Neuroendocrine Cancer is one of a number of “difficult to diagnose” conditions. Many types of Neuroendocrine Cancer come with an associated syndrome and these syndromes can mimic everyday illnesses. In some cases, many people don’t feel ill while the tumours grow. Most types of this cancer are slow-growing but there are also aggressive versions. Although things appear to be improving in diagnostic terms, it can sometimes take years for someone to be finally diagnosed correctly and get treatment, albeit in some cases, too late for any hope of a curative scenario. It’s a very sneaky type of cancer and if left too long it can be life threatening – CLICK HERE to find out why.
The road to a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer is often not straight or easy to navigate. It’s not only a sneaky type of cancer but it’s also very complex. It’s a heterogeneous group of malignancies with a varied and confusing histology and nomenclature to match. As I said above, many people are asymptomatic for years whilst the tumor grows and some might say that it’s somewhat ‘lucky’ to have symptoms to help aid a diagnosis. Many find that a lack of knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer in primary care, doesn’t always produce results. Common misdiagnoses include (but not limited to), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other common digestive diseases, menopause, appendicitis, hypertension, gastritis, asthma. Neuroendocrine Cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed at secondary care if a referral for ‘something’ can be achieved.
……..cue internet searches (Dr Google)
I think the rise and the power of the internet and rise of social media applications is very much helping generate awareness and knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer and those looking for a diagnosis may find help in this way. I suspect this instant access to information has played its part in the diagnostic improvements I mentioned above. Take my own efforts for example, I’m a wee Scottish guy with a computer and I’m already accelerating towards a million blog views – there’s clearly a market for what I produce. In terms of those looking for a diagnosis, if only one gets an earlier diagnosis due to my site, I’ll be happy.
Unfortunately, the internet can often be a minefield and in many cases, can lead to quite unnecessary worry for those looking for a solution.
I’m contacted almost daily by the ‘undiagnosed’ who suspect they have Neuroendocrine Cancer, often because they appear to be displaying the symptoms of one of the associated syndromes. These are some of my most difficult questions. I’m always very wary of initially agreeing with their assumptions and logic, instead opting for straightforward detective work based on my knowledge of the different types of Neuroendocrine Cancer, knowledge of the best scans, tumour markers, hormone markers. And I always warn them that statistically, they are more likely to have a common condition than the less common Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Many have already had multiple doctor’s appointments and tests. If they have not yet had a scan, I encourage them to try to get one ‘by hook or by crook’. Despite what you read on patient forums and surveys, the vast majority of Neuroendocrine diagnoses will be triggered by a conventional imaging such as CT and/or MRI. If you can see it, you can detect it.
When I first chat with the ‘undiagnosed’, I find many of them are fairly knowledgeable about Neuroendocrine Cancer and other health conditions, again confirming the power of the internet and the savvy ‘internet patient’. This is fine if you look in the right places of course – for certain things there are more wrong places on the internet than right ones.
If I have time, I’m happy to chat with these people, some are very frustrated – in fact some are so frustrated that they just want a diagnosis of something even if that something is really bad. However, what do you say to someone who is utterly convinced they have Neuroendocrine Cancer but CT/MRI/Octreoscan/Ga68 PET are all clear, Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are in range but they still say they have diarrhea with its potential for literally thousands of differential diagnoses. It’s a tough gig.
My scan came back normal. That should be good news. But, if there is no tumor, how can I be suffering from all the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome? Is that diagnosis wrong? Are the urine and blood test results wrong? I’m awaiting a MRI scan to take another look to see if the doctor can find anything. I don’t know what they’ll find. I don’t want them to find anything. But I’m afraid of what will happen if they don’t.
I always let the undiagnosed know that Neuroendocrine Cancer patients are some of the most friendliest and helpful people you can meet, they will treat you as one of their own. There will be a number of diagnosed people online who have gone through what the undiagnosed are going through, so they will both sympathise and emphasise. But … this can often have the adverse effect of pushing them into believing they must have Neuroendocrine Cancer. This makes for interesting discussions given the number of people who automatically assume that ‘flushing’ or ‘diarrhea’ (as described by the undiagnosed) must be Neuroendocrine Cancer without any reference to the many differential diagnoses and the context of what that actually means in Neuroendocrine Cancer terms.
10 Questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those Diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer (and where to find a specialist)
I once wrote an article for DIAGNOSED NET Patients suggesting 10 Questions to ask their doctor. So I wanted to take a step back in context, using the knowledge I now have, and put myself in the shoes of someone who thinks they may have Neuroendocrine Cancer but is not yet diagnosed.
Key questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those trying to confirm or discount Neuroendocrine Cancer
Dear undiagnosed people. I totally understand your fear. There’s nothing worse than being ill and not knowing what illness you have. I’ve therefore compiled a list of 3 key questions for you to ask – think of it as a tick list of things to ask your doctor to do or check . I have linked several background articles for you to prepare your case. However, I cannot promise your doctor will agree or take any action, in fact some might be annoyed about the lack of trust. However, doing your homework really helps, including diaries and other evidence.
I also wouldn’t say that a negative to all the questions will mean you definitely do not have Neuroendocrine Cancer but at least these questions might provide your doctor and yourself with some food for thought, perhaps leading to the diagnosis of ‘something’. The questions below assume that routine blood tests have been done, including Full Blood Count, Liver, Renal, Bone, Glucose.
Questions for the UNDIAGNOSED to ask their treating physician
“I think I might have a type of cancer known as Neuroendocrine Cancer or Neuroendocrine Tumours (NET) because <<< insert your own story>>>. Would you please consider the following tests and checks:”
1. Chromogranin A (CgA) is a marker which is quite sensitive for Neuroendocrine Tumours, essentially measuring tumour bulk potentially indicating the presence of Neuroendocrine Tumours. There can be other reasons for an elevated CgA figure, including the patient’s use of proton pump inhibitors (PPI) (see the article for an alterative test where this is the case). Read more here – Neuroendocrine Cancer – Tumour and Hormone Marker tests.
3. Scans. Most NETs can be seen on a CT scan although liver metastasis can often show more clearly on an MRI. There are also nuclear scan options to confirm conventional imaging findings. Some NETs may be accessible via endoscopy and ultrasounds can also give hints for further investigation. In some cases, nuclear scans will find things that conventional imaging cannot because radionuclides can normally pick up oversecreting tumours. Read more in my article “If you can see it, you can detect it”.
ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) is one of the biggest cancer conferences in the world normally bringing together more than 30,000 oncology professionals from around the world to discuss state-of-the-art treatment modalities, new therapies, and ongoing controversies in the field. As Neuroendorine Tumors is on a roll in terms of new treatments and continued research, we appear to be well represented with over 20 ‘extracts’ submitted for review and display. This is fairly complex stuff but much of it will be familiar to many. I’ve filtered and extracted all the Neuroendocrine stuff into one list providing you with an easy to peruse table of contents, complete with relevant linkages if you need to read more. For many the extract title and conclusion will be sufficiently educational or at least prompt you to click the link to investigate further. Remember, these are extracts so do not contain all the details of the research or study. However, some are linked to bigger trials and linkages are shown where relevant. I’ve also linked to some of my blog posts to add context and detail.
I’m hoping to capture any presentations or other output from the meeting which appears to be relevant and this will follow after the meeting. I will also be actively tweeting any output from the live event (for many cancers, not just NETs).
There’s something for everyone here – I hope it’s useful.
Conclusions: Objective response to PRRT defines a subset of patients with markedly improved PFS. SUVave 21.6 defines a threshold below which patients have a poor response to PRRT. This threshold should be taken forward into prospective study.
Check out my recent blog discussing ‘Theranostic pairing” – click here
Conclusions: The duration of SSA use was positively associated with QoL benefit among CS patients. This may be explained by long-term effectiveness of SSAs or selection bias favoring patients with more indolent disease. Future studies will be needed to distinguish between these possibilities.
Conclusions: The incidence of weight gain was dose-related on TE and was greater than that on pbo. It was possibly related to a reduction in diarrhea severity, and it may be a relevant aspect of TE efficacy among patients with functioning metastatic NETs. Clinical trial information: NCT01677910
Conclusions: A pre-PRRT analysis of circulating NET genes, the predictive quotient index comprising “omic” analysis and grading, is validated to predict the efficacy of PRRT therapy in GEP and lung NETs.
Conclusions: CAPTEM shows activity in neuroendocrine tumor of unknown primary. Currently FDA approved treatment options for grade I and grade II GI NETs includes somatostatin analogs and everolimus. Both of which are cytostatic and of limited use in case of visceral crisis or bulky disease where disease shrinkage is required. CAPTEM should be considered for grade II NETS of unknown primary.
Conclusions: This is the first multi-center study in Mexico. Which reflects the clinical characteristics of the NET_GET. The results differ in their epidemiology from that reported in other countries. However, the clinical and therapeutic results are very similar.
Conclusions: These data suggest that serotonin is secreted by nonfunctioning tumors, but does not reach the threshold required for clinical carcinoid symptoms. Monitoring 5HIAA and CgA may be useful during LAN treatment of nonfunctional GEP NETs. Clinical trial information: NCT00353496
Conclusions: CLARINET OLE suggests sustained antitumor effects with LAN 120 mg in enteropancreatic NETs irrespective of tumor origin, and suggests benefits with LAN as early treatment. Clinical trial information: NCT00842348
Conclusions: Pts showed improvement in CS symptoms of flushing and diarrhea and reduction in 5HIAA levels with LAN treatment, indicating efficacy of LAN regardless of prior OCT use. Transition from OCT to LAN was well tolerated among prior OCT pts in ELECT. Clinical trial information: NCT00774930
Conclusions: These findings highlight the utility of molecular classification to identify distinct NET tumor types/subtypes to improve diagnostic precision and treatment decision-making. In addition, significant differences in the distribution of molecular diagnoses of NET subtype by age and gender were identified.
Conclusions: In this poor prognosis G3 NET cohort of whom 77% had received prior chemotherapy, a median OS of 18 months from start of PRRT is encouraging and warrants further study. PRRT is a promising treatment option for patients with G3 NET with high somatostatin-receptor expression selected by SSRI.
Conclusions: Occurrence of documented carcinoid crisis was low in this high-risk population. However, a significant proportion of patients developed hemodynamic instability, suggesting that carcinoid crisis is a spectrum diagnosis and may be clinically under-recognized. Use of octreotide was not associated with risk of carcinoid crisis or hemodynamic instability; however, this analysis was limited by our modest sample size at a single institution. There remains a need to establish an objective definition of carcinoid crisis and to inform standardization of periprocedural use of octreotide for at-risk patients.
Conclusions: By assessing patients with GI NET from two independent US claim databases, this study suggested that patients diagnosed with CS were 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with liver disorder, enlargement of lymph nodes, or abdominal mass, than those without CS during the one year prior to CS diagnosis. Future studies using patient medical charts are warranted to validate and interpret the findings. These findings, when validated, may aid physicians to diagnose CS patients earlier.
Conclusions: Radiological progression within 12 months of completion of PRRT is associated with a worse outcome in terms of OS. Patients with greater liver involvement and highest CgA levels are more likely to progress within 12 months of treatment completion. Earlier treatment with PRRT in patients with radiological progression not meeting RECIST criteria may need to be considered. There may be a greater survival benefit if PRRT is given prior to the development of large volume disease.
Conclusions: To the best of our knowledge, this is the first population-based study to examine potentially relevant pre-existing symptoms, resource utilization and healthcare costs before NET diagnosis. NET patients were more likely to have certain conditions and incurred higher resource utilizations and costs in the year preceding diagnosis of NET.
Conclusions: This population-based study showed that elderly NET pts have significantly different prevalence of co-morbidities compared to non-cancer controls. The impact of these conditions on survival and therapeutic decisions is being evaluated.
Conclusions: In patients with SBNET with liver metastasis, higher tumor grade and post-operative chemotherapy increased risk of death. However, resection of the primary tumor along with liver metastasis improves the 5-year OS with complete cytoreduction providing the most benefit.
Role of 92 gene cancer classifier assay in neuroendocrine tumor of unknown primary. | 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting Abstracts
Conclusions: Tissue type ID was able to identify a primary site in NETs of unknown primary in majority (94.7%) of cases. The result had direct implication in management of patients with regards to FDA approved treatment options in 13/38 patients (pNETs, merkel cell and pheochromocytoma).
Conclusions: Radical loco-regional surgery for primary tumours combined with PRRT provides a novel, highly efficacious approach in metastasised NET. The NETest accurately measures the effectiveness of treatment.
Conclusions: Grade 3 GEP-NECs could be morphologically classified into well and poorly differentiated NETs. Additionally, among grade 3 GEP-NECs, there was a significant difference in ranges of Ki67 index between well and poorly differentiated NECs. Higher levels ( > 60%) of Ki67 index might be a predictive marker for efficacy of EP as a standard regimen in grade 3 GEP-NECs.
Check out my blog post on Gradingwhich has incorporated latest thinking in revised grade 3 classification
Seung Tae Kim
Theranostic trial of well differentiated neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) with somatostatin antagonists 68Ga-OPS202 and 177Lu-OPS201.
Conclusions: In this trial of heavily treated NETs, preliminary data are promising for the use of 68Ga-OPS202/177Lu-OPS201 as a theranostic combination for imaging and therapy. Additional studies are planned to determine an optimal therapeutic dose and schedule. Clinical trial information: NCT02609737
Conclusions: SREs in NEN patients with BM were not uncommon, especially in patients with grade 3 NEN and osteolytic metastases. Application of ART did not significantly alter median OS or TTSRE, no subgroup with a benefit of ART could be identified. The use of ART in NEN should be questioned and evaluated prospectively.
Conclusions: Rhenium Re 188 P2045, a radiolabeled somatostatin analog, may be used to both identify and treat lung cancer tumors. The ability to image and dose patients with the same targeted molecule enables a personalized medicine approach and this highly targeted patient therapy may significantly improve treatment of tumors that over express somatostatin receptor.
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. Technically, a biopsy is a tumour marker but I’ll not be discussing that today. I more or less covered biopsies in my blog on NETs – Stages and Grades.
I’d also like to talk about certain other 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. The post will not cover routine blood tests (i.e. complete blood count etc) as although they may point to a problem, these tests do not necessarily indicate a particular type of NET.
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.
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 between in-country labs through the use of different commercially available ‘testing kits’. 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.
Here’s two tips I always give people: 1 – always get your results (preferably on paper) and track them yourself (I use a spreadsheet). 2 – When comparing results inside patient forums, always add 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!
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.
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.
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!
Diarrhea can be a symptom of many conditions but it is particularly key in Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) Syndromesand 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!
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 Neuroendocrine Cancer Treatment
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.
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!
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 Ethylworks 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.
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 hormonemarkers, 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.
As for my own strategy, I filtered out the advice from a NET specialist dietitian and have managed to make quite a difference to my Quality of Life (QoL) without resorting to really expensive drugs (which come with their own side effects). Here’s things that helped me:
made some changes to diet(they were not huge changes),
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 (still assessing as at April 2018) 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 1.6). 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
I’d never heard of Serotonin until I was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer in 2010. It is frequently discussed, often with contrasting views from the respondents. One common assumption/question is that it is responsible for many things that can go wrong with NET Cancer patients who have serotonin-producing tumours. “It’s the hormones” is an easy assumption to make or an easy answer to give in response to a complex set of circumstances. It’s difficult to get a definitive answer and the science behind the behaviour of our hormones isn’t really 100% tied down.
You may see serotonin referred to as a ‘neurotransmitter’, a ‘chemical’ and a ‘hormone’ – this is complex but it is my understanding that it just adds context in respect the role/location of the serotonin, e.g. chemical and hormone are essentially synonymous and are endocrine related whereas neurotransmitter is concerned with the nervous system (the neuro in neuroendocrine) and the brain (more on this below). Consequently, I’ll keep this as basic as I can (author’s note on completion – it was not easy!).
Serotonin and NETs
One thing which is widely accepted and agreed…… Serotonin is definitely involved in Neuroendocrine Tumours, in particular, those resulting in carcinoid syndrome which can manifest as a number of symptoms including but not limited to flushing and diarrhea. Although serotonin is one of the main ‘hormones’ released in excess by certain NETs (mainly midgut), it is not thought to be the main culprit behind some of the symptoms produced by Carcinoid Syndrome. For example, flushing, the most common symptom (and a cardinal one) is thought to be caused by a number of hormones/peptides – too many to list but the main ones are histamine (particularly foregut), tachykinins (Substance P), bradykinins, prostaglandins …….. and I’m sure serotonin’s in there too! It does, however, appear to be massively guilty in causing carcinoid syndrome diarrhoea, desmoplasia, and carcinoid heart issues.
Where does Serotonin come from?
Serotonin’s technical name is 5-hydroxyltryptamine (5-HT). It is converted from 5-Hydrotryptophan (5-HTP) which is also known as oxitriptan. 5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and chemical precursor as well as a metabolic intermediate in the biosynthesis of serotonin (…..and melatonin) from tryptophan. Tryptophan is interesting as that brings in one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw – food! Tryptophan cannot be manufactured in the body, it must be brought in via diet. There is no serotonin in food, it is only manufactured in the body.
Tryptophan in food enters the body and serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process which combines tryptophan (essentially a protein) with tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor. I suspect other substances might be involved in that process.
While serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, tryptophan can, and almost all of it is converted to serotonin. Just to emphasise that NET dietitians do not say to avoid foods containing tryptophan other than at the time of marker testing (see below andnutrition Blog 4).
The introduction of Somatostatin analogues (SSAs) such as Octreotide and Lanreotide, help reduce the secretion of “tumour-derived serotonin” by binding to its receptors on the outside of the cell. If you ever wondered why receptors are important, please check out my blog on this subject (click here).
TPH is actually very interesting as this is how Telotristat Ethyl (XERMELO) is able to help with the symptoms of Carcinoid Syndrome diarrhea which is not adequately controlled by SSAs or where patients are unable to be treated by somatostatin analogues for whatever reason. It’s a potent inhibitor of TPH which will disrupt the manufacturing of tumour-derived serotonin. There is also evidence that it can help reduce the effects or halt the growth of the fibrosis leading to carcinoid heart disease. Slight digression but useful to aid/enhance understanding at this point. Read about Telotristat Ethyl here – very exciting.
Serotonin and the Brain
There is constant discussion and assumption that serotonin-producing tumours are somehow causing depression, anxiety and rage. If you think about the role of serotonin, to my simple way of thinking, there doesn’t appear to be any concrete evidence to back up this suspicion. Certain NETs can overproduce serotonin in the gut but the issues concerning depression and anxiety are normally associated with low levels of serotonin in the brain.
I know many people with cancer who suffer from depression, anxiety and rage but they do not have serotonin-producing tumours. What they do have is a life threatening and/or life changing condition which is bound to have an effect on mind as well as body. Serotonin is a natural substance found in the body and not just there to service NETs. If you didn’t have any, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed according to one of my ‘favs’ Dr Gene Woltering.
Serotonin is separately manufactured in the brain (~10%) and in the gastrointestinal tract (~90%). The serotonin in the brain must be manufactured in the brain, it cannot be directly increased or reduced external to the brain, i.e. it cannot be directly reinforced by gut serotonin (peripheral serotonin). It follows that ‘brain serotonin’ and ‘gut serotonin’ are held in separate stores, they are manufactured in those stores and remain in those stores – there is no cross-pollination. This is managed by something called the blood-brain-barrier (BBB). Therefore, excess serotonin from NETs does not infiltrate the brain. As low-level of ‘brain serotonin’ is often linked to depression, it also follows that it’s possible to have high levels of serotonin in the gut but low levels in the brain.
My simple way of thinking about such things is that low levels of tryptophan in the brain might be contributing to low levels of serotonin in the brain.
Measuring Serotonin levels
Measuring levels of serotonin is important in both diagnosis and management of certain NETs – although it’s probably sensible to test all potential NET patients during diagnosis when the type of tumour is not yet known. Testing for tumour markers will differ between countries and within countries but the most common standard for testing Serotonin appears to be 5-HIAA (5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid) either via a 24-hour urine test or via a plasma version (mainly used in USA but now creeping into UK). 5-HIAA is the output (metabolite) of 5-HT (Serotonin). Not to be confused with the less reliable ‘serum serotonin’ which is a different test.
Another frequently asked question about serotonin tests is whether they are testing the amount in the brain or the gut. The answer is …… they are testing the levels in the blood. Furthermore, if you are measuring serotonin as an indicator for Carcinoid Syndrome, it has to be remembered that the majority of serotonin is in the gut, so even if serotonin levels in the brain were being measured alongside the gut levels, it would not majorly influence the result. It also has to be remembered that serum serotonin and 5HIAA are not absolute tests, they are not 100% sensitive, they are simply indicators of a potential problem. There are methods of measuring brain serotonin but it is very complex and beyond the purposes of this blog. However, I would just add that it is the reuptake of Serotonin in the brain (plus some other stuff) that can cause depression, not the actual level or amount in the brain.
I intentionally did not mention the other common test (Chromogranin A) or other markers as they are measuring different things but you can read about in my Testing for Markers blog.
From day 1 of my diagnosis, I knew my liver was going to need some attention but I had always known that total removal of all tumours would not be possible. This critical organ did in fact produce the biopsy confirming Neuroendocrine Cancer. The early scans indicated multiple liver lesions and an Octreotide scan reported several quite avid isotope activity.
However, as you can see from my clinical history, they first stabilised my syndrome via daily Octreotide so my tumours were subdued ready for major surgery ’round 1′ which took place Nov 2010 – I wrote about this as Part 1 and Part 2 stories. As we are talking about my liver, it’s worth noting that a bland Liver Embolization was carried out prior to ’round 1′ as there was an option to look at the liver whilst I was ‘open’. However, after 9 hours sorting out my other areas, there was insufficient time.
My surgeon (Mr Neil Pearce) promised me a hard year so after 4 months ‘rest’, I was brought back in for major liver surgery (round 2) which took place on 12 Apr 2011. The ‘luck’ word has to be mentioned again because my local NET MDT was led by Mr Pearce who just happened to be one of UK’s top GI surgeons and one of the pioneers of Laparoscopic surgery – that is what I was to receive. In the end, I had a right hepatectomy and a metastasectomy which was calculated to be approximately 66% of my liver removed. Thank goodness it grows back!
The operation went well lasting 6 hours although it could have been shorter. Mr Pearce unfortunately had to spend a quarter of this time picking through ‘dense right sided abdominal adhesions’ caused by ’round 1′. My liver metastasis was described as significant on inspection and around 90% of the tumours were removed during this procedure leaving around half a dozen sub-centimetre deposits. Interestingly he said my pattern of disease was more conspicious on intra-abdominal ultrasound than it had been on previous scans. You can see from the post picture, the type of instruments used in laparoscopic surgery and the fact that they pump air into the abdomen to give sufficient space to operate.
I recovered quickly after only 5 days in hospital and was back at work in 3 weeks. My Chromogranin A finally returned to normal readings recognising the reduction in tumour bulk. My 5HIAA was already back in normal after ’round 1′ and subsequent commencement of Lanreotide. For those who have not had a liver laparoscopic procedure, the healing time is much quicker and you only have limited scarring. I had 3 ‘stab wounds’ (that’s my name for the marks!) across the area of my liver and then a 3 inch scar at the base of my abdomen which was used to remove the ‘bits’ of resected liver.
A follow-up chemo-embolization or TACE (Trans Arterial Chemo embolization) was scheduled a few weeks after the liver surgery which was looking to target the remnant liver tumours. However, this had to be aborted following some routing issues caused by ’round 1′ surgery.
I still have some residual (but stable) disease on my liver but there has been no progression in these 6 years. It’s no secret that debulking or cyto-reductive surgery can be of benefit even to those with advanced or metastatic well differentiated Neuroendocrine disease. I remain thankful for the care and attention I received in the months after my diagnosis.
When I was discharged from hospital following major surgery in Nov 2010, I knew I would shortly be commencing long-term monthly ‘somatostatin analogue’ treatment and had assumed Octreotide (Sandostatin LAR) would be the drug of choice. However, my Oncologist prescribed Lanreotide (known in the UK as Somatuline Autogel and elsewhere as Somatuline Depot). Technically this is a hormone therapy (it’s not chemo).
Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) are mainstay treatments for many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients and their introduction is a very significant factor in the improvement of both prognostic outcomes and quality of life. Both drugs are designed to control Carcinoid Syndrome (but can be used selectively in other NET syndromes) and both have anti-tumour effects. Check out my Lanreotide vs Octreotide comparison blog.
Although I didn’t relish the thought of any injection in the ‘rear end’ every 28 days for the rest of my life, I admit to being slightly relieved with his choice. I had been reading about patient experiences with the alternative, mainly the needle length and the occasional problems mixing the drug prior to injection. Although Lanreotide has a similar gauge (thickness), the needle is a good bit shorter and is deep subcutaneous rather than Octreotide LAR’s intramuscular (IM) route. No mixing is required as Lanreotide comes prefilled.
If you’re interested in the science, please be aware that a somatostatin analogue is a synthetic (manufactured) version of a naturally occurring hormone which inhibits the peptides and amines that can be dangerously hypersecreted by certain neuroendocrine tumours. If you are after a more technical explanation of this process, you should check out my blog ‘Neuroendocrine Tumours – not an exact Science‘ – inside you will also find a link to a fantastic paper by Dr Eugene Woltering, one of the world’s top NET Cancer experts.
Following an Octreotide Scan, various areas lit up confirming the output from previous CT scans. It also confirmed new ‘hotspots’ for further investigation. This specialist scan confirmed I probably had working receptors to receive something known as a Somatostatin Analogue to help with combatting the effects of Carcinoid Syndrome (please note that not having working receptors does not mean there is no benefit of receiving somatostatin analogues). I was therefore prescribed daily Octreotide (self-injecting) whilst I was waiting for my first major ‘debulking’ surgery, This treatment did eventually lessen the main effect of the carcinoid syndrome, facial flushing. It wasn’t until after my first surgery that the facial flushing was dramatically reduced. I commenced Lanreotide on 9 Dec 2010 and I haven’t had a facial flush since. It’s worth adding that my Chromogranin A (CgA) blood test (correlated to tumour mass) did not return to normal until after a liver resection 3 months later. My 5HIAA urine test results (mainly correlated to serotonin levels) returned to normal prior to liver surgeryin Apr 2011 indicating the Lanreotide was doing its job! Somatostatin Analogue side effects are to be expected and most people seem to have different and/or greater or lesser effects than others. The daily Octreotide did not bother me too much other than some discolouring of the stomach at the injection sites (i.e. black and blue!) ….I’m more observant nowadays, so it’s possible I may not have recorded this experience properly.
If you read the UK patient leafletwhich comes with each injection, you can see a list of potential side effects as long as your arm. Neuroendocrine Cancer comes with many signs, syndromes, symptoms and suspicions, so I always advise caution and some analysis when assigning reasons for problems encountered. For North America, the equivalent instructions can be found here (Somatuline Depot). I don’t know precisely why (……. I do have my suspicions), but I’m always very sceptical about the criteria used to compile the list of side effects for any medicine. In my own mind, I’m fairly certain that people have existing symptoms or new symptoms as a result of coincidental treatment that are erroneously labelled under drugs during trials.
You can also self-inject Lanreotide but I’m not ready for that yet! If you do self inject, please note it the site is “the upper outer part of your thigh”. Check out the Ipsen leaflet here.
I think the injection site is very important and getting this wrong will worsen the side effects. For the Healthcare Professional or trained family member administration, the site should be the superior external quadrant but not of the whole ‘butt’, it means of the left or right buttock that is being used on an alternative basis. If nurses think the whole ‘butt’, they might be tempted to stick it quite close to the ‘intergluteal cleft’ – not advisable!
Although the patient leaflets are very clear on how to administer the drug, once the location is established, I always discuss the following with the Nurse before I receive the ‘dart’:
1. The injection should have been removed from the fridge at least 30 minutes before treatment.
2. Don’t pinch the skin, stretch it.
3. Put the needle in fast at 90 degrees, inject the drug slow – 20 seconds is recommended. As the drug is viscous, in any case, there is normally some resistance to a fast release.
4. Do not rub the area after as this action can interfere with the formulation of the drug.
My experience with side effects. People have different experiences with side effects and just because a particular side effect is mentioned, does not mean to say that everyone will be troubled – many patients experience little or none. For me, over 7 years, I think I can attribute the following to Lanreotide:
itching but only on the legs below the knees centred on the ankles – and nearly always the right leg. Occasionally, the injection site will itch but only for a day or two. I have a tub of emollient cream (almond oil) on standby which seems to calm it down. Note …… a little bit of me thinks there could be a connection with vitamin/mineral deficiency and perhaps a coincidental occurrence and this problem seems much less of an issue over 7 years later. EDIT- could have been Hypothyroidism – click here.
minor pain at the injection site but this only lasts for an hour or two and I believe this to be associated with the administration of the injection, i.e. if the injection is done properly, I don’t really have this problem except for a second or two as it enters. Once, I had pain for 10 days. In my own experience, the best and least painful injections are those done by trained personnel who are confident.
small lumps form at the injection site which is alternating superior external quadrant of the each buttock. You may occasionally hear these being called ‘granulomas‘ or ‘injection site granulomas’. The issue of ‘injection site granulomas’ seems to figure in both Lanreotide and Octreotide. Gluteal injection site granulomas are a very common finding on CT and plain radiographs. They occur as a result of subcutaneous (i.e. intra-lipomatous) rather than intramuscular injection of drugs, which cause localised fat necrosis, scar formation and dystrophic calcification. But no-one seems to know why they occur with somatostatin analogues.
I find that they are more conspicuous if the injection is done slightly too high which was my initial experience and they took months to fade. I opted to stand up for the first two injections and I attribute this decision for a slightly too high injection site. I now lie down which is actually recommended for the smaller and thinner patient. Although the lumps have reduced in size, I have not seen a new lump for some time indicating location might have been the cause. They sometimes show up on scans. This is not a new problem and has been highlighted for the last 10 years in academic papers. This particular paper is useful and the conclusion confirms this is not something that should worry patients too much. Read more here
fatigue normally within 24-48 hours of the injection but this is not consistent. Not even sure it can be classed as proper fatigue but it’s a ‘you need to sit down and fall asleep‘ feeling! When this occurs, it normally only lasts for 1 day before the normal energy levels return. Again, like the itching, this appears to be less of an issue today.
malabsorption. although the side effects of gastro-intestinal (GI) surgery and gallbladder removal can cause malabsorption issues leading to steatorrhea (basically the inability to digest fat properly); somatostatin analogues can cause or exacerbate existing steatorrhea, as they inhibit the production of digestive/pancreatic enzymes which aid fat digestion. Most months, I notice a marked but short-term increase in this problem normally within 48-72 hours of the injection.
elevated blood glucose. This is a new issue in 2018 but has been brewing for a year or two. The patient information leaflet for Lanreotide (and for Octreotide) clearly states that this is a potential side effect and also asks those who are already diabetic, to consult their doctor about monitoring doses of diabetic medicine. I’m working with my doctors to keep my blood glucose down to avoid becoming diabetic.
A few years ago, there was some ‘talk’ that somatostatin analogues were also able to stunt or reverse the growth of certain neuroendocrine tumours. Has this been the case for me? Possibly. I’ve had regular CT scans every 3-6 months and since two bouts of major surgery in 2010/2011, I’ve also had 3 x Octreoscans over the same period. I did once spend a day analysing 5 years of scan results looking for variations in size and concluded that there was a stable trend and potentially a fading of one or two of my largest liver tumours. I was reminded these two types of scans were not really precise enough to detect small millimetre increases or decreases and as there were other factors at play, there was little commitment to make this declaration. However, I did note in the summary of theCLARINETstudy, Lanreotide was associated with prolonged progression-free survival among patients with advanced, grade 1 or 2 (Ki-67 <10%) enteropancreatic, somatostatin receptor–positive neuroendocrine tumours with prior stable disease, irrespective of the hepatic tumour volume. In terms of its anti-proliferative effects, aninterim report from the CLARINET extension studysuggested longer-term Lanreotide treatment is well tolerated with ‘anti-tumour’ effects in patients with progressive disease. The final CLARINET open label extension studyreport additionally provided evidence for long-term PFS benefits of Lanreotide Autogel 120 mg in patients with indolent pancreatic and intestinal NETs.
There’s currently a trial ongoing in relation to Lanreotide and Lung NETs – read by clicking here.
I have my ups and downs and I do feel quite well most of the time. Most people tell me I look quite well too – lucky they can’t see my insides! Over the last 7 years, I’ve made some fairly significant adjustments to cope with my condition and maintain a reasonable quality of life – my monthly injection of Lanreotide is no doubt playing a big part.
Finally, please spend 5 minutes watching this fascinating video from Ipsen. It explains in easy terms how Lanreotide works. It also has a useful summary of the side effects at the end. Click here to watch the video.
I’ve just been enrolled onto a new service called HomeZone whereby the injection is now administered at my home via an Ipsen provided and funded nurse. Read here to see if you can also take advantage of this service.
In July 2018, I received my 100th injection of Somatuline Autogel (Lanreotide). I was very grateful to still be here so I thought it was worth a celebratory cake – injection themed!
One of the curious things about Neuroendocrine Cancer (NETs going forward) is that it can very often exhibit one or more vague symptoms collectively known as a ‘syndrome’. Syndrome is an apt word to describe these complications as the most general meaning in medical terms is a group of symptoms that together are characteristic of a specific disorder or disease”. Having a syndrome can often be the difference between having a ‘functional’ condition or a non-functional’ conditions – see more below.
This frequently makes Neuroendocrine Cancer very difficult to diagnose quickly. It’s a very devious disease.
It’s not all about Carcinoid Syndrome!
Most people think of Carcinoid Syndrome when they discuss NETs. Anyone suggesting that all NET patients get carcinoid syndrome or that all symptoms of NETs are caused by carcinoid syndrome, is WAY off the mark. Firstly, not everyone will have a ‘syndrome’ in addition to their tumours – the percentage is actually well below 50%. Secondly, there are in actual fact, several associated syndromes depending on the anatomical location and type of NET. As an example of one syndrome, statistics vary from source to source but it is estimated that around a 30-45% of all ‘midgut’ patients will present with metastatic disease and around a third of those (∼10-15% of all midgut) will exhibit Carcinoid Syndrome indicating their tumours are ‘functional’ (secreting excess hormones, particularly serotonin). It follows that Carcinoid Syndrome itself is not that common and it could be the same with other types of NET (even though it can appear more prevalent on forums).
Functional / Non-Functional
These tumours and associated syndromes are treatable for most but the difficult part can be arriving at a diagnosis. Moreover, without a syndrome, some of these tumours can be silently growing and as they grow slowly, the ‘silence’ can go on for some years. Even with a syndrome, the root cause can remain disguised as the symptoms are similar to many day-to-day illnesses, again the reason for the title of this blog. Curiously, the lack of a syndrome can sometimes lead to an even later presentation and the consequences that arise (i.e. no signs to aid a diagnosis). In fact a large proportion of Pancreatic NETs are non-functional at diagnosis. There can be the odd exception but in general terms, NETs are either functional (with a syndrome) or non-functional (no syndrome). It’s also possible that patients can move from one state to another.
It’s useful to know about the range of tumor markers and hormone markers – read more here
Syndrome and Tumors – ‘Chicken or Egg’ ?
I’m always confused when someone says they have been diagnosed with a Syndrome rather than a NET type. You normally need a tumor to produce the symptoms of a syndrome.
The exception might be hereditary syndromes e.g. MEN. MEN syndromes are genetic conditions. This means that the cancer risk and other features of MEN can be passed from generation to generation in a family. A mutation (alteration) in the various MEN genes gives a person an increased risk of developing endocrine/neuroendocrine tumors and other symptoms of MEN. It’s also possible that the tumors will be discovered first. It’s complex!
Major NET Syndromes
(information mainly taken from the ISI Book on NETs with a cross-reference from ENETS and UKINETS Guidelines)
TheISI Book on Neuroendocrine Tumors 2016(Woltering et al) confirms there are a number of syndromes associated directly and indirectly with NETs and are described as individual syndromes according to their secretory hormones and peptides. The reference publication expands on this list to aid diagnoses by including common presentations, associated tumour types and locations and the offending secreting hormones. You can see why Neuroendocrine Cancer is a diagnostic challenge!
Carcinoid – a syndrome connected with (mainly) serotonin secreting tumours in certain locations (mainly small intestine, lung, stomach, appendix, rectum). The key symptoms include diarrhoea, flushing of the skin (particularly the face), stomach cramping, heart problems such as palpitations, and wheezing. The syndrome is actually caused by the release of a number of hormones, in particular Serotonin, Bradykinin, Tachykinin (Substance P), Histamine, and Prostaglandins.
(there’s also a very rare instance of pancreatic based tumours producing carcinoid syndrome effects – according to ENETs less than 1% of all tumours associated with carcinoid syndrome)
Whipple’s Triad – Whipple’s Triad is the classic description of insulinoma which includes symptoms of hypoglycemia with a low blood glucose concentration relieved by the ingestion of glucose. These tumours can be located anywhere within the pancreas in the cells that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. It moves glucose into the cells, where it can be used by the body for energy. Insulinomas are usually slow-growing tumors that rarely spread. Some of these tumours will be associated with MEN1 syndrome.
Zollinger-Ellinson Syndrome. A tumour that forms in cells that make gastrin and can be known as a Gastrinoma. Gastrin is a hormone that causes the stomach to release an acid that helps digest food. Both gastrin and stomach acid are increased by gastrinomas. This is a condition in which one or more tumours form in the pancreas, the upper part of the duodenum or the stomach (these organs are very close and tightly packed together). These tumours secrete large amounts of the hormone gastrin, which causes your stomach to produce too much acid. The excess acid can lead to peptic ulcers, in addition to diarrhea and other symptoms. Associated with Gastrinoma (pNET) and Gastric NETs. Some of these tumours may be associated with MEN1 syndrome.
Werner-Morrison Syndrome. Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP) is secreted thus the pNET term – VIPoma – Sometimes the syndrome is referred as WDHA – Watery Diarrhea, Hypokalemia (potassium deficiency), and Achlorhydria (absence of hydrochloric acid in gastric secretions). Sometimes known as Pancreatic Cholera. Some of these tumours may be associated with MEN1 syndrome
Glucagonoma. A tumour that forms in cells that make make glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that increases the amount of glucose in the blood. It causes the liver to break down glycogen. Too much glucagon causes hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) rendering most patients diabetic. A glucagonoma usually forms in the tail of the pancreas. Some of these tumours may be associated with MEN1 syndrome. See also Sweet’s Syndrome below. Sometimes known as the 4D syndrome – Dermatological, Diabetes, DVT, Depression.
Somatostatinomais a very rare type of NET, with an incidence of one in 40 million persons. These tumours produce excess somatostatin arise from the delta cells in the pancreas, although these cells can also be present in duodenal/jejunum tissue where around 44% of these tumours occur. Somatostatin is a naturally occurring peptide that inhibits the function of almost all gut hormones (author’s note – this fact should give you an appreciation of how somatostatin analogues tackle associated syndromes whilst giving you certain side effects as a result!)
Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP) – PPoma. A complicated one and not too much information (even in the ISI book or ENETS Guidelines). However, it’s the third most common type of islet cell tumour (i.e. pNET). The function of pancreatic polypeptide is not completely understood. Patients present with weight loss, jaundice, and abdominal pain. The diagnosis is confirmed by pancreatic polypeptide levels > 300 pg/ml. Some of these tumours may be associated with MEN1 syndrome.
Cushing’s – also known as hypercortisolism. A collection of symptoms caused by very high levels of a hormone called cortisol in the body. In Cushing’s disease, oversecretion of pituitary ACTH induces bilateral adrenal hyperplasia. This results in excess production of cortisol, adrenal androgens, and 11-deoxycorticosterone. Cushing’s disease, a subset of Cushing’s syndrome, is due to a pituitary corticotroph adenoma and results in a partial resistance to the suppression of ACTH by cortisol so that secretion is unrestrained. In contrast, causes of Cushing’s syndrome may include the following:
• Adrenal adenoma or carcinoma arise spontaneously. ACTH levels are undetectable.
• Non-pituitary (ectopic) tumours produce ACTH. They most frequently originate in the thorax and are highly aggressive small cell carcinomas of the lung or slow- growing bronchial or thymic carcinoid tumours. Some produce corticotropin- releasing hormone (CRH) instead, which stimulates pituitary ACTH secretion and can therefore mimic a pituitary tumour.
• Other causes include NETs of the gastric, pancreatic, and intestinal organs; Pheochromocytomas, and MCT.
The hallmark of Cushing’s syndrome is that ACTH levels are partially resistant to suppression with dexamethasone, even at very high doses. Some MEN patients with pituitary tumours may have Cushing’s Syndrome. AdrenoCorticoTropic Hormone (ACTH) releasing tumours are somerimes known as ACTHoma.
Sweet’s – Dermatitis/rash associated with Glucagonomas. Not to be confused with Pellagra (B3 deficiency)
Neuroendocrine / Endocrine tumors can be seen in several inherited familial syndromes, including but not limited to:
MEN1 – Mainly involved the 3 Ps, Pituitary, Pancreas and Parathyroid. The pituitary tumours are primarily Prolactinomas, the pancreatic tumours are mainly PPomas, Gastrinomas and Insulinoma. Many also have association with Zollinger-Ellinson syndrome (ZES). Sometimes known as Wermer Syndrome. Associated with the MEN1 gene.
MEN2A– associated with the RET gene, can result in Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma, Pheochromocytoma, and overactive parathyroid glands characterised by a high calcium level.
MEN2B. An inherited disorder characterised by the certain development of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma, plus the possible development of pheochromocytomas and characteristic tumours (mucosal neuromas) of the lips, tongue and bowels. Parathyroid disease is extremely rare in MEN2B. Also connected with the RET gene.
MEN4. A relatively new MEN variant and related to the CDKN1B gene. Similar to MEN1 but normally only 2 of the 3 Ps, parathyroid and pituitary; and potentially other places.
Succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) is an enzyme which is important for the metabolic function of mitochondria. Patients with mutations of these genes have increased risk of pheochromocytomas, paragangliomas, stomach tumors and kidney tumors.
SDHx mutations (SDHA, SDHB, SDHC, and SDHD) can present as Pheochromocytomas/Paragangliomas and other non-NET conditions. If this interests you see site http://www.SDHcancer.org
Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) – not an exclusively NET syndrome. VHL is a rare disorder caused by a faulty gene. It is named after the two doctors who first described the disease, and affects about one in 35,000 people. Tumours develop in one or more parts of the body. Many of these tumours involve the abnormal growth of blood vessels in parts of the body which are particularly rich in blood vessels. Areas most frequently affected are the eyes, the back of the brain (cerebellum), the spinal cord, the kidneys, the adrenal glands and the pancreas. People are affected differently, even within the same family. The only VHL tumour which tends to run in families affects the adrenal glands (Pheochromocytoma). Different VHL features tend to develop at different ages. The eye angiomas often develop in childhood. Others, including tumours found in the cerebellum, spinal cord or adrenal glands (Haemangioblastomas and Pheochromocytomas) can develop from late childhood onwards. The kidney tumours are usually the last things that develop, from the mid-twenties onwards. Most VHL related tumours are benign.
As for my own experience of syndromes, I did once show symptoms of the most common NET syndrome (currently known as Carcinoid syndrome) where the key symptoms include diarrhoea, flushing of the skin (particularly the face), stomach cramping, heart problems such as palpitations, and wheezing. You can see why those symptoms are frequently and easily confused with other conditions. If you have a similar diagnosis, you may benefit from looking at something known as The 5 E’swhich is a useful list of things to be wary of.
I did have issues for a year or two in 2010 leading up to diagnosis and until my treatment was underway. I was experiencing flushing and infrequent bouts of diarrhea but I totally ignored it (hear me talk about this). However, it ended up being instrumental in my diagnosis albeit some good luck was involved in getting to that point. My twist of fate which involved a low hemoglobin score led me to a scan and ‘bingo’. I had a ‘gastrointestinal blip’ some 18 months previously but that proved colonoscopy negative. Despite my distant and metastatic tumour disposition and seemingly late diagnosis, I’m current non-syndromic due to “early” intervention and good treatment. However, my ongoing treatment continues to play its part.
For many,the vague and routine symptoms generated by a syndrome contribute to the fact that NET Cancer is frequently misdiagnosed with some people suffering from the side effects for many years before a correct diagnosis is made.
There are many other less known syndromes that appear to be directly or indirectly connected with Neuroendocrine Tumours and I may update this post if I discover they are more prevalent than I think. Please let me know if you’ve been told you have a NET related syndrome not listed.
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 7 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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