrible illness, or a worsening or recurrence of an existing condition.
3. Less common conditions are less common, and minor symptoms often resolve themselves in time. If you have more worrying symptoms, or if your symptoms are changing or progressing, then go ‘offline’ i.e. visit your GP or primary care facility. If you’re sure of your facts, be assertive until you’re convinced otherwise. However, accept that the internet may be wrong when you seek medical help.
5. If you’re someone with an already diagnosed serious illness, theworry that goes with that is quite understandable – check out my 8 tips article. However, the same tips apply although you may now have established your own specific sources of advice in addition the general health areas.
6. Charities and associations for specific conditions are also a good information source but just note they may not have the best or up to date simply because they have been granted a ‘charity’ or equivalent status, so be careful, I’ve been some complete rubbish on these sites. Patient forums can be ‘frighteningly good’ but they can also be ‘good at frightening’. Personally, I try not to compare myself to strangers on the internet.
OK, the lead graphic is slightly ‘tongue in cheek’ but for those who are very anxious, it’s a reality. I can see from my own group that many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients have become very adept at searching online – useful because many still need a lot of help.
Be careful out there it’s dangerous. I have a private group for patients and caregivers where I like to ‘keep it real’. Check it out here.