Neuroendocrine Tumours – benign vs malignant

Kunz His belief these tumors did not metastisize

OPINION:

One of the most controversial aspects of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) is the ‘benign vs malignant’ question.  It’s been widely debated and it frequently patrols the various patient forums and other social media platforms. It raises emotions and it triggers many responses ….. at least from those willing to engage in the conversation. At best, this issue can cause confusion, at worst, it might contradict what new patients have been told by their physicians (….or not been told). I don’t believe it’s an exact science and can be challenging for a NET specialist let alone a doctor who is not familiar with the disease.

NANETS Guidance talks about the ‘…heterogeneous clinical presentations and varying degrees of aggressiveness‘ and ‘…there are many aspects to the treatment of neuroendocrine tumours that remain unclear and controversial‘.  I’m sure the ‘benign vs malignant’ issue plays a part in these statements.

In another example, ENETS Guidance discusses (e.g.) Small Intestine Tumours (Si-NETs) stating that they ‘derive from serotonin-producing enterochromaffin cells. The biology of these tumors is different from other NENs of the digestive tract, characterized by a low proliferation rate [the vast majority are grade 1 (G1) and G2], they are often indolent’.  However, they then go on to say that ‘Si-NETs are often discovered at an advanced disease stage – regional disease (36%) and distant metastasis (48%) are present‘.  It follows that the term ‘indolent‘ does not mean they are not dangerous and can be ignored and written off as ‘benign’. This presents a huge challenge to physicians when deciding whether to cut or not to cut.

Definitions

To fully understand this issue, I studied some basic (but very widely accepted) definitions of cancer.  I also need to bring the ‘C’ word into the equation (Carcinoid), because the history of these tumours is frequently where a lot of the confusion lies.  The use of the out of date term ‘Carcinoid’ exacerbates the issue given that it decodes to ‘carcinoma like‘ which infers it is not a proper cancer.  See more below.

Let’s look at these definitions provided by the National Cancer Institute.  Please note I could have selected a number of organisations but in general, they all tend to agree with these definitions give or take a few words. These definitions help with understanding as there can be an associated ‘tumour’ vs ‘cancer’ debate too.

Cancer – Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues. There are more than 100 types of cancer which are usually named for the organs or tissues where the cancers form.  However, they also may be described by the type of cell that formed them.

Author’s note: The last sentence is important for Neuroendocrine Tumour awareness (i.e. Neuroendocrine Tumour of the Pancreas rather than Pancreatic Cancer).

Carcinoma – Carcinomas are the most common grouping of cancer types. They are formed by epithelial cells, which are the cells that cover the inside and outside surfaces of the body. There are many types of epithelial cells, which often have a column-like shape when viewed under a microscope.

Author’s note: By definition, Carcinomas are malignant, i.e. they are cancers. High Grade (Grade 3) poorly differentiated “NETs” are deemed to be a ‘Carcinoma’ according to the most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of Neuroendocrine Tumours (2017) and ENETS 2016 Guidance. You will have heard of some of the types of Carcinoma such as ‘Adenocarcinoma’ (incidentally, the term ‘Adeno’ simply means ‘gland’). It follows that Grade 3 Neuroendocrine Carcinomas are beyond the scope of this discussion.

Malignant – Cancerous. Malignant cells can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

Benign – Not cancerous. Benign tumors may grow larger but do not spread to other parts of the body.

Author’s Note: This is a key definition because there are people out there who think that low grade NETs are not cancer. 

Tumour (Tumor) – An abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumors may be benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous). Also called Neoplasm.

Author’s Note: Neoplasm is an interesting term as this is what is frequently used by ENETS and NANETS in their technical documentation, sometimes to cover all Neuroendocrine types of cancer (Tumor and Carcinoma). It follows that a malignant tumour is Cancer. The term “Malignant Neuroendocrine Tumour” is the same as saying “Neuroendocrine Cancer”

Neuroendocrine Tumours – Benign or Malignant?

Definitions out of the way, I have studied the ENETSUKINETS and NANETS guidance both of which are based on internationally recognised classification schemes (i.e. the World Health Organisation (WHO)).

In older versions of the WHO classification schemes (1980 and 2000), the words ‘benign’ and ‘uncertain behaviour’ were used for Grades 1 and 2. However, the 2010 edition, the classification is fundamentally different (as is the recent 2017 publication).  Firstly, it separated out grade and stage for the first time (stage would now be covered by internationally accepted staging systems such as TNM – Tumour, (Lymph) Nodes, Metastasis). Additionally, and this is key to the benign vs malignant discussion, the WHO 2010 classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential.  Here’s a quote from the UKINETS 2011 Guidelines (Ramage, Caplin, Meyer, Grossman, et al).

Tumours should be classified according to the WHO 2010 classification (Bosman FT, Carneiro F, Hruban RH, et al. WHO Classification of Tumours of the Digestive System. Lyon: IARC, 2010). This classification is fundamentally different from the WHO 2000 classification scheme, as it no longer combines stage related information with the two-tiered system of well and poorly differentiated NETs. The WHO 2010 classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential.

The guidance in 2017 WHO reinforces this statement to include endocrine organs, including the pancreas and adrenal glands.

The C Word (Carcinoid) – part of the problem?

History lesson – Carcinoid tumours were first identified as a specific, distinct type of growth in the mid-1800’s, and the name “karzinoide” was first applied in 1907 by German pathlogist Siegfried Oberndorfer in Europe in an attempt to designate these tumors as midway between carcinomas (cancers) and adenomas (benign tumors).

The word ‘Carcinoid’ originates from the term ‘Carcinoma-like’.  ‘CARCIN’ is a truncation of Carcinoma. ‘OID’ is a suffix used in medical parlance meaning ‘resembling’ or ‘like’.  This is why many people think that Carcinoid is not a proper cancer.

The situation is made even more confusing by those who use the term “Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine Tumors” inferring that it is a separate disease from the widely accepted and correct term ‘Neuroendocrine Tumor’ or Neuroendocrine Neoplasm.  A separate discussion on this subject can be found in this post here. I encourage you to stop using the term ‘Carcinoid’ which is just perpetuating the problem. 

Kunz His belief these tumors did not metastisize

How are NETs Classified?

If you read any NET support website it will normally begin by stating that Neuroendocrine Tumours constitute a heterogeneous group of tumours. This means they are a wide-ranging group of different types of tumours.  However, the latest WHO classification scheme uses the terms ‘Neuroendocrine Tumour’ for well differentiated Grade 1 (low-grade), Grade 2 (Intermediate Grade) and Grade 3 (High Grade) NET; and ‘Neuroendocrine Carcinoma’ for Grade 3 (High Grade) poorly differentiated tumours. They also use the term ‘Neoplasm’ to encompass all types of NET and NEC. So Grade 1 is a low-grade malignancy and so on (i.e any grade of NET is a malignant tumour).  You may benefit from reading my blog article on Staging and Grading of NETs as this is also a poorly understood area.

Can some Tumours be Benign?

By any accepted definition of cancer terms, a tumour can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).  This is correct for any cancer type. For example, the word is used in the 2016 version of Inter Science Institute publication on Neuroendocrine Tumors, a document I frequently reference in my blog.  For example, I’ve seen statements such as “These tumors are most commonly benign (90%)” in relation to Insulinoma (a type of Pancreatic NET or pNET). Ditto for Pheochromocytoma (an adrenal gland NET).  Adrenal and Pituitary ‘adenomas’ are by definition benign (adenoma is the benign version of Adenocarcinoma).  And I note that there is a ‘benign’ code option for every single NET listed in the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD) system.

The ‘BUT’ is this – all WHO classification systems are based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential.  The WHO 2017 classification update confirmed this thinking by adding endocrine organs including the pancreas and adrenal glands.

don't worry it's benign widescreen

Can Tumours be Malignant or become Malignant?

Using the definition above, if a tumour invades and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body, then it’s malignant (i.e  Cancer). However, there’s a reason why the WHO declared in 2010 that all NETs have malignant potential (as amplified in WHO 2017). It may not happen or it may happen slowly over time but as Dr Richard Warner says, “they don’t all fulfill their malignant potential, but they all have that possible outcome”.  Thus why ongoing surveillance is important after any diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Tumour of any grade or at any stage.  Dr Lowell Anthony, a NET Specialist from the University of Kentucky explains this much better than I can – CLICK HERE to hear his two-minute video clip.

Summary

This was a difficult piece of research. I do believe there are scenarios where NETs will be benign and probably never cause the person any real harm (e.g. many are found on autopsies). I  suspect this is the same for many cancers. However, based on the above text and the stories of people who have presented for a second time but with metastatic disease, use of the word ‘benign’ is probably best used with great care.

I would certainly (at least) raise an eyebrow if someone said to anyone with any NET tumour, “you don’t need any treatment or surveillance for a NET”; or “it has been cured and no further treatment or surveillance is required”.  Particularly if they are not a NET specialist or a recognised NET Centre.

Remember, I’m not a medical professional, so if you are in any doubt as to the status of your NET, you should discuss this directly with your specialist.  A good place to start is evidence of your Grade, Differentiation, Primary Site Location and Stage.

You may be interested in reading these associated posts:

Carcinoid vs Neuroendocrine

Neuroendocrine Neoplasms – Grading and Staging (WHO 2017)

Incurable vs Terminal

10 Questions for your doctor

Thanks for listening

Ronny

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If your Doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything!


Opinion:

One of the most discussed and debated Cancer issues is late diagnosis. Cyberspace is full of disturbing stories and many different cancers are involved. Some cancers are much more difficult to diagnose than others and this increases the need for more awareness and education campaigns.

Under-diagnosed or Under-reported?

Like many other Cancers, Neuroendocrine Cancer (known as Neuroendocrine Tumors or NETs) is one of a number of ‘difficult to diagnose’ conditions with some of its variants more difficult than others.  It’s a less common form of cancer but with a fast rising incidence rate, possibly the fastest rising incidence rate of all cancers. In fact, its fast rising incidence rate has been a positive in some ways, contributing to awareness and the introduction of new treatments. In some respects, the incidence rate increase is due to people knowing more about it (…… particularly medical staff), diagnostic tools have improved; and critically …….. the correct ICD codes are being applied by physicians to enable accurate cancer incidence data (although this is probably still far from being 100% accurate in favour of NETs). In short, it’s been under-diagnosed and under-reported for decades.

Consequently, it’s not as ‘rare’ as we have been consistently told.  For example, in UK, the latest figures from Public Health England indicate an annual incidence rate of 9/100,000 – to put that into perspective, one patient every 2 hours and above the rare threshold of 5/100,000. In USA, the latest SEER database figures indicate that the prevalence figure extrapolated to 2017 has accelerated beyond 200,000 (i.e. not rare). Eminent NET specialists in USA are saying it’s not rare and one centre is even suggesting there are 200,000 undiagnosed cases in that country, also adding that the autopsy rate of (so-called) ‘carcinoid‘ finds is four times higher than the documented diagnosis figure.

A review of autopsy cases in Australia found that 0.05% had undiagnosed Pheochromocytoma / Paraganglioma.  I’m sure I could find more if I kept researching ……..spoiler alert – it isn’t a rare cancer.  Even the results from the largest and latest data analysis are said to have understated the true figures.

SEER 2012 Underestimated

Is patient and patient advocate organisation reported data accurate?

Statistics indicate that many patients are initially diagnosed with something else and it occasionally takes some time to be formally diagnosed with NETs. However, it’s wrong to suggest this happens to most NET patients.  I’ve heard many stories from many people who have had a speedy diagnosis, even those where the cancer had advanced silently to a metastatic stage (I myself am in that category). Unfortunately these don’t tend to be mentioned a lot on social media and they don’t tend to be the people who complete questionnaires for NET patient surveys. Another oddity in survey data is that you can still see several specialists within a short period of time and have an excellent diagnostic experience – it’s the time that is important not the number of people you see in between. It’s also a myth to suggest that you only need to see one doctor to be diagnosed with any cancer.  The fourth person I saw officially told me I had cancer but the gap was only 2 months (half of that was my own procrastination). This happens with many cancers, NETs is not special in this regard.

The problem with some of the NET Cancer survey statistics is that the reach is nearly always drawn from a limited audience and therefore the data can be skewed, particularly when the target collection is in the main from patient forums or groups where the ratio of problematic diagnoses is high. Offering these patients a ‘platform’ disguised as a survey is like ‘situating the appreciation’. On certain forums, it can be like pushing at an open door. This is why I currently have little faith in NET patient surveys.  It’s a difficult area but we need a new model for capturing the whole spectrum of patient opinion. One positive statement from the recent SEER database study mentioned above…… the increase in incidence is partly due to earlier diagnosis. Clearly there’s more work to be done but it helps to dispel the myth that every NET patient was misdiagnosed for years. No medical corroboration is done, i.e. if a patient says they were misdiagosed, that doesn’t mean that’s an accurate statement from a medical perspective. I have it on good authority that some people who were diagnosed with IBS actually did have IBS, but it was masking the NET, the same is probably true for other symptoms/conditions.  PCP/GP guidelines for diagnosing IBS clearly need updating.

Sure, some people will be misdiagnosed and that is no different to many difficult to diagnose conditions. But to suggest this is the most common outcome is way off beam.  There are thousands of incidental diagnoses of NETs when checking for other issues – these don’t make good headlines though thus why we don’t hear much about it.  Only a very small percentage of NET patients are on forums so it’s not a good measure of how many people got a quick diagnosis vs the opposite.  Only a very small percentage of people are on the mailing lists for NET Advocate organisations, so in reaction to patient surveys put out by NET advocate organisations, who will also use patient forums to disseminate, neither are those a good measure of who got a quick diagnosis and the opposite.  Ergo, NET patients surveys are always wrong.

So how did I fare with my own diagnosis?  I’ve always thought myself luckier than many. I suspect the best I could have hoped for was diagnosis about 20 months prior to ‘D-Day in July 2010. My problem at the time was so vague that I could see myself there wasn’t much justification for expensive tests (i.e. scans). Moreover, by the time I got to see a specialist in 2008, the problem had settled and I was content. Even my second referral to specialists in May 2010 was random as I hadn’t initially intended to say I’d lost a ‘few pounds’ in weight whilst at a routine clinic. Fortunately, I had a pretty thorough and professional nurse who made me have a blood test ‘just to be sure’. My GP immediately referred me to a specialist. The referral specialist was pretty much on the ball. He was looking at a (then) 55-year-old fit and healthy looking male presenting with low haemoglobin – boom!  CT scans, ultrasounds, blood tests, the works – except he could not pin down the exact cancer type until I mentioned facial flushing. Eureka, he knew and correctly predicted the results of the forthcoming liver biopsy. It must be said that even if he didn’t know or hadn’t heard of Neuroendocrine Cancer, the biopsy was key to finding out but the scan was the trigger.  However, the damage was done and I now live with an incurable  metastatic cancer. And I believe the damage was done back at my first issue in 2008.  Despite this, I still feel lucky because I’m not dead. I do often wonder what would have happened had I not had that initial blood test. Check out this video of me explaining my diagnosis.

Luck plays a part, so does patient intransigence.  

Sometimes with Cancer, you need a bit of luck and I never really think of my diagnosis as late, just unlucky to begin with (not helped by my own indifference to illness) and then geographically lucky as the diagnostic ball starting rolling. It had silently metastasized and perhaps that’s just how the cookie crumbles with silent illnesses in the absence of a whole population screening programme.  I’m fairly certain future detection and screening will help find most cancers/conditions earlier as technology and science progresses – but we are not there yet.

I am contacted almost daily from someone who is experiencing flushing and diarrhea but they have not been diagnosed with NETs.  Many are quite up to date on the condition but lack any clinical evidence of NETs.  It’s not cancer is not really a diagnosis so I feel for these guys who just need a diagnosis of something.  If you are reading this and think you may have NETs, read this article where I offer you some advice.

You don’t actually need to be a NET specialist to trigger a diagnosis of a NET 

I was helped by three other things:

  • The nurse who sent me for a ‘just to be sure‘ blood test was not a NET expert but she was doing her job in a thorough manner and triggered my eventual diagnosis.
  • The GP was not a NET expert but he analysed the blood results, considered my healthy outlook; and then used his instincts and training to send me to a specialist (i.e. he was suspicious of ‘something’).
  • The investigating specialist was aware of NET Cancer but although he knew I had cancer, he was not suspecting NETs until I said I was having occasional flushing (something I hadn’t mentioned to the nurse or the GP).  But he was suspecting ‘something’ and in the end, he did detect something through scans and then confirmed it through a biopsy.

Should we expect every single doctor wherever they are, and whatever their experience, to be able to diagnose a NET at first visit?

If you don’t suspect it – you won’t detect it’ is a great NET cliché – but simply not practical to expect at primary care and IMHO almost impossible. There are 200 different cancer types and some have a bunch of sub-types.  And at primary care level, you can add another 10,000 non-cancer conditions. It’s impossible for anyone to know everything about every single condition, let alone every single cancer BUT ……. a referral for something else can very often be a trigger for a diagnosis of Cancer. In fact, I suspect this is a very frequent scenario which often fails to make the patient survey data. A picture of your insides is key, regardless of what your physician is suspecting.  If you can see it, you can normally detect it.

In short, you don’t really need to suspect NETs to detect it.  Awareness is really important but it needs to be realistic to be taken seriously. 

……if your Doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything! 

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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