When you live with any illness, getting through the day can be tough. Trying to get a diagnosis, dealing with a diagnosis, undergoing treatment and then learning to recover and adapt.
I’ve been living with my condition for almost 8 years and I’m a big advocate of keeping busy, keeping active and keeping my mind occupied. Despite this, there are times with a chronic disease, an invisible disease, an incurable and long-term disease including cancer, occasionally just doing nothing can be very productive in the long term!
Of course, sometimes you have little choice if you’re ill from your condition or something routine.
So now and then, I just breathe in and breathe out (then repeat). It’s very enjoyable!
On the day I was diagnosed, I hadn’t really thought about questions, the only one I actually remember asking was “how long do I have left to live” (I watch too many movies!). On the day of diagnosis and a period beyond, people tend to feel emotions of shock, denial, anger and sadness, before going on to accept their situation. Yes, I ‘googled‘ but not a great deal really – although some things I found did frighten me. I wish I had found this article way back then.
As things progressed in the weeks after ‘D-Day’, I started to work out the sort of things to ask but even then it was limited. I had been referred to an experienced NET team so I felt confident they would do whatever needed doing. In hindsight, I can now think of a quite a few questions I should have asked. That said, I suspect my team probably gave me the answers without having been asked the questions!
My blogging efforts have turned into a ‘Community’ of sorts. Consequently, I’m contacted daily from people finding me on the web. Many of these people are at the pre-diagnosis or initial phase. Many are undiagnosed. Most are looking for information and some sound like they are already at the ‘acceptance stage’; some are frightened about the future, some are angry because they think they are not being told important information and some also feel they have been messed about or ‘fobbed off’ by their doctors. Of course I’m happy to help but only after reminding them that I’m just a wee Scottish guy with the same disease!
I have to say that some people arrive on my site without a diagnosis but often seem to be very well prepared – the power of the internet I suspect. The questions I mostly get involve finding experts and then what questions to ask them.
As an extra bonus to this post, I offer you a starting point for the best places I know for finding NET expertise:
It’s also worth checking the NET Research Foundation as they also have a ‘Doctor Database’ section which differs slightly from CCF
Dr. Simron Singh at Sunnybrook in Toronto
Dr. Shereen Ezzat at Princess Margaret in Toronto (PMH)
Dr. McEwan, The Cross Clinic, Alberta?
Dr Kavan at Montreal Jewish General Hospital (Oncology)
Dr Buteau / Beauregard at Quebec Hotel Dieu (Radiation Oncology (PRRT, Ga68)
Dr Rivera at Montreal General Hospital (Endocrinology)
Dr Metrakos at the Montreal Royal Victoria Hospital (Surgeon) sees a lot of NET patients
On the French side Dr Andre Roy at the CHUM in Montreal (surgeon) also sees a lot of NET patients
Dr. Jamil Asselah also treats net patients. He is an oncologist….Quebec
Michael Sawyer at Cross Clinic in Alberta Edmonton.
Drs. Parkins, Card, and Paseka at the Tom Baker CC in Calgary.
Russia – Clinical Oncology Research Institute, N. N. Blokhin RCRC RAMS, Address: 24, Kashirskoye sh., Moscow, 115478, RF. NET specialist Alla Markovich
In my Group – ask other patients: Click here to join.
Neuroendocrine Cancer – 10 questions to ask your specialist
Many people ask me what sort of questions to ask and because NETs is such a diverse bunch of diseases, that leads to me ask them a series of questions to ascertain what they might consider asking. I’m not surprised to find some are unable to answer my questions and so those then become some of their questions to ask!
Also, questions don’t end at the diagnosis phase, they continue and in fact, some of the answers to the questions below, may bring up new questions in your mind. Some of these questions can be asked time and time again in the event of issues downstream.
If you’re currently confused about the essential facts of your condition, you’re not alone. In a recent study, almost half of cancer patients did not know basic stuff such as grade and stage of cancer, and after their initial treatment, whether they were free of disease or in remission.
For those entering or are recently just beyond the diagnostic phase, you may find certain questions cannot yet be answered without further test results etc. However, if the answer is not yet known for whatever reason, at least you have it on your list for follow up appointments. Consequently, I’ve constructed this list of questions that should function as a generic set. There may also be ‘specific to country’ questions such as insurance cover in addition to this suggested list. Of course, some of you may not want the answer to so certain questions. That’s perfectly understandable, so don’t ask!
1. Where is my primary tumour and what type of NET is it?
This is a fundamental question and it’s likely many will already have some inkling about location and perhaps a type. The difference between NETs and other types of cancer is the primary can be found wherever there are Neuroendocrine cells rather than a specific part of the anatomy in terms of naming the type of cancer, i.e. a NET of the pancreas is not Pancreatic Cancer.
The type of NET is key as it will drive a lot of other stuff including treatment. Location and type of NET are not always aligned, for example, you may have a NET in your Pancreas but there are several types of Pancreatic NET (or pNET) and these may depend on identification of a particular hormone (see syndrome below). Many NETs are non-functional (there is no oversecreting hormone).
For some the primary will not yet be found (i.e. cancer of unknown primary or CUP). There may also be multiple primaries.
2. What is the grade and differentiation of my tumour(s)?
Another fundamental question as this defines the aggressiveness of the disease and is absolutely key in determining overall treatment plans. Treatment plans for poorly differentiated can be very different from well differentiated. Read more here – Grading and here – Benign or Malignant
3. What is the stage of my disease?
Fundamental to understanding the nature of your disease. Stage confirms the extent of your disease, i.e. how far has it spread. Again this will drive treatment plans and long-term outlooks. Scans are really important in determining the Stage of your cancer – check out my scans post here. Read more here on Staging
4. Do I have a NET Syndrome?
Many NET patients will have been experiencing symptoms prior to diagnosis, perhaps for some time. It’s possible these symptoms form part of what is known as a ‘Syndrome’ and there are several associated with NETs. Syndromes are mostly caused by the effects of over-secretion of hormones from the tumours, a hallmark of Neuroendocrine disease. Carcinoid Syndrome is the most common but there are many more depending on the primary location. Read more here – NET Syndromes.
5. What is my treatment plan, and what are the factors that will influence my eventual treatment? When will I start treatment
This is a very complex area and will depend on many factors. Thus why your specialist may not have the answers to hand. Decisions on treatment are normally made by some form of Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT). Many people diagnosed with cancer expect to be whisked away to an operating theatre or chemotherapy treatment. However, for many this is not what actually happens. Depending on what testing has been done up to the actual diagnosis, it’s possible that even more testing needs to be done. Additionally, for those with an accompanying syndrome, this will most likely need to be brought until control before certain treatments can be administered; and even then, there may be checks to make sure the treatment will be suitable. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘Hurry up and wait’. My first treatment was 6 weeks after diagnosis and that was designed to control my syndrome ready for surgery which was undertaken 14 weeks after diagnosis. It’s also possible you will be placed on a ‘watch and wait’ regime, at least to begin with.
6. Can you comment on the potential for my type of NET to be related to any familial or genetic aspects of cancer?
A small percentage of NETs are hereditary/genetic in nature. This is mostly associated with those who have Multiple Endocrine Neoplasms (MEN) syndromes and a few other less common types of NET including Pheochomocytoma / Paraganglioma(Pheo/Para) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma (MTC) (the familial version of MTC is often referred to as FMTC). However, please note this does not mean that all those diagnosed with pancreatic, parathyroid, pituitary, Pheo/Para and MTC tumours, will have any hereditary or genetic conditions, many will simply be sporadic tumors.
7. Will you be able to get rid of all my disease?
This is a really difficult question for any specialist, even a Neuroendocrine expert. All published articles on NETs will say they are a heterogeneous collection of diseases (i.e. consisting of dissimilar entities) which makes this question (and others) difficult. I have read articles written by the world’s foremost NET experts and they all have the word ‘curative’ mentioned in various places. So I guess in particular scenarios with certain NETs, and if the disease is caught early enough, that possibility exists. However, for many, the disease could be incurable, particularly where there is distant metastasis. But, the disease has many treatment options for most types and for many it is possible to live as if it were a chronic condition. I call it ‘incurable but treatable’. Read more here – Incurable vs Terminal
8. What Surveillance will I be placed under?
Again, this is very individual in NETs and is mainly dependent on type of NET, grade and stage and how the patients reacts to treatment. This may not be known until you have undergone your initial treatment. For example, surveillance scans can be any period from 3 months to 3 years depending on tumour type(location) and stage/grade. Marker testing tends to average around 6 monthly but could be more or less frequently depending on what’s going on. Read more here – click here
9. Will I receive support and specialist advice after my treatment?
Let’s not be afraid of the word ‘Palliative’, it does not always mean ‘end of life’ care. Another example is nutrition. Many people with NETs, the condition in combination with the side effects of treatment may necessitate an alteration of diet and this is a very individual area. I would also emphasise that dietitians not well versed in NETs might not offer the optimum advice. Read more – My Nutrition Series.
10. How will treatment affect my daily life?
This is a question that many people miss but it’s becoming more important as we all live longer with cancer Again, this may not be possible to answer immediately but perhaps this question could be reserved once you know which treatment(s) you will be receiving. All treatment comes with side effects and can last for some time or even present with late effects after some years. The ‘consequences’ of cancer treatment need to be factored in earlier so that the necessary knowledge and support can be put in place. See also Unmet Needs for NET Patients
I suspect others will have suggestions for this list so feel free to submit these to me. I quite often refresh my posts over time.
Before I was diagnosed, I had my share of illnesses. Fortunately, many of them were the routine stuff that most people tend to get from time to time, and most did not stop me getting on with whatever needed doing. I served in the military from age 16 until 45 – a long time! On only two occasions during that 29-year period, did I involuntary visit a hospital: aged 16 having been knocked out at boxing (you should have seen the other guy!) and aged 39 after falling off a vehicle (in my defense it was really dark). Illness wasn’t really something I thought much about and for minor things, I would just “soldier on.” So, from an early age, I truly believed a “poker face” was necessary for “street cred” but I guess that was ingrained in the military mindset.
Even out of the military environment, old habits die hard as I adopted the same attitude. The “mission” comes first and my health second. A few “civilians” once suggested I go home after coughing, sniffing and sneezing my way through a day in the office. I responded in the only way I knew by saying I would only be leaving the office early on a stretcher having lost consciousness. To get them off my back, I made sure there was no hint of banter or joviality in the statement. This tactic didn’t really work and they laughed at something they perceived as a joke. However, little did they know, I was deadly serious. Little did I know, my gung-ho attitude and poker face were to become seriously deadly.
In 2010, along came cancer. For a couple of years before diagnosis, I had not been sufficiently focused on my health and soldiered on, ignoring what I now know to be key symptoms of neuroendocrine cancer. Even leading up to diagnosis, I was dismissive, refusing to acknowledge this was a threat. Other people get cancer, but not me! I even landed in the hospital via the ER as I refused to slow down after a biopsy. Still in denial, I thought I could beat cancer not knowing that cancer knew with 100 percent certainty that it could beat me. I went on to have surgery and other treatments, but apart from that, I basically marched on as it nothing had happened. However, as the effects of cancer and the consequences of the treatment started to bite, I accelerated my learning on how the disease might affect me in the future. This knowledge has enabled me to manage risk and make better assessment/decisions about seeking help. But it took a while, and gradually over a period of three years, I shifted the focus from work to health.
It’s not been easy to learn how to live with my incurable disease since diagnosis. Finding a balance between how I want to live and how to stay alive has been difficult. My “stiff upper lip” combined with an appetite for work didn’t really help in the end. In 2013 (three years after diagnosis), I finally found the time to work on the reasons for fatigue and many other symptoms. I made some really good improvements to my quality of life. I still have issues, but my cards are no longer close to my chest – they’re now more frequently on the table, particularly when speaking to doctors and close family. My poker face is still there for special occasions, just more relaxed!
“It’s the cancer,” can sometimes be the most convenient excuse to not do stuff. I can play the “cancer card” as well as the next person, and it will trump all others! I also understand that motivation can be difficult with a chronic illness. However, I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing nothing all the time. That’s not a good outcome. Consequently, I try not to use the metaphorical cancer card too much. In fact, I sometimes even say “I can” when I actually feel like playing the cancer card. I’m nearly always glad I did.
I’ve never really understood why people get upset or annoyed when someone tells them they look well. Maybe I just think differently than others? I like to look for the positive things these well-meaning messages can convey. Most people are just trying to be nice, even if it comes over clumsy. Personally, I love it when people tell me I look well, I mean who wants to look unwell? If I’m feeling mischievous, I sometimes say “yes….. but you should see my insides“. Most of the time, it dispels any awkwardness and they follow my laughter.
Yesterday, I listened to a few video clips of a very inspiring young lady who eloquently delivered her view of what it is like to have an invisible disease and still look the ‘perfect picture of health’. She did it in such a way that I could never do and I guess she feels the same way about looking well on the surface. This is a lady who has a very rare disease and struggles with enormous amounts of pain. However, you wouldn’t think it to look at her. I think her messages are really worth listening to.
If you can’t see an illness, is an illness really there?