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.
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.
Eight years ago today, I was sat in front of a secondary care consultant, his speciality was colorectal. I asked specifically for this consultant for two reasons, firstly, he carried out a colonoscopy some 20 months previously which turned out to be negative. Secondly, my GP had referred me to the iron deficiency anaemia clinic, and they wanted to do ….. a colonoscopy. I changed that plan because this “non-issue” was dragging on; quite frankly I wanted it to be resolved quickly, and I wanted it to be resolved in my favour – after all, I wasn’t actually ill!
Rewind two months, I had an incidental set of blood tests ordered by a nurse following a routine visit to my local medical centre (……. “I think I’ve lost a bit of weight”). My haemoglobin was low (even lower on repeat testing). The GP compared my results to someone in their eighties with malnutrition. In hindsight, I should have been alarmed by that statement but instead I went on holiday to Barbados. Apparently low haemoglobin is a sign of iron deficiency anaemia. I suspected it would pass, either my blood results would revert to normal naturally, or they would after a prescription for some pills. That’s what normally happens, isn’t it? I was so indifferent to the issue, I even delayed the blood tests by three weeks.
Back to 8th July 2010 ….I hadn’t really given him many clues but within minutes of chatting with the secondary care consultant (who was armed with the results of the negative colonoscopy test), he said “what are you doing this afternoon“. I had no hesitation in saying “whatever you want me to do“. I’m still not getting it as I saw this as a chance to get an all clear, get some pills, get back to normal. To cut a long story short, the results confirmed I had a metastatic cancer. If you can see it, you can detect it.
Following the scan results, I had a dozen other tests to narrow it down to Neuroendocrine Cancer (eventually confirmed by biopsy). During these 2 weeks of tests, I finally confessed for the first time that I had been experiencing facial flushing and intermittent diarrhea. In those days, I wasn’t really in tune with my body.
I had been sitting on a beach in Barbados sipping piña coladas with my wife and neither of us had any inkling that I had a serious life threatening illness and that it had been growing inside of me for some years. Slow but sneaky? You betcha. They did some damage too – check out my treatment summary here.
I remain thankful to all those involved in the triggering of my ‘incidental’ diagnosis. The Nurse who ordered the ‘just to be sure’ blood tests, the GP who immediately referred me to secondary care (increased my chances of being diagnosed with cancer), the secondary care specialist who was instrumental in getting to the bottom of the problem in double-quick time.
My intransigence, denial and withholding vital symptoms from the doctors didn’t really help – there’s a lesson for all there.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve said “make sure you get good surveillance and follow up”, I’d have a lot of pounds! Most Neuroendocrine Tumours are slow-growing and they can be difficult to diagnose due to their sneaky nature. Some can be just as sneaky beyond diagnosis though. The best way to combat that is through regular surveillance or ‘follow-up’. There are actually guidelines and recommendations for follow-up on the main NET specialist societies such as ENETS, NANETS and UKINETS. There’s others including in USA, the NCCN also have a set (and no surprises that the different organisation guidelines can often differ due to the healthcare systems in place). For more detailed or the latest guidelines content, you may need a login or in one instance (ENETS) a membership subscription.
The type and frequency of surveillance will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to; NET type, primary location, stage and grade. Worth also noting that these are guidelines and physicians will often take many factors into account in deciding on the frequency and content of follow up surveillance.
Let me also tell you that there isn’t really total common ground on exactly what that should be, although to be fair there’s much more agreement than disagreement. There’s even occasional mentions of “not enough data” to be able to say what the surveillance should be in certain scenarios – it’s not an exact science. So surveillance can be anything from monthly to recommended intervals such as 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 3 years and I’ve even read something which said “no specific follow-up strategy has been recommended” (e.g. ENETS “curative resection of an Appendiceal NET less than 1cm by simple appendectomy“). Often a patient will need to advocate to get the right attention. Knowing what the guidelines are for your situation is a good start.
So what sort of surveillance might be needed?
I think the definition of surveillance is actually wider than the guidelines infer. In addition to the planned follow-up surveillance, I also think there are checks that might be described as ‘opportunistic’. A simple example … if a nurse visits you at home, he or she might ask how things are. Similarly if you visit a GP/PCP, this could be an opportunity to assess the issue you are having against your medical history. Again, if you call your NET specialist or NET Specialist Nurse, this could be another opportunity to assess a problem, albeit over the phone. The other surveillance I would like to see more ‘formalised’ would be the surveillance of the consequences of cancer and it’s treatment – this is a huge unmet need in many cancers. Examples include (but are not limited to) the issues of vitamin & mineral deficiencies and gastrointestinal malabsorption.
However, the documented and objective surveillance methods are really important and can be very similar to those which were used to diagnose you. These are…..
Scanning is very important because the locations of tumours should already be documented and can therefore be tracked, or in the case of an unknown primary, continue to look. Scans are looking for tumours or suspicious objects and any progression of known tumour sites. There are different scans for different purposes and even for different parts of the body and NET type. Check out my article “If you can see it – you can detect it“ – click here. The Ga68 PET scan is becoming more available – click here.
Tumour Markers and Hormone Levels
You will have baseline test results which will be compared at each planned surveillance opportunities. Whilst there are common tests available, some types of NETs may need particular tests, especially if you have one or more of the NET Syndromes producing one or more of the offending hormones. These tests may even be required on an ad hoc basis if symptoms worsen. I have a fairly comprehensive article on this subject – click here. It’s also possible that a new biopsy might be necessary (perhaps following a scan) and this may even lead to a new grading on the basis that the score might turn out be higher than the baseline grade.
NETs are a heterogeneous group of malignancies so I guess some people have additional tests alongside their main tumour markers and hormone levels. I have the routine blood levels alongside my markers, that’s pretty standard I think. I also get my thyroid levels checked due to a lesion currently under watch and wait. Read about his here. Due to surgery and malabsorption issues, I also get regular vitamin checks, in particular B12 and D. Read here to see why this is important. As someone who was initially diagnosed with ‘Carcinoid Syndrome’ alongside my NET, I normally get an annual Echocardiogram to check for Carcinoid Heart Disease – they had removed that earlier this year from my surveillance but it’s now back as a precaution due to the discovery of some fibrosis growth in my retroperitoneal area. You may also be monitored for ‘at risk’ or comorbidity checks such as the thyroid.
Listen to your body
I also have a personal theory that patients are doing surveillance on a daily basis. For example, I actually maintain a diary briefly listing things such as sleeping patterns, what I’ve eaten, bathroom activity, weight, and some other stuff including particular comorbidities that might or might not be related (if not, then it’s also useful for any resulting GP/PCP appointment). That sounds like a lot of work but actually only takes me one minute each day. I’m really looking for patterns. If I think there is a pattern or a connection, I take this data to any appointment or contact the NET Nurse for advice or even just a sounding board. I can’t beat up my medical team for not spotting something where my input would have been important. I already learned that lesson prior to diagnosis.
A lot of people don’t like living in a surveillance society. Me? I’m perfectly happy about it – it will keep me alive longer. And if ‘Big Brother’ is a NET specialist, even better!
Always ask what your follow-up regime will be – this cancer can be SNEAKY.
Thanks for reading
You may also enjoy my article “10 Questions to ask your Doctor” – click here.
Since my diagnosis of incurable and metastatic neuroendocrine cancer in 2010, it’s really all been about me. I didn’t see the trauma coming, and my family has supported me throughout every single step. I really don’t want to be the focus of attention as that mantle was normally evenly distributed. However, there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to put you into the spotlight.
Facing an uncertain future with regular scans, injections, treatment, pills, examinations and blood tests has made me the center of attention, whether I like it or not. The focus is on me because these things are necessary to keep me alive for as long as possible and also because I live with the consequences of cancer and its treatment which provides further challenges. A good quality of life is not only a motivator for change, good planning and constant surveillance, but it’s also hard work and has an additional impact on the whole family. It means all activities including work, holidays, days out, social activities and, even the simple act of eating, might all need to be organized around me due to the vagaries of my condition. It will never stop, it will never end and it will always be about me!
This has gone on for seven years and counting. “Cancerversaries” are on the calendar alongside birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Tumor marker tests and scans are reviewed twice yearly so the relentless attention continues, often peaking at these test milestones and worrying moments in between. The detailed analysis of unusual pain or other disturbances are documented. The attention is on me.
Then, my wife finds a lump. The local doctor investigates and refers her for a mammogram. The mammogram check leads to an ultrasound which then leads to a biopsy of some fibrous tissue. We have a two-week wait before the all clear is given but the worry doesn’t immediately dissipate as another check was scheduled for three months (done, no issues). The following check 6 months after on 7 Aug 2018 is also no change. Hang on a minute … this is not about me!
I’m starting to realize it shouldn’t be all about me and it needn’t be all about me. It’s about other people, too. There is nothing in the rule book that allows cancer to be limited to a single family member. Cancer doesn’t really care how many in your household already have the disease – anyone is a target. It’s bad enough having one cancer patient in the house without another cropping up. One thing is for sure, when it comes to a cancer diagnosis in the family, I really want it to be all about me.
Postscript: Very excited to share my first article published in CURE magazine. This is a real story about recent events involving my own family. As a long-term cancer patient, it can seem like it’s always about ‘me’ and then something happens which changes that perception. It’s actually about others too, and always has been. If you want to talk about something similar in your life, please share with others in your comments below or message me.
This is the beginning of a new phase in my activities and another opportunity to spread awareness of Neuroendocrine Cancer to new audiences, something I promised I would do. I hope you will support my first contribution to an exciting organisation brand.
It would be great if you would take the time to read the article directly on the Cure site here, and any likes, comments and sharing would be appreciated.
An Endoscopy is a procedure where the inside of your body is examined using an instrument called an endoscope. This is a long, thin, flexible tube that has a light source and camera at one end. Images of the inside of your body are relayed to a television screen. Endoscopes can be inserted into the body through a natural opening, such as the mouth and down the throat, or through the bottom. The mouth route is more accurately called a Gastroscopy and the anal route is called a Colonoscopy (or a reduced version called a Sigmoidoscopy). An endoscope can also be inserted through a small cut (incision) made in the skin when keyhole surgery is being carried out.
During a routine 6 monthly check-up at the end of 2016, I mentioned to my Oncologist that I was experiencing what appeared to be very minor heartburn and that it was an unusual symptom for me. He called forward my annual Echocardiogramand also ordered up a Gastroscopy.
I received the Gastroscopy paperwork from the hospital for an appointment on 26 Jan 2017. It offered an option for sedation, either a throat spray to numb the area or a sedative where I would probably not know what was going on. My initial thought was the latter even though it meant a longer visit to the hospital with some other constraints. It also meant I would need to check the sedation to assess the risk of NET Crisis. However, having discussed this issue with the department nurse, I was persuaded to go for the throat spray – apparently 80% of people opt for this method. I just couldn’t resist the statistical challenge! There were many advantages to selecting this option including getting rid of the sedation risk, plus I could walk out of the hospital immediately after the 5 minute procedure. The sedation option meant that I would need to remain in the hospital for an extra hour to recover, not drive for 24 hours and be supervised by an adult for 12 hours.
My blood pressure was checked prior to the procedure and systolic was around 145, 10-20 points above my normal ‘cool as a cucumber’ figure. Clearly, despite my deceptively stoic façade, something was making my heart work faster!
I was really put at ease by all 4 people in the room, two nurses, an endoscopic expert and a technician. However, the procedure itself is not what I would call a ‘breeze’. The throat spray was disgusting and said to taste of rotten bananas but personally I thought it was more like rotten fish! For the first 60 seconds (total guess) I found myself wishing I had gone for the sedation but the next minute was better after I had stopped ‘gagging’ and was now breathing fairly normally. I found swallowing easy despite the tube and a nurse was also extracting excess saliva using a similar tool used in a dental procedure. I was also aware that my eyes were watering! The natural reaction of ‘gagging’ came back at least once but only for a second or two. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t scary at the time.
The procedure seemed to be in parts, he checked the oesophagus, pumped air into my stomach for a better view, sprayed some water (not sure why), took a peek in the duodenum which required an extra swallow from me, using another tool, he took a painless routine sample from the stomach lining to test for CLO (Helicobacter Pylori – a bacterium in the lining of the stomach that can cause peptic ulcers), extracted the air, and then the extraction of the endoscope out from the gastrointestinal tract. These endoscopes really are like swiss army knives!
The best bit was the extraction! The other best bit was when he told me there were no real issues. So it was all worth it in the end! If anyone wants a copy of my comprehensive and easy to read 6 page Gastroscopy guide, let me know.
The other main type of Endoscopy is the Colonoscopy which enters the gastrointestinal tract in the opposite direction. I’ve had actually both a Gastroscopy and Colonoscopy before in 2008 before I was diagnosed. I offered the mandatory request to do the endoscopy first if using the same scope 🙂 He’d heard it before! On this occasion I was fully sedated. One minute I was talking to the Gastroenterologist, then the next thing I remember was waking up, job done. Less stressful but more time intensive. That said, the preparation for the colonoscopy is no joke. You can read about this in my blog Colonoscopy Comedywhich also includes a light-hearted story about the preparation phase. If you need a laugh, this is really funny.
Although I have not had these, for completeness, I want to mention several associated procedures.
Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)
For patients who have, or who are suspected of having pancreatic disease, their doctor may recommend that they undergo a type of procedure called an endoscopic ultrasound, or more often known as EUS. An EUS is a type of endoscopic examination. The EUS is a scan rather than a camera but a camera attachment will be used at some point, perhaps to do additional checks on the way (endoscopic equipment is quite advanced and reminds me of Swiss army knives). It involves the insertion of a thin tube into the mouth and down into the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. At the tip of the tube is a small ultrasound probe that emits sound waves. These sound waves bounce off of the surrounding structures, such as the stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, and liver. These sound waves are then recaptured by the probe and converted into black and white images that are then interpreted by your doctor. Because the pancreas sits next to the stomach and small intestine, EUS allows the physician to get very detailed images of the pancreas. This procedure is typically performed in an outpatient setting, and usually takes between 20 and 45 minutes. One of the advantages of performing an EUS is that pancreatic biopsies can be obtained at the time of the examination. These biopsies, often referred to as FNA, or fine-needle aspiration, can allow for your physician to collect tissue samples which can later be analysed under a microscope. Special needles, designed to be used with the EUS scope, allow the physician to insert a small needle through the wall of the stomach or intestine directly into the pancreas. This video explains better: Click here.
ERCP is performed on an outpatient basis under sedation (rarely under general anesthesia). Using a “side-viewing” endoscope, called a duodenoscope, the duodenal “papilla”-(a mound-like structure that houses the opening of the common bile duct and the pancreatic duct)- is identified and manipulated. These areas can be examined and x-ray taken of the pancreatic duct, hepatic duct, common bile duct, duodenal papilla, and gallbladder.The endoscope is passed through the mouth and down into the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). A smaller tube (catheter) is then inserted through the endoscope into the bile and pancreatic ducts. A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts, and an x-ray is taken. Also called ERCP.
Capsule Endoscopy (camera pill)
Shortly after I was diagnosed, this was mentioned as an option for me as my diagnostic scans were just showing a “mass” and it wasnt 100% clear where my primary tumour was located. It didn’t happen in the end. Capsule Endoscopy involves swallowing a small capsule (the size of the large vitamin pill). The ‘cam-pill’ contains a colour camera, battery, light source and transmitter. The camera takes two pictures every second for eight hours, transmitting images to a data recorder about the size of a portable CD player that patients wear around the waist.
Capsule endoscopy assists in diagnosing gastrointestinal conditions in the small bowel such as: bleeding, malabsorption, chronic abdominal pain, and chronic diarrhoea. Once swallowed the camera moves naturally through the digestive tract. Approximately eight hours after ingesting the camera, patients return to the Endoscopy Unit where the recording device is removed by the nurse, the images are downloaded to a computer and evaluated. The Capsule is disposable and will be passed naturally in the bowel movement.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy is a procedure that is used to look inside the rectum (back passage) and lower part of your large bowel (descending colon) and so is like an abbreviated version of a colonoscopy.
Bronchoscopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to examine your trachea (windpipe), bronchi (branches of the airway) and some areas of the lung. A short thin flexible tube with a mini camera built into its tip, called a ‘bronchoscope’, is used for this procedure. The bronchoscope is usually passed through your mouth or nose, into your trachea and bronchi. The doctor can then get a clear view of your airways. During the procedure, the doctor may take samples of tissue (biopsy) or respiratory secretions for examination. Bronchoscopies can also be used for ablation purposes. You may be interested in this award-winning biopsy and ablation service offered by the Royal Free Hospital in London UK – Innovation at Royal Free – Lung Biopsy and Radio Frequency Ablation Service
Thanks for reading about how physicians can take the camera directly to the sites of suspected tumours!
I think most people have had a form of medical testing at some point in their life, i.e. the sampling and testing of blood, urine, saliva, stool or body tissue. In a nutshell, the medical staff are just measuring the content of a ‘substance’ and then taking a view whether this is normal or not based on pre-determined ranges. These tests are normally done as a physician’s reaction to symptom presentation or maintenance/surveillance of an existing diagnosed condition. Sometimes, abnormal results will lead to more specialist tests.
In cancer, these tests are frequently called ‘markers’. Most tumour markers are made by normal cells as well as by cancer cells; however, they are produced at much higher levels in cancerous conditions. These substances can be found in the blood, urine, stool, tumour tissue, or other tissues or bodily fluids of some patients with cancer. Most tumour markers are proteins. However, more recently, patterns of gene expression and changes to DNA have also begun to be used as tumour markers. Many different tumour markers have been characterized and are in clinical use. Some are associated with only one type of cancer, whereas others are associated with two or more cancer types. No “universal” tumour marker that can detect any type of cancer has been found.
There are some limitations to the use of tumor markers. Sometimes, noncancerous conditions can cause the levels of certain tumor markers to increase. In addition, not everyone with a particular type of cancer will have a higher level of a tumour marker associated with that cancer. Moreover, tumour markers have not been identified for every type of cancer. Tumour markers are not foolproof and other tests and checks are usually needed to learn more about a possible cancer or recurrence.
I’d also like to talk about a group of associated tests, in particular, hormone levels as these tests are really important to help determine the type of Neuroendocrine Tumour. NETs will sometimes oversecrete hormones and this can give clues to the type. The constraints mentioned above apply to hormone levels and other tests to a certain extent.
What this article will not cover
Routine Testing – the post will not cover routine blood tests (i.e. complete blood count etc). Although they may point to a problem, these tests do not necessarily indicate a particular type of NET without other supporting evidence.
Biopsy Testing – Technically, the Immunohistochemical ‘stains’ used in biopsy testing are tumour markers but I’ll not be discussing that today. I did cover the output of biopsies in my blog on NETs – Stages and Grades.
Genetic Testing. This is very specialised but you may find my Genetics and NETs article is of interest.
Sequencing of marker testing – diagnosis
The sequencing of marker testing may have been different for many patients. In my own experience, I had a biopsy and then the biochemical checks were carried out. So regardless of the results of my marker tests, I was to be diagnosed with NETs. Those with lengthy and difficult diagnostic phases will perhaps have had a different sequence with the biochemical markers providing evidence for further tests to formally diagnose. Markers alone will normally not be enough for a diagnosis but they do, however, feed into the treatment plan and provide a baseline at diagnosis and for tracking going forward.
Interpreting test results – International/National/Regional differences
The use of markers tends to be different on an international basis, e.g. specific marker tests can be developed in-country by independent labs. Testing can also vary in the same country as labs through the use of different commercially available ‘testing kits’.
Reference ranges are dependent on many factors, including patient age, gender, sample population, and test method, and numeric test results can have different meanings in different laboratories. The lab report containing your test results should include the relevant reference range for your test(s). Please consult your doctor or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range if you do not have the lab report.
Moreover, the ‘normal’ test range can vary from hospital to hospital, even within the same tests. I can only imagine that clinical staff have their own versions of risk thresholds when dealing with test results. Even when results are just above or below, individual physicians can take their own view in a subjective manner. Testing is best done at the same lab each time if possible.
There’s a great website called LabTestsOnlinewhich can describe each test. It’s peer-reviewed, non-commercial and patient-focused but just please note you should always refer to your own lab ‘normal ranges’ which will be printed on your test results. For these reasons, you will not find reference ranges for the majority of tests described on this web site. The link above will take you to the list of ‘country’ affiliated versions with specific information on a country basis.
Here’s some tips I always give people:
1 – Always try to get your own copy of results (preferably on paper) and track them yourself (I use a spreadsheet).
2 – When comparing results inside patient forums, always add the range and if possible, the unit of measurement (i.e. g/L, mmol/L, umol/L etc etc). Failure to do this can at best confuse, and at worst frighten patients. Compare apples with apples not with pears!
3 – Don’t get too excited about rises if the test is still inside the normal range – normal is normal!
4 – Don’t get too excited about rises taking you just outside of normal range – your doctors are looking for bigger spikes.
5. Don’t get too excited about a single test result, your doctors are looking for trends, a single test result is not much to go on.
Although some routine blood markers (complete blood count etc) are useful in NETs, it’s pretty much impossible to cover these in any general detail. I’m going to focus on tumor and hormone associated markers
There are many markers involved with NETs. Some do different jobs and some are just variants measuring the same thing (more or less efficiently). You may also see something called ‘gold standard’ in reference to NET Tumour markers. Although thinking is changing (more on this below) and can vary from country to country, it is generally accepted that Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are the gold standard markers for tumour bulk and tumour functionality respectively. These gold standard tests may not be applicable to every type of NET, particularly 5HIAA. I’m also aware that US doctors are reducing the dependency on CgA and using Pancreastatin instead (although many are measuring both).
NETs are known to be heterogeneous in nature (i.e. consisting of or composed of dissimilarelements;nothaving a uniformqualitythroughout). Whilst some markers can be used widely, it follows that there are many very specialist marker tests for individual types of NET. I think this applies to 3 broad categories of NETs: Tumours known to potentially oversecrete Serotonin and and perhaps others (mainly midgut), Pancreatic NETs (or pNETs) secreting various hormones by type; and other less common types and/or syndromes which might be considered by some to be even more complex than the former two and in some cases there are big overlaps.
Another interesting thing about NET markers is that an undiagnosed patient may undergo several specialist tests to eliminate the many possibilities that are being presented as vague and common symptoms. Sometimes this is necessary to eliminate or ‘home in’ on a tumour type or syndrome/hormone involved (it’s that jigsaw thing again!).
Markers too can be divided into broad categories, those measuring how much tumour is in your body and its growth potential and those measuring how functional (or not) those tumours are. The latter can probably be expanded to measure/assess excess hormone secretion and syndromes.
Certain tests can be anatomy related so to add context and to prevent big repetitive lists when using the terms ‘foregut’, ‘midgut’ and ‘hindgut’, you may find this graphic useful.
Markers for measuring Tumour bulk or load/growth prediction
Chromogranin (plasma/blood test)
Chromogranin is an acidic protein released along with catecholamines from chromaffin cells and nerve terminals. This statement alone might explain why it is a good marker to use with NETs. Depending on the test kit being used, you may see test results for Chromogranin A (CgA) and Chromogranin B (CgB) – the inclusion of CgB tends to be confined to Europe. There is also mention of Chromogranin C (CgC) in places but I’ve never heard of this being used in conjunction with NETs.
One of the disadvantages of CgA is that the results can be skewed by those taking Proton Pump Inhibitors(PPIs). Many NET patients are taking PPIs to treat GERD (….and Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome). In the long-term, this has the result of increasing gastrin levels which can lead to an increase of CgA in the blood including for some months after discontinuing. CgB is said not be as influenced by the use of PPI as CgA. In addition to the issue with PPIs, CgA levels may also be elevated in other illnesses including severe hypertension and renal insufficiency. CgB is also said to be more sensitive to Pheochromocytoma.
Elevated CgA is a constant and somewhat excitable discussion point on patient forums and not just because of the lack of unit of measurement use I discussed above. Some people get quite excited about a single test result. I refer to Dr Woltering et al (ISI Book) where it clearly states that changes in CgA levels of more than 25% over baseline are considered significant and a trend in serial CgA levels over time has been proven to be a useful predictor of tumour growth (i.e. a single test result with an insignificant rise may not be important on its own). Dr Woltering also gives good advice on marker tests when he says “normal is normal” (i.e. an increased result which is still in range is normal).
Here is a nice graphic explaining what else could be the cause of elevated CgA:
CgA appears to be a widely used tumour marker and is effective in most NETs (foregut, midgut and hindgut). It is also sensitive to Pheochromocytoma, particularly when correlated with a 131I-MIBG scan. Interestingly Chromogranin can also be used in the immunohistochemical staining of NET biopsy samples (along with other methods).
As for my own experience, my CgA was only elevated at diagnosis, remained elevated after intestinal surgery but returned to normal after liver surgery (indicating the effect of liver tumour bulk on results). It also spiked out of range when some growth in a distant left axillary node was reported in Jan 2012. Following a lymphadenectomy, it returned to normal again and has remained in range to this day. It has been a good predictor of tumour bulk for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.
In effect, this marker does the same job as CgA. Interestingly, Pancreastatin is actually a fragment of the CgA molecule. There have been many studies (mainly in the US) indicating this is a more efficient marker than CgA, and not only because it is not influenced by the use of PPI. It has also been suggested that it’s more sensitive than CgA and therefore capable of detecting early increases in tumour burden. It has also been suggested it can be an indication of tumour ‘activity’ (whatever that means). It is widely used in the US and some physicians will use it in preference to CgA (…..although from what I read, CgA also seems to be tested alongside). I’m starting to see this mentioned in the UK.
Neurokinin A (NKA)
This is not a well publicised test. However, it is something used in USA but I’d like to hear from others to validate its use elsewhere. In a nutshell, this test, which only applies to well differentiated midgut NETs, appears to have some prognostic indication. I discovered this test in the ISI NET Guidance and it’s backed up by a study authored by names such as Woltering, O’Dorisio, Vinik, et al. This is not a one-off test but one designed to be taken serially, i.e. a number of consecutive tests. These authors believe that NKA can also aid in the early identification of patients with more aggressive tumors, allowing for better clinical management of these patients. NKA is sometimes called Substance K.
Neuron-Specific Enolase (NSE)
In patients with suspected NET who have no clear elevations in the primary tumor markers used to diagnose these conditions, an elevated serum NSE level supports the clinical suspicion.
Markers for measuring Tumour functionality/hormone/peptide levels
So far, I’ve covered basic tumor markers which have a tumor bulk and/or prognostic indication. This section is a slightly more complex area and many more tests are involved. There’s often a correlation between CgA/Pancreastatin and these type of markers in many patients i.e. a serial high level of CgA might indicate a high level of tumour bulk and therefore increased production of a hormone in patients with a syndrome or oversecreting tumor. However, it frequently does not work out like that, particularly when dealing with non-functioning tumours.
The type of marker for this element of NET diagnosis and surveillance will vary depending on the type of NET and its location (to a certain extent). Like tumour bulk/growth, there might be different options or test variants on an international basis. There are too many to list here, so I’ll only cover the most common.
Serotonin Secreting Tumors
There are a few markers in use for measuring the functionality of this grouping of tumours. This tumour group has a tendency to secrete excess amounts of the hormone Serotoninalthough it differs depending on the area of the primary. For example, hindgut tumours tend to secret lower levels than foregut and midgut and therefore this test may present within range. Please also note there may be other hormones of note involved. The antiquated and misleading term ‘Carcinoid’ is sometimes used as a descriptor for these tumours and more and more NET scientific organisations and specialists are now avoiding use of this term.
5HIAA. 5HIAA is a metabolite of Serotonin thus why it’s a useful thing to measure to assess functionality in this grouping of tumours. 5HIAA is actually the ‘gold standard’ test for functioning serotonin secreting tumours. It’s a key measure of the effects of carcinoid syndrome and the risk of succumbing to carcinoid heart disease. However, there are two methods of testing: Urine and Plasma. The latter is mainly used in USA but other countries are now looking at implementing the plasma version (in fact I’m now tested in both at my local hospital in UK). The rather obvious key difference between the two is practicality. With the 24 hour urine, there are two key issues: 1. The logistics (i.e. lug the jug). 2. Fasting for up to 3 days prior to the test (4 if you count the day of the test). There are numerous variations on the fasting theme but most labs tend to say not to eat at least the following foods that contain high levels of serotonin producing amines: avocados, bananas, chocolate, kiwi fruit, pineapple, plums, tomatoes, and walnuts. Some lists contain additional items. With the plasma version, the fasting period is reduced to 8 hours. There are also medicinal limitations including drugs that can also alter 5-HIAA urine values, such as acetanilide, phenacetin, glyceryl guaiacolate (found in many cough syrups), methocarbamol, and reserpine. Drugs that can decrease urinary 5-HIAA levels include heparin, isoniazid, levodopa, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, methenamine, methyldopa, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants. Patients should talk to their doctor before decreasing or discontinuing any medications.
As for my own experience, my 5HIAA (urine) was elevated at diagnosis only returning to normal after removal of my primary and commencement of Lanreotide. It has been a good measure of tumour functionality for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.
Other tests for the tumour subgroup include but not limited to:
Serum Serotonin (5-HydroxyTryptamine; 5-HT). Firstly let’s deconflict between 5HIAA above and the serotonin (5-HT) blood test. 5HIAA is a metabolite of serotonin but the serotonin test is a measure of pure serotonin in the blood. Morning specimens are preferred and this is a fasting test (10-12 hours). There is always debate on forums about Serum Serotonin results. I have Dr Liu on record as saying “a high serotonin level measured in the blood in isolation really isn’t that dangerous. It’s the 5HIAA (a breakdown product of serotonin, which is easily measured in the blood and urine) that is considered to be more indicative of persistent elevated hormone. It’s this test that is most closely related to the carcinoid heart disease”.
Substance P. A substance associated with foregut and midgut tumours. It is a vasoactive protein that can cause wheezing, diarrhea, tachycardia, flushing
Histamines – Usually associated with foregut tumors. Appears to be involved in patchy rashes and flushing. The advice in the ISI NET book is no anti-histamine medication to be taken for 48 hours prior to blood draw.
Gastric NETs (Stomach)
Testing will be different depending on the Type:
Type 1 – Typical Low Grade, tends to be caused by atrophic gastritis.
Type 2 – Atypical Intermediate Grade and tends to be caused by gastrin secreting tumours. Type 2 normally needs a check for MEN1/Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome.
Type 3 – Tend to be larger and more aggressive tumours.
The key makers are CgA and Gastrin although Gastrin may not be elevated in Type 3. Gastrin ph is useful to differentiate between Type 1 and Type 2. 5HIAA can be considered but Carcinoid Syndrome is rare in Gastric NETs.
NETs of the Pancreas (pNETs)
pNETs can be very difficult to diagnose and not only because they share some presentational similarities to their exocrine counterparts. Some pNETs actually comprise tumours arising in the upper part of the duodenum (small intestine) close to the Pancreas. Moreover, more than half of pNETs are non-functional which increases the difficulty in suspecting and then finding the tumours. However, where there is clinical presentation or suspicion, these symptoms can lead to the appropriate testing to support the output of scans. The fasting gut profile mentioned above can be useful in identifying the offending hormones when the type of NET is not yet known.
Gut Hormones (Glucagon, Gastrin, VIP, Somatostatin, Pancreatic Polypeptide)
A gut hormone screen is used for the diagnosis of a variety of endocrine tumours of the pancreas area. Analysis includes gastrin, VIP, somatostatin, pancreatic polypeptide, and glucagon, but there may be others depending on processes used by your ordering specialist or hospital.
1. You may see this referred to as a ‘Fasting Gut Profile’ or a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile’.
2. The individual hormones measured seem to differ between hospital labs.
3. The fasting conditions also vary between hospitals and labs but all agree the conditions are critical to the most accurate results. Always ask for instructions if you’re offered this test.
The gastrin test is usually requested to help detect high levels of gastrin and stomach acid. It is used to help diagnose gastrin-producing tumours called gastrinomas, Zollinger-Ellison (ZE) syndrome, and hyperplasia of G-cells, specialised cells in the stomach that produce gastrin. It may be measured to screen for the presence of multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN) It may be used if a person has abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and recurrent peptic ulcers. A gastrin test may also be requested to look for recurrence of disease following surgical removal of a gastrinoma.
Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) measurement is required for diagnosis of pancreatic tumour or a ganglioneuroma which secretes VIP. Administration of VIP to animals causes hyperglycaemia, inhibition of gastric acid, secretion of pancreatic bicarbonate and of small intestinal juice, and a lowering of systemic blood pressure with skin flush. These features are seen in patients with a tumour of this type which is secreting VIP.
Glucagon is measured for preoperative diagnosis of a glucagon-producing tumour of the pancreas in patients with diabetes and a characteristic skin rash (necrolytic migratory erythema).
Pancreatic polypeptide (PP) production is most commonly associated with tumours producing vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and with carcinoid syndrome and, less commonly, with insulinomas and gastrinomas.
When secreted by endocrine tumours, somatostatin appears to produce symptoms similar to those seen on pharmacological administration, i.e. steatorrhoea, diabetes mellitus and gall stones.
There are several types of pNETs, each with their own syndrome or hormone issue. When they are suspected due to the presentational symptoms, the markers that could be used are listed below. These types of tumours are complex and can be related to one or more syndromes. A patient may be tested using multiple markers to include or exclude these. Depending on other factors, some physicians may recommend additional marker testing in addition to the most common types below.
Somatostatinoma – Somatostatin (plasma somatostatin like immunoreactivity)
PPoma – Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP)
Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma – Adrenaline-producing tumours. Plasma and urine catecholamines, plasma free total metanephrines, urine total metanephrines, vanillylmandelic acid (VMA)
Medullary Thyroid Cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) starts as a growth of abnormal cancer cells within the thyroid – the parafollicular C cells. In the hereditary form of medullary thyroid cancer (~20% of cases, often called Familial MTC or FMTC), the growth of these cells is due to a mutation in the RET gene which was inherited. This mutated gene may first produce a premalignant condition called C cell hyperplasia. The parafollicular C cells of the thyroid begin to have unregulated growth. In the inherited forms of medullary thyroid cancer, the growing C cells may form a bump or nodule in any portion of the thyroid gland. Unlike papillary and follicular thyroid cancers, which arise from thyroid hormone-producing cells, medullary thyroid cancer originates in the parafollicular cells (also called C cells) of the thyroid. These cancer cells make a different hormone called calcitonin, which has nothing to do with the control of metabolism in the way thyroid hormone does. The other test often seen in MTC is Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA). CEA is a protein that is usually found in the blood at a very low level but might rise in certain cancers, such as medullary thyroid cancer. There is no direct relationship between serum calcitonin levels and extent of medullary thyroid cancer. However, trending serum calcitonin and CEA levels can be a useful tool for doctors to consider in determining the pace of change of a patient’s medullary cancer.
[please note there are extremely rare occurrences of elevated calcitonin from places outside the thyroid – read more here.
Parathyroid– Parathyroid hormone (PTH), Serum Calcium. Parathyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted from four parathyroid glands, which are small glands in the neck, located behind the thyroid gland. Parathyroid hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, largely by increasing the levels when they are too low. A primary problem in the parathyroid glands, producing too much parathyroid hormone causes raised calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcaemia – primary hyperparathyroidism). You may also be offered an additional test called Parathyroid Hormone-Related Peptide (PTHrP). They would probably also measure Serum Calcium in combination with these type of tests. The parathyroid is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1 – see MEN below.
HPA AXIS – It’s important to note something called the HPA axis when discussing pituitary hormones as there is a natural and important connection and rhythm between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and the Adrenal glands.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It’s production is stimulated by receiving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the Hypothalamus. ACTH is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol (see below), levels of ACTH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ACTH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ACTH may be due to:
Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ACTH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ACTH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome). It is likely that a Cortisol test will also be ordered if Cushing’s is suspected.
This is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure. Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people who work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately. Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol oversecretion can be associated with Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma (ACC) which can sometimes be grouped within the NET family.
Other hormones related to ACC include:
Androgens (e.g. Testosterone) – increased facial and body hair, particularly females. Deepened voice in females.
Estrogen – early signs of puberty in children, enlarged breast tissue in males.
Aldosterone – weight gain, high blood pressure.
Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. For this reason, the disease is sometimes called chronic adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.
A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ACTH (also called ectopic ACTH). With NETs, this is normally a pNET, Lung/Bronchial NET or Pheochromocytoma.
Carcinoid Heart Disease(CHD) (Hedinger syndrome)I’m not really talking directly about a tumour here but thought it would be useful to include a blood test called NT-proBNP. I’ve left a link to my CHD article in the paragraph heading for those who wish to learn more about CHD in general. For those not offered an annual Echocardiogram or are ‘non-syndromic’ there is a screening test that can give an indication of any heart issue which might then need further checks.
The Future – Molecular Markers?
This is testing using DNA and genes. Exciting but complex – check out this article which involved some NETs.
Tumour Markers and Hormone levels – complex subject!
A team of radiologists and respiratory consultants who introduced a new and more efficient lung biopsy method at Barnet Hospital London, has been named the winner of the NHS Innovation Challenge Prize in the ‘cancer care’ category. Barnet Hospital is run by the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust which is well known for its Neuroendocrine Cancer Centre of Excellence.
Not happy with this, they’ve now gone on to introduce a new service combining this innovative biopsy system with Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA) of tumours in the same procedure.
Combined Biopsy with Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA)
This new service has significant advantages for those who have localised tumours less than 3cm and can’t for whatever reason have surgery. I’ve checked with Dr Hare and he confirms this includes Neuroendocrine Tumours of the Lung. There are a number of advantages for having this procedure:
1. Biopsy and RFA at same time to prevent patient having to have 2 procedures. Those who meet this criteria with an existing biopsy can go straight to RFA.
2. It’s a low risk, minimally invasive procedure.
3. As its under mild sedation rather than General Anaesthetic (GA) – patients go home later the same day – makes recovery time so much quicker.
4. RFAs can be repeated as many times as you want if tumour ever grows.
5. Lungs are preserved.
It’s also worth noting that RFA as a standalone treatment can be used on lung metastases. You can read more about this new service here.
Award winning ambulatory lung biopsy service
The team’s innovative ambulatory lung biopsy service enables the vast majority of patients to be discharged just 30 minutes after their biopsy. Dr Hare is a pioneer in UK lung biopsy technique and has improved patient experience using a shorter, less painful biopsy process with a higher diagnostic accuracy and less time spent in hospital. Dr Hare specialises in image-guided lung biopsy techniques having gained expertise in the procedure working in North America. Dr Hare’s innovative use of a Heimlich Valve Chest Drain (HVCD) allows more successful biopsy of small lung nodules which can potentially lead to earlier cancer diagnosis.
I spoke to Dr Hare via twitter and he confirmed this novel service is for any tumour in the lung (primary or metastasis) and he indicated they were “finding more and more are coming back as Neuroendocrine Tumours”.
You can read more about Dr Hare and his work here (www.lungdiagnosis) and this video explains it in excellent detail including the difference between conventional methods and this new ‘award winning’ way! Read more about the award on the Royal Free site here.
Congratulations to Dr Hare and the rest of the team for winning this award!
Thanks for reading
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I talk often about my diagnosis but not about an ‘incident’ which occurred almost immediately prior to being formally told.
I was well into the ‘diagnostic phase’, having had all sorts of tests including a liver biopsy. I vividly remember thinking these tests were a ‘nuisance’, I was far too busy and I didn’t even feel ill. In hindsight, I was fortunate to have had such a thorough bunch of physicians who diagnosed me with metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer in about 6 weeks ‘flash to bang’. I intentionally use a phrase associated with ‘quick’ because in the world of Neuroendocrine Cancer, 6 weeks is ‘warp speed’.
So why was I admitted to hospital during the diagnostic phase? Because I was stupid. In fact I was double-stupid. Firstly, despite having had to undergo a liver biopsy and a referral to an Oncologist, I was in a dismissive frame of mind and was blanking out any thought that I actually had cancer. I didn’t have time for it, I was far too busy. I’m in control! Secondly, despite being told to take it easy after the liver biopsy, I ignored that advice because I was far too busy getting on with a normal life. After all, this is just another test hurdle and I’ll get the all clear. Other people get Cancer but not me.
On the weekend following the liver biopsy, the family came round, so I decided to do normal things like lifting one of my grandsons up (as one does) and I prepared the BBQ which involved lifting a 13.5kg cannister of gas from the garage onto the patio. Why not? I didn’t have anything wrong with me and I didn’t even feel ill.
However, as that Saturday afternoon progressed so did the pain; and to the point that I knew I had to seek help. To cut a long story short, I was eventually admitted to hospital for what was to be diagnosed as a bleed on my liver at the biopsy site. Oh how the mighty fall.
On the positive side, I got another bunch of tests including scans as confirmation (….a second opinion from a different hospital). However, it was the wake-up call I needed to take it seriously. I was discharged on the Monday in time for my very first Oncology appointment with my wife Chris in attendance. For the first time, we were officially told I had Cancer – it was much more than just a ‘scare’. For me, the denial was over, indicating that I was never actually in control of what was happening to me.
Finally some food for thought …… In hindsight, I made the serious mistake of not talking to anyone about my denial and I suspect that led to me acting stupidly.
It really is OK to talk about Cancer
p.s. I’m now slightly mellower about Cancer 🙂 You might say I’m back in control?
It was 10th November 2010 just after midnight. I gradually woke up after a marathon 9 hoursurgery – the first of what was to be several visits to an operating theatre. The last thing I remembered before going ‘under’ was the voices of the surgical staff. When I woke up, I remember it being dark and I appeared to be constrained and pinned down by the dozen or so tubes going in and out of my weak and battered body. I can still remember the feeling today, it was like I was pinned to the bed and I was completely vulnerable and helpless. However, what I mainly remember was my wife Chris holding my hand which gave me a great deal of much-needed comfort and security.
The build up to this day began on 26 July 2010 when I was given the news that I had metastaticNeuroendocrine Tumours and that the prognosis without any treatment wasn’t too good making the decision to have treatment a lot easier. I told my Oncologist to ‘crack on’ with whatever treatment would be required.
However, it wasn’t that easy and as I was yet to find out, Neuroendocrine Cancer isn’t a simple disease. I first had to undergo a plethora of other tests including specialist scans, blood and urine tests. The specialist scans (crucially) confirmed my tumours were ‘avid’ to a something called a ‘somatostatin analogue’. The scan also confirmed I had more tumours than initially thought. This was key to working out my treatment plan as I now had a grading, staging and I had the right tumour ‘receptors’ to assist along the way.
When I initially presented in May 2010, I hadn’t realised for some months that I was showing symptoms of one of the Neuroendocrine Tumour syndromes (in my case carcinoid syndrome‘. This was mainly facial flushing but thinking back, there was some diarrheaalbeit infrequent. The subsequent specialist blood and urine tests (CgA and 5HIAA respectively) were way out of range confirming both the diagnosis of tumour bulk and tumour activity respectively. The tumour activity (or function) is one thing which makes NETs different from most cancers and is caused by excessive secretion of specific hormonesapplicable to the primary location of the tumour. Thus why I had to be established on a ‘somatostatin analogue’ which is designed to inhibit the excessive secretion. I self-injected Octreotide daily for 2 months until the flushing was under control. When Neuroendocrine Tumours cause carcinoid syndrome, there is a risk of a phenomenon known as ‘Carcinoid Crisis’. This is the immediate onset of debilitating and life-threatening symptoms that can be triggered by a number of events including anaesthesia. As an additional precaution to prevent such complications, I was admitted on the 8th November 2010 in order to have an ‘Octreotide soak’ (Octreotide on a drip) prior to the surgery on 9th November 2010.
As is normal for such procedures, I had therisksexplained to me. There seemed to be a lot of risks on the list and my surgeon, Mr Neil Pearce, carefully explained each one. Death was on the list but I was happy to hear he had a 100% record on his ‘table’. Trust is an extremely important word when you’re in this situation.
As a snub to cancer, I refused the offer of a wheelchair and chose to walk to the operating theatre at around 2.30pm. So together with my ‘drip fed’ Octreotide trolley and wearing my surgical stockings and gown (carefully fastened at the rear!), I wandered down to the operating theatre with my escorting nurse.
The 9-hour operation was designed to debulk what was described as “extensive intra-abdominal neuroendocrine disease”. The operation comprised the removal of 3 feet of small intestine at the terminal ileum plus a right hemicolectomy, a mesenteric root dissection taking out the nodes on the superior mesenteric artery and a mesenteric vein reconstruction. With the assistance of a vascular surgeon, my NET surgeon also dissected out a dense fibrotic retro-peritoneal reaction which had encircled my aorta and cava below the level of the superior mesenteric artery. Phew! Thank goodness I was asleep 🙂
In those days, I had no idea that 10th November was NET Cancer Day. Some 8 years later I not only celebrate the fact that I woke up on this date after my first major surgery but that I have also woken up to the idea and inspiration behind NET Cancer Day in terms of an awareness window of opportunity.
However, on the basis that you can never have enough awareness windows, for me EVERY DAY IS NET CANCER DAY and via my own social media channels, I’m making sure everyone knows!
Thanks for listening
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