Neuroendocrine Cancer – the diarrhea jigsaw

NETCancer Diarrhea Jigsaw

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!

Define Diarrhea

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.

Diarrhea induced 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).

Diarrhea as a Consequence (Side effect) of Treatment for Neuroendocrine Cancer and Other Conditions

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 which may create additional issues with the digestive system including but not limited to; Malabsorption and SIBO.  I recommend you read my posts on Malabsorption and SIBO.

Surgery can often be the root cause of diarrhea.  A shorter gut for example, means shorter transit times presenting as increased frequency of bowel movements.  Another example is the lack of terminal ileum can induce Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption) in degrees of severity based on size of resection. Lack of a gallbladder (common with NETs) can also complicate.  Bile Acids are produced in the liver and have major roles in the absorption of lipids in the small intestine. Following a terminal ileum resection which includes a right hemicolectomy, there is a risk that excess Bile Acids will leak into the large intestine (colon) via the anastomosis (the new joint between small and large intestines).  This leakage can lead to increased motility, shortening the colonic transit time, and so producing watery diarrhea (or exacerbating an existing condition). Although this condition can be treated using bile acid sequestrants (i.e.  Questran), it can be difficult to pinpoint it as the cause.

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 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 the 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.

 

Treatment for Syndrome Induced Diarrhea 

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.

telotristat-etiprate-clinical-trial-serotonin-as-a-key-driver-of-carcinoid-syndrome

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!

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.

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.

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 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 steatorrhoea, 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.

enterade

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 NET Cancer. 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,
  • exercise,
  • 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!


In summary, I think it’s 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.

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

Of course, some people sometimes have the opposite effect but that’s in another blog here – Constipation

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

Ronny Allan is an award winning patient leader and advocate for Neuroendocrine Cancer.

 

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Neuroendocrine Cancer Nutrition Series Article 2 – Gastrointestinal Malabsorption

 

This is the second article in the Neuroendocrine Cancer Nutrition series. In  the first article, I focused on Vitamin and Mineral deficiency risks for patients and there is a big overlap with the subject of Gastrointestinal Malabsorption. Those who remember the content will have spotted the risks pertaining to the inability to absorb particular vitamins and minerals. This comes under the general heading of Malabsorption and in Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, this can be caused or exacerbated by one or more of a number of factors relating to their condition. It’s also worth pointing out that malabsorption issues can be caused by other reasons unrelated to NETs. Additionally, malabsorption and nutrient deficiency issues can form part of the presenting symptoms which eventually lead to a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer; e.g. in my own case, I was initially diagnosed with Iron Deficiency Anemia in association with some weight loss. Even after diagnosis, these issues still need to be carefully monitored as they can manifest as part of the consequences of having cancer and cancer treatment.

Malabsorption will present via several symptoms which may be similar to other issues (i.e. they could masquerade as, or appear to worsen the effect of a NET Syndrome). These symptoms may include (but are not limited to) tiredness/fatigue/lethargy, stomach cramps, diarrhea, steatorrhea (see below), weight loss. Some of these symptoms could be a direct result of nutrient deficiencies caused by the malabsorption.  Some patients (and perhaps physicians?) could mistake these for symptoms of Neuroendocrine disease including certain syndromes, perhaps leading to prescribing expensive and unnecessary drugs when a different (and cheaper) strategy might be better.

Crash Course……. We eat food, but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food, it absorbs nutrients.  Food has to be broken down from things like steak and broccoli into its nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other plant and animal compounds. Digestive enzymes, primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine (they’re also made in saliva glands and the stomach), break down our food into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them.  If we don’t have enough digestive enzymes, we can’t break down our food—which means even though we’re eating well, we aren’t absorbing all that good nutrition.

What is malabsorption?

The malabsorption associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer is most prevalent with the inability to digest fat properly which can lead to steatorrhea. Patients will recognise this in their stools. They may be floating, foul-smelling and greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Many patients confuse steatorrhea with diarrhea but technically it’s a different issue although both issues may present concurrently. Whilst we all need some fat in our diets (e.g. for energy), if a patient is not absorbing fat, it ends up being wasted in their stools and in addition to the steatorrhea, it can also potentially lead to (unwanted) weight loss and micronutrient deficiencies of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Certain water-soluble vitamins, particularly B3 and B12, are also at risk. Many NET Patients are prescribed a supplement of pancreatic enzymes to combat these issues – see Article 5 in this series – Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT).

What causes it with NET Patients?

Structural Changes (i.e. Surgery) 

This can play a very big part in malabsorption issues. For example, if a patient has undergone Pancreatic surgery, this will most likely effect the availability of pancreatic (digestive) enzymes needed to break down food. Many Small Intestine NET (SI NET) patients will suffer due to the removal of sections of their ileum, an area where absorption of water-soluble vitamins and other nutrients take place. In fact, the terminal ileum is really the only place where B12 is efficiently absorbed.  Low B12 is known to cause fatigue.  Some patients with Gastric tumours succumb to pernicious anemia with the most common cause being the loss of stomach cells that make intrinsic factor. Intrinsic factor helps the body absorb vitamin B12 in the intestine. Although a less common tumour location, jejunum surgery could result in loss of nutrients as this section of the small intestine is active in digestive processes. Malabsorption issues for SI NETs are an added complication to the issues caused by a shorter bowel (e.g. faster transit time), something which is regularly assumed to be the effects of one of the NET Syndromes (particularly diarrhea and fatigue), when in actual fact, it’s a simple consequence of cancer treatment and may need a different treatment regime.

Evidence of the problems being caused by the effects of small intestinal surgery can be found in a recently published Swedish study which you can read here: Click here. This particular study recommends supplementation of B12 and D3 for those affected.  If you’re having trouble getting your physician to monitor your vitamin levels, show them these studies. I get these vitamins checked annually.

The Gallbladder and Liver

The Gallbladder plays an important part in the digestive system – particularly in fat breakdown. The liver continually manufactures bile, which travels to the gallbladder where it is stored and concentrated. Bile helps to digest fat and the gallbladder automatically secretes a lot of bile into the small intestine after a fatty meal. However, when the gallbladder is removed, the storage of bile is no longer possible and to a certain extent, neither is the ‘on demand automation’. This results in the bile being constantly delivered/trickled into the small intestine making the digestion of fat less efficient. One of the key side effects of Somatostatin Analogues  (Octreotide and Lanreotide) is the formation of gall stones and many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients have their gallbladder removed to offset the risk of succumbing to these issues downstream. However, the removal of the gallbladder increases the risk of Bile Acid Malabsorption (BAM) as described below. Any issues with Bile Ducts can also have a similar effect.

The Liver has multiple functions including the production of bile as stated above. However, one of its key functions within the digestive system is to process the nutrients absorbed from the small intestine.  If this process is affected by disease, it can potentially worsen the issues outlined above.

Bile Acids Malabsorption

Another risk created by the lack of terminal ileum is Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption and some texts described the resultant diarrhea as ‘Bile Acid Diarrhea”). Bile Acids are produced in the liver and have major roles in the absorption of lipids in the small intestine. Following a terminal ileum resection which includes a right hemicolectomy, there is a risk that excess Bile Acids will leak into the large intestine (colon) via the anastomosis (the new joint between small and large intestines).  This leakage can lead to increased motility, shortening the colonic transit time, and so producing watery diarrhea (or exacerbating an existing condition).

Somatostatin Analogues

Somatostatin Analogues can also impact (or worsen) the ability to digest fat as they inhibit the production of pancreatic digestive enzymes (amongst other things). This is a well-known side effect of both Octreotide and Lanreotide. The levels of the fat-soluble vitamins (ADEK) and B vitamins such as B12, need to be monitored through testing and/or in reaction to symptoms of malabsorption.  If necessary these issues need to be offset with the use of supplements as directed by your dietician or doctor. Supplements are less affected by malabsorption of nutrients but their efficiency can be impacted by fast gut transit times (thus why testing is important).  The evidence and recommendations for malabsorption caused by somatostatin analogues is here: Click Here.  

Overlapping Areas

Deficiencies of these vitamins and certain minerals can lead to other conditions/comorbidities, some more serious than others. For a list of the vitamins and minerals most at risk for Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, have a read of my article which was co-authored by Tara Whyand – Vitamin and Mineral deficiency risks.

There is a third article in this series discussing a related issue with Neuroendocrine Cancer, particularly where gut surgery has been performed. You can link directly to this article here  – “Gut Health” – (Gut Health, Probiotics and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)).

The fourth article  looks at Amines and why they can cause food reactions or exacerbate syndromes.

Many people also confuse steatorrhea with diarrhea (although these issues can appear simultaneously), again leading to wrong conclusions about the causes and effects, and worryingly, the treatment required. Check out my diarrhea article – click here.

Article 5 in this series looks at how to combat malabsorption caused by pancreatic insufficiency – Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT).

My article ‘The Diarrhea Jigsaw’ is complementary to this nutrition series.

Summary

A common problem in patients and from what I see, many just assume this is part of their various syndromes leading to the wrong therapy or no therapy as it’s simply ignored. Again, I remain very grateful to Tara Whyand for some assistance.

This is a big and complex subject and I only intended to cover the basics.  Everyone is different and nothing in here should be accepted as medical advice for you or anyone you know.  If you need professional advice, you should speak to your doctor or registered dietitian.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. I’m also building up this site here: Ronny Allan

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Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

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