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. Some are not showing anything on any scan but in certain cases, it can be likened to finding a needle in a haystack.
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 (say) 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”.
You can hear two NET specialists talking about the issues surrounding the diagnostics here.
When I was offered my very first Ga68 PET/CT at a 6 monthly surveillance meeting in May 2018, I was both excited and apprehensive. Let me explain below why I had a mix of emotions.
I was diagnosed in 2010 with metastatic NETs clearly showing on CT scan, the staging was confirmed via an Octreotide Scan which in addition pointed out two further deposits above the diaphragm (one of which has since been dealt with). In addition to routine surveillance via CT scan, I had two further Octreotide Scans in 2011 and 2013 following 3 surgeries, these confirmed the surveillance CT findings of remnant disease. The third scan in 2013 highlighted an additional lesion in my thyroid (still under a watch and wait regime, biopsy inconclusive but read on….).
To date, my 6 monthly CT scans seem to have been adequate surveillancecover and all my tumour and hormone markers remain normal. I’m reasonably fit and well for a 62-year-old.
Then I ventured into the unknown
I wrote a comprehensive post about the Ga68 PET entitled “…. Into the unknown” – so named because that is how I felt at the time. It’s well-known that the Ga68 is a far superior nuclear scan to the elderly Octreotide type, showing much greater detail with the advantage of providing better predictions of PRRT success if required downstream. It has been a game changer for many and if you look below and inside my article, you will see statistics indicating just how it can ‘change the game’ in somatostatin receptor positive Neuroendocrine Cancer diagnostics and treatment.
The excitement of the Ga68 PET
I was going to get the latest ‘tech’ and thought it could be useful confirmation of what I already knew. I also felt lucky to get one, they are limited in UK and there has to be a clinical need to get access. I was excited because it might just rubber stamp the stability I’ve enjoyed for the past 5 or so years since my last surgery in 2012.
The apprehension of the Ga68 PET
I also felt apprehensive because of the ‘unknown’ factor with cancer, i.e. what is there lurking in my body that no-one knows about, and which might never harm me but this scan will light it up demanding attention. I was also apprehensive in case this more detailed scan found something potentially dangerous. As we know, NETs are mostly slow-growing but always sneaky. Of course, any new tumours found may not actually be new, they were just not seen until the Ga68 PET was able to uncover them. How annoying!
Is the Ga68 PET Scan a game changer?
To confirm the advantages of SSTR PET over Octreotide scans, a study comprising 1,561 patients reported a change in tumour management occurred in over a third of patients after SSTR PET/CT even when performed after an Octreotide scan.
Overall, change in management occurred in 44% (range, 16%-71%) of NET patients after SSTR PET/CT.
In 4 of 14 studies, SSTR PET/CT was performed after an 111In-Octreotide scan. In this subgroup, additional information by SSTR PET/CT led to a change in management in 39% (range, 16%-71%) of patients.
Seven of 14 studies differentiated between inter- and intramodality changes, with most changes being intermodality (77%); intramodality, (23%). (note: intermodality means changes within the same treatment, intramodality means change to another treatment).
In an older study, this slide from a NET Research Foundation conference shows some more interesting statistics:
Was Ga68 PET a game changer for me?
Yes, I believe so. I’m now in the ‘bone met club’ and although that single metastasis has probably been there for some time, it’s not a ‘label‘ I was keen to add to my portfolio. If I was to be 100% honest, I’m not totally convinced it’s a metastasis. The scan has brought more light onto my thyroid issue. In fact it indicates even more potential issues above the diaphragm including what looks like a new sighting around my left pectoral lymph nodes. The scan also lghts up a known issue in the left clavicle lymph nodes, first pointed out via Octreotide scan in 2010 and biopsy negative.
In addition to a nuclear scan update (routine surveillance), it also formed part of an investigation into progression of my retroperitoneal fibrosis (initially diagnosed 2010 but potential growth spotted on recent surveillance CT). The Ga68 PET doesn’t make fibrosis light up (it’s not cancerous) but there are some hotspots in the area of the aorta close to the fibrosis, a potential source of the cause. Surgery is on hold for now as my kidney function is fine following a renal MAG3 scan which reported no blockages.
It would appear I’m no longer a boring stable patient
The Ga68 PET Scan confirmed:
Bone Metastases. Report indicates “intense focal uptake“. It always amazes me that people can be thankful for having an extra tumour. I’m thankful I only have a single bone metastasis (right rib number 11). I had read so many stories of those who got their first Ga68 PET and came back with multiple bone metastases. I’ll accept one and add to my NET CV. I have no symptoms of this bone metastasis and it will now be monitored going forward. I’m annoyed I don’t know how long it’s been there though!
Confirmation and better understanding of the following:
Thyroid lesion There is some uptake showing. A 2014 Biopsy of this lesion was inconclusive and actual 2018 Ga68 PET report infers physiological uptake. I’m already diagnosed hypothyroidism, possibly connected. (Edit – on ultrasound in Jan 2019, looks slightly smaller than previous check).
Left Supraclavicular Fossa (SCF) Nodes lighting up “intense uptake“. I’ve had an exploratory biopsy of the SCF nodes, 5 nodes removed negative. Nothing is ‘pathologically enlarged’ in this area. Monitored every 6 months on CT, annually on ultrasound. I had 9 nodes removed from the left axillary in 2012, 5 tested positive for NETs and this area did not light up. This whole area on the left above the diaphragm continues to be controversial. My surgeon once said I had an unusual disposition of tumours. (Edit: Nothing sinister or worryingly enlarged showing on Jan 2019 ultrasound – measuring 6mm).
Report also highlights left subpectoral lymph nodes which is new. The subpectoral area is very interesting as from my quick research, they are closer to the left axillary (armpit) nodes than they are to the SCF nodes. I’m hoping to get an ultrasound of these in January at my annual thyroid clinic (Edit: nothing sinister showing on ultrasound in Jan 2019).
My known liver metastases lit up (remnant from liver surgery 2011) – not marked as intense though. The figure of 3 seems to figure highly throughout my surveillance scans although the PET report said “multiple” and predominately right-sided which fits.
Retroperitoneal area. This has been a problem area for me since diagnosis and some lymph nodes are identified (intense word not used). This area has been highlighted on my 3 octreotide scans to date and was first highlighted in my diagnosis trigger scan due to fibrosis (desmoplasia) which was surrounding the aorta and inferior venous cava, some pretty important blood vessels. I wrote an article on the issue very recently – you can read by clicking here. So this scan confirms there are potentially active lymph nodes in this area, perhaps contributing to further growth of the fibrosis threatening important vessels – read below.
I have learned so much about desmoplasia since this issue arose that I now fully understand why I had to have radical surgery back in 2010 to try to remove as much of the fibrosis as possible from the aortic area. You can read more about this in my article. Desmoplasia via fibrosis is still very much of an unknown and mystery condition in NETs.
I now know that my fibrosis is classed as clinically significant and according to the Uppsala study of over 800 patients inside my article, I’m in 5% of those affected in this way (2% if you calculate it using just the retroperitoneal area).
It appears this problem has come back with new fibrosis or growth of existing fibrosis threatening to impinge on blood vessels related to the kidneys and also my ureters (kidney to bladder urine flow). The Ga68 PET doesn’t make fibrosis light up (it’s not cancerous) but there are some hotspots in the area of the aorta close to the fibrosis.
I didn’t expect this particular problem to return – it was a bit of a shock. My hormone markers have been normal since 2011 and this just emphasises the importance of scans in surveillance.
Conventional Imaging is still important though
There’s still quite a lot of hype surrounding the Ga68 PET scan and I get this. However, it does not replace conventional imaging (CI) such as CT and MRI scans which still have their place in routine surveillance and also in diagnostics where they are normally at least the trigger for ‘something is wrong’. For the vast majority, a CT/MRI scan will find tumours and be able to measure reductions and progress in regular surveillance regimes. In fact, the retroperitoneal fibrosishas appeared on every CT scan since diagnosis but the changes were highlighted on my most recent standalone CT and it triggered the Ga68 PET (although my new Oncologist did say I was due a revised nuclear scan). It’s not a ‘functional’ issue (although it is caused by functional tumours). In fact the fibrosis is not mentioned on the Ga68 PET because it is not lighting up – but the lymph nodes surrounding it are mentioned and they are under suspicion of being active.
Appropriate Use Criteria for Somatostatin Receptor PET Imaging in Neuroendocrine Tumors
There are actually recommended usages for the Ga68 PET scan here. For example, it is not recommended for routine surveillance in place of CI.
Scans – ‘horses for courses’
Read a summary of all conventional scans and nuclear scans by clicking here.
I had a meeting with my Oncologist and Surgeon and a surgical plan is possible in the event of a problem. My surgeon explained it all in his wonderfully articulate and brilliant surgical mind. Fortunately it’s not really urgent but pre-emptive treatment may be required at some point as the consequences of kidney/bladder function malfunction are quite severe. Following some further checks, the anticipated surgery is on hold for now as my kidney function is fine following a renal MAG3 scan which reported no blockages. I continue to have monthly renal blood tests and it was hinted another renal MAG3 could be done at the end of the year.
My game has changed, that’s for sure. I’m now entering a new phase and I’m waiting on details of my revised surveillance regime. However, at least my medical team and I now know what WE are dealing with and the risks vs benefits are currently being assessed. I’m heavily involved in that.
On 8th July 2010, I was sat in front of a secondary care consultant, his speciality was colorectal. I asked specifically for this consultant for two reasons, firstly, he carried out a colonoscopy some 20 months previously which turned out to be negative. Secondly, my GP had referred me to the iron deficiency anaemia clinic, and they wanted to do ….. a colonoscopy. I changed that plan because this “non-issue” was dragging on; quite frankly I wanted it to be resolved quickly, and I wanted it to be resolved in my favour – after all, I wasn’t actually ill!
Rewind two months, I had an incidental set of blood tests ordered by a nurse following a routine visit to my local medical centre (……. “I think I’ve lost a bit of weight“). My haemoglobin was low (even lower on repeat testing). The GP compared my results to someone in their eighties with malnutrition. In hindsight, I should have been alarmed by that statement but instead I went on holiday to Barbados. Apparently low haemoglobin is a sign of iron deficiency anaemia. I suspected it would pass, either my blood results would revert to normal naturally, or they would after a prescription for some pills. That’s what normally happens, isn’t it? I was so indifferent to the issue, I even delayed the blood tests by three weeks.
Back to 8th July 2010 ….I hadn’t really given him many clues but within minutes of chatting with the secondary care consultant (who was armed with the results of the negative colonoscopy test), he said “what are you doing this afternoon“. I had no hesitation in saying “whatever you want me to do“. I’m still not getting it as I saw this as a chance to get an all clear, get some pills, get back to normal. To cut a long story short, the results confirmed I had a metastatic cancer. If you can see it, you can detect it. The scan didn’t confirm which type of cancer so further checks were planned.
Following the scan results, I had a dozen other tests to narrow it down to Neuroendocrine Cancer (eventually confirmed by biopsy). During these 2 weeks of tests, I finally confessed for the first time that I had been experiencing facial flushing and intermittent diarrhea. In those days, I wasn’t really in tune with my body.
I had been sitting on a beach in Barbados sipping piña coladas with my wife and neither of us had any inkling that I had a serious life threatening illness and that it had been growing inside of me for some years. Slow but sneaky? You betcha. They did some damage too – check out my treatment summary here.
I remain thankful to all those involved in the triggering of my ‘incidental’ diagnosis. The Nurse who ordered the ‘just to be sure’ blood tests, the GP who immediately referred me to secondary care (increased my chances of being diagnosed with cancer), the secondary care specialist who was instrumental in getting to the bottom of the problem in double-quick time.
My intransigence, denial and withholding vital symptoms from the doctors didn’t really help – there’s a lesson for all there.
Cancer is a growth industry …literally! More people are being diagnosed than ever before. Fortunately, more people are surviving than ever before. This is against a backdrop of better awareness, better screening in the big population cancers, and to a certain extent better diagnostic tools, all of which is leading to earlier diagnosis.
So how does this affect Neuroendocrine Cancer?
According to the latest SEER database figures for Neuroendocrine Cancer, one reason for the 7 fold increase in incidence rates since the 1970s is all of those things above including better diagnostics. This has led to a revised set of epidemiological information in many countries that have made the effort to accurately update their cancer registries and there are consistent reports of incidence rates way beyond the recognised rare thresholds. Another piece of good news is that the increase in NET incidence is also due to earlier diagnosis. To sum that up – NETs is also a growth industry.
Combined with more awareness and education (including the important pathologists), more NETs than ever are being found, and many found earlier. However, it’s not party time yet because there remains far too many misdiagnoses due to the low population of the disease and the difficulty in diagnosing it. I want to focus on scanning (thus the title of the article). Whilst there are really important factors involved in a diagnosis, such as tumor and hormone markers, and biopsies (tissue is the issue), a scan is very frequently what triggers many deeper investigations to unearth a NET, i.e. if you can see it, you can normally detect it (whatever the ‘it’ is). And I include the widespread availability and increasing advances in endoscopy/ultrasounds/cameras which have also been instrumental in picking up many Gastrointestinal NETs.
The Gallium 68 PET Scan
There’s a lot of excitement about the Gallium 68 PET Scan since it was approved by the US FDA. It’s not new though and has been in use in several countries for some time. It’s a ‘nuclear scan’ and can often form part of what is known as a ‘Theranostic Pair’ (i.e. in conjunction with a therapy – read more here).
What does it do?
It comprises two main components – a PET scanning machine, and the use of a diagnostic imaging agent which is injected into the person undergoing the scan. Most machines have an inbuilt CT which forms part of the scan. The agent is a somatostatin analogue labeled radionuclide (Gallium 68) and basically the PET will then be used to see where the peptide/radionuclide mix ‘loiters’ (i.e. where there are concentrations of somatostatin receptors (SSTR) normally indicating ‘focal intense abnormality‘ of the type that is regularly found with NETs.
Imaging Agents. There are different agent variants, namely, DOTATATE, DOTATOC and DOTANOC. In USA, you may sometimes see this referred as NETSPOT which is more of a commercial label for the agent (NETSPOT is a DOTATATE). Ga68 PET or SSTR PET are common descriptors for the entire process regardless of the compound. Clearly the scan works best for those with ‘somatostatin receptor positive’ tumours.
These newer agents have several benefits over the elderly In111-pentetreotide (Octreotide scan), including improved detection sensitivity, improved patient convenience due to the 2-3 hour length of the study (compared to 2 or 3 days with Octreoscan), decreased radiation dose, decreased biliary excretion due to earlier imaging after radiotracer administration, and the ability to quantify uptake. The quantification of the uptake can help decide whether a patient is suitable for radionuclide therapy such as PRRT. Eventually, all Octreotide scans should be replaced with SSTR PET but it will take some time (and money).
To confirm the advantages of SSTR PET over Octreotide scans, a study comprising 1,561 patients reported a change in tumour management occurred in over a third of patients after SSTR PET/CT even when performed after an Octreotide scan. Worth pointing out that SSTR PET is replacing the ageing Octreotide scan and not conventional imaging (CI). You can see the recommended scenarios for use of SSTR PET in this article published by the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. The slide below is interesting, although it was a small study. However, you can see the treatment changes as a result of a Ga68 PET are quite striking.
Appropriate Use Criteria for Somatostatin Receptor PET Imaging in Neuroendocrine Tumors
I see many people complaining because the cannot get access to a Ga68 PET which is available through their healthcare system or local hospital. Many of these issues are insurance based. Worth pointing out that there are actually recommended usages for the Ga68 PET scan here. For example, it is not recommended for routine surveillance in place of Conventional Imaging (CI).
Any pitfalls with Ga68 PET Scan?
When you look at the study data above, it looks like an excellent addition to the diagnostic and surveillance toolkit for NETs. However, one of the challenges with modern scanning equipment and techniques is the ability to correctly interpret the results – in my opinion, this is almost as important as the efficiency of the machines and radionuclides. This requirement has been acknowledged in many articles and I particularly like this technical paper from a very experienced nuclear medicine physician Professor Michael Hofman from the Centre for Cancer Imaging at the Peter MacCallum Cancer in Melbourne. I had a chat with Professor Hofman who added that this is a very sensitive scan, so often picks up “new” disease, which isn’t really new, just never identifiable on standard imaging. However, there’s an excellent section on pitfalls in interpretation and I’m quoting an abstract below.
“Although GaTate PET/CT is a highly sensitive and specific technique for NETs, the attending physician or radiologist must be aware of various physiologic and other pathologic processes in which cellular expression of SSTR can result in interpretative error. Most of these processes demonstrate low-intensity and/or nonfocal uptake, in contrast with the focal intense abnormality encountered in NETs. Causes of interpretative pitfalls include prominent pancreatic uncinate process activity, inflammation, osteoblastic activity (degenerative bone disease, fracture, vertebral hemangioma), splenunculi or splenosis, and benign meningioma.”
“The highest-intensity physiologic uptake of GaTate is seen in the spleen, followed by the adrenal glands, kidneys, and pituitary gland”
It follows that failure to interpret nuclear scans alongside the patient’s clinical history can sometimes result in two big issues for patients:
1. Unnecessary worry when ‘something’ shows up which is actually a false positive.
2. Something which leads to irreversible treatment when it is was not required.
Just imagine something which is 40 times better than current PET scan technology? That’s what the scientists are working on now. Here’s an example called “EXPLORER“. You can update yourself here. The issue of interpretation will be even more difficult when the new generation of scans appear. There’s an excellent article from Cancer Research UK talking about the modern phenomenon called ‘overdiagnosis’ – readhere
Lanreotide and Octreotide and timing the scan?
From the same technical document referred above, here’s an extract (updated to include Lanreotide). “Uptake at physiologic and pathologic sites may change in patients who undergo concomitant short- or long-acting somatostatin analog therapy, which competes with the radiotracer for bioavailability. We generally discontinue short-acting octreotide for 12–24 hours and perform imaging in the week before the next dose of long-acting Octreotide/*Lanreotide, which is typically administered monthly“. It’s actually the same text as found in the manufacturer’s drug leaflet (click here). More evidence behind the reason for this restriction is found here (please refer to the comments on Ga68 PET – the article also covers the issue of PRRT which is very interesting as a separate subject to the scan timings).
*added by the author for completeness.
Having my first Ga68 PET Scan after 8 years of living with NETs?
When I was offered my very first Ga68 PET/CT at my recent 6 monthly surveillance meeting, I was both excited and apprehensive. I was diagnosed in 2010 and my staging was confirmed via an Octreotide Scan pointing out two further deposits (one of which has since been dealt with). I’ve had two further Octreotide Scans in 2011 and 2013 following 3 surgeries. The third scan in 2013 highlighted my thyroid lesion – still under a watch and wait regime. So far, my 6 monthly CT scans seemed to be adequate surveillance cover and my markers remain normal.
I’m apprehensive because of the ‘unknown’ factor with cancer – what is there lurking in my body that no-one knows about and which might never harm me.
I’m excited because it might just confirm that there is nothing new to worry about.
However, I’m both excited (morbidly) and apprehensive because the scan might find something potentially dangerous. As we know, NETs are mostly slow growing but always sneaky. That said, at least I will know and my medical team will know and be able to assess the risk and decide on a course of action.
Doing the Scan
On 5th June 2018, I attended a very experienced Ga68 PET establishment called Guys Cancer Centre in London. I arrived and was immediately taken under the wing of the nuclear medicine guys who asked me fairly in depth questions about my clinical background. They then inserted a cannula ready for the injection of the radiolabelled tracer. I was then installed in the ‘hot room’ where they injected the radionuclide tracer through the cannula and then I had to remain in the hot room for 1 hour to let the tracer circulate. After 1 hour, I was taken to the PET scanner and it took around 30-35 minutes. Following that I was allowed to leave for home. It was an extremely easy experience and a significant improvement on doing the 3 day Octreotide scan.
There’s a lot of inaccurate and out of date information out there. Some is just a lack of understanding, often with a combination of patient forum myth spreading. Some can only be described as propaganda.
Myth 1: All Neuroendocrine Tumours are benign
Not true. By any scientific definition, the word ‘tumour’ means ‘an abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumours may be benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous)’. Sure, some NETs will be benign. However, The World Health Organisation (WHO) 2010 classification for digestive system is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential. This has been reinforced in the 2017 update to include clarification for other endocrine organ types of NET including Pheochromocytoma. Read more here. The word ‘Carcinoid’ is inextricably linked with this issue – read here why we need to stop using the term to help fight the benign myth.
Myth 2: Neuroendocrine Tumours is a terminal condition
Not true. By any definition of the word terminal in a medical diagnostic context, most NET patients have a good prognostic outlook, even those with metastatic and incurable variants of the disease. Read more here.
Myth 3: Carcinoid is another word for Neuroendocrine Tumours
Not true. Carcinoid is a very old term and was phased out years ago. Carcinoid is not mentioned in the latest WHO Classification schemes for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (a term covering Neuroendocrine Tumours and Neuroendocrine Carcinoma). Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated by organisations and individuals who still use the word. Also, those who use the following terms:
“Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine”,
“Neuroendocrine and Carcinoid”,
“Carcinoid NETs” or “CNET”
These are all contextually incorrect and misleading terms (not to mention the bad grammar). ENETS, NANETS and NCCN publications are gradually phasing the word out except in relation to Carcinoid Syndrome (and even then there could be easy solutions for this). Read more here and here.
Myth 4: All NET patients get ‘carcinoid syndrome’
Not true. Firstly, many NET cancers are non-functional; and secondly, carcinoid syndrome is only one of a number of “NET Syndromes” associated with the various types of NET. However, the issue is further confused by those who use the word ‘Carcinoid‘ to incorrectly refer to all NETs and use Carcinoid Syndrome to refer to all NET Syndromes. Read more here.
Not true. Steve Jobs had a Neuroendocrine Tumour of the Pancreas. Ditto for a few other famous names. Read more here.
Myth 7: I’m not getting chemotherapy, I must be doing OK?
Not true. For some cancers or some sub-types of cancers, although it remains an option, chemotherapy is not particularly effective, e.g. some types of Neuroendocrine Cancer (NETs). In general, well differentiated NETs do not normally show a high degree of sensitivity to chemotherapy, although some primary locations fare better than others. However, many of the treatments for NET Cancer are somewhat harsh, have long-term consequences, and have no visible effects. NET patients are often said to “look well” but that doesn’t mean they are not struggling behind the scenes or under the surface. Read more here. P.S. Afinitor (Everolimus), Sutent (Sunitinib) are not chemo – Read more here.
Myth 8: All diarrhea is caused by carcinoid syndrome
Not true. It could be one of the other syndromes or tumor types or a side effect of your treatment. Check out this post.
Myth 9: Neuroendocrine Tumours is a ‘good cancer’
Not true. Simply, no cancer is good. Some are statistically worse than others in prognostic terms, that’s true…… but living with NETs is very often not a walk in the park. However, no one cancer is better to get than any other – they’re all bad. Read more here.
Myth 10: Every NET Patient was misdiagnosed for years
Not true. Many NET Patients are correctly diagnosed early on in their investigation and in a reasonable time. This myth is perpetuated because of two things: firstly, on forums, the ratio of long-term misdiagnosis is high creating a false perception; and secondly, the method of capturing patient surveys is not extensive enough – again creating a false perception. In fact, the latest and largest database analysis from US indicates earlier diagnosis is improving, with more and more NETs being picked up at an early stage. Read more here.
Myth 11: Somatostatin Analogues are a type of Chemotherapy
Not true. Somatostatin Analogues (e.g. Octreotide and Lanreotide) are not chemotherapy, they are hormone inhibiting drugs. They are more biotherapy. As the drugs latch onto somatostatin receptors, they are more targeted than systemic. For the record, Everolimus (Afinitor) and Sunitinib (Sutent) are not chemotherapy either. Read more here.
Myth 12: Stuart Scott (ESPN) and Audrey Hepburn had Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Not true. This is a common misunderstanding within the community. They both had Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP). Read more about PMP here.
Myth 13: I’ve been diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Tumours – my life is over
Not true. Many patients live a very long time and lead fairly normal lives with the right treatment and support. It’s difficult but I try not to use ‘I can’t’ too much. Read more here.
Myth 14: There are only a handful of Neuroendocrine specialists in the world
Not true. There are many specialists in many countries. Get links to specialists by clicking here
Myth 15: The Ga68 PET scan is replacing the CT and MRI scan in routine surveillance for all NET Patients
Not true. It is actually replacing the Octreotide Scan for particular purposes, or will eventually. Read more by clicking here.
Myth 16: All NET Patients are Zebras
Not true. They are in fact human beings and we should treat them as such. Please don’t call me a zebra, I and many others don’t appreciate it. Please don’t use the term on my social media sites, the comment or post will be removed. Sorry but I refuse to perpetuate this outdated dogma. Read why here:
Myth 17: Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) is a type of Neuroendocrine Tumour
Not true. Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia are syndromes and inherited disorders not tumours. You can actually have MEN and not have any tumours. However, these disorders can put people at more risk of developing Neuroendocrine or Endocrine Tumours. Read morehere
Myth 18: Palliative Care means end of life or hospice care
Not true. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. A multidisciplinary care team aims to improve quality of life for people who have serious or life-threatening illnesses, no matter the diagnosis or stage of disease. Read more here
Myth 19: Serotonin is found in foods
Not true. Serotonin is manufactured in the body. Read more here
Myth 20: NETs cannot be cured
Not true. If caught early enough, some NETs can be treated with curative intent (totally resected with margins) with little or no further follow up. It says this in ENETS and NANETS publications which are authored by our top specialists. If we can’t believe them, who can we believe? Read more here.
Myth 21: Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (Creon etc) is only for pancreatic patients
Not true. It’s for any patient who is exhibiting exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Read more here.
Myth 22: High Grade NETs are Carcinomas
Not entirely true. Grade 3 (high grade) comprises well differentiated tumours and poorly differentiated tumours. Only poorly differentiated tumour are carcinomas. Read more here.
More to follow no doubt
For general cancer myths and the dangers of fake health news, please see my ARTICLE HERE
Thanks for reading
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Scanning is a key diagnostic support and surveillance tool for any cancer. Even though you have elevated bloods or urine (….or not), a picture of your insides is really like a thousand words…. and each picture has a story behind it. Scanning can be a game changer in the hunt for tumours and although scans do not normally confirm the cancer type and grade, they certainly help with that piece of detective work and are key in the staging of the cancer.
When I read stories of people in a difficult diagnosis, I always find myself saying ‘a scan might resolve this’ and I always suggest people should try to get one. Even in the case of a story about late diagnosis or a misdiagnosis, I find myself thinking ‘if only they had done a scan earlier’. Despite what you read on NET forums, a CT scan will be able to find some evidence of tumour activity in 90-95% of cases. However, some are cunningly small or hiding and it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
However, scans are not an exact science…..not yet! Apart from human error, sometimes tumours are too small to see and/or there are issues with ‘pickup’ (i.e. with NETs, nuclear scans need efficient somatostatin receptors). The differences between scan types are more quality (sensitivity) related as new technologies are introduced.
As for my own experience, I was very lucky. I managed to get a referral to a specialist early on in my diagnosis phase. He looked at the referral notes and said “what are you doing this afternoon“. I replied “whatever you want me to do“. He didn’t know I had cancer but his instincts led him to believe he needed to see inside my body, he wanted to scan me. The scan results were pretty clear – I had a metastatic Cancer and further checks were now needed to ascertain exactly what it was. So I took my seat on the roller coaster. Medicine is not an exact science (not yet anyway) but here’s something I believe is a very common occurrence in all cancers – If your doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything.
There’s frequent discussion about the best types of scans for different types of NETs and which is best for different parts of the anatomy. There’s also different views on the subject (including in the medical community), However, a few well known facts can be gleaned from authoritative NET sources:
Computed Topography (CT)
CT scans are often the initial imaging study for a patient presenting with signs or symptoms suggestive of many cancers including NET. These studies are most useful for disease staging and surgical planning as they provide excellent anatomic detail of the tumors themselves and surrounding structures. Primary NETs (GI and lung NETs) and their metastases are generally hyperenhancing with IV contrast and are best seen in the arterial phase of a triple phase CT scan.
In primary NETs, the average sensitivity of a CT scan is 73%. CT scans have even better sensitivity in detecting NET metastases, as they demonstrate 80% sensitivity for liver metastases (but see MRI below) and 75% sensitivity for other metastases (non-liver). This modality is also useful when the primary tumor site is unknown. In one single-institution retrospective study, it was the most common study ordered to look for an unknown primary tumor site and was able to uncover the primary in 95% of cases.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
MRI is the best conventional study to detail liver metastases in NETs. It is not as useful as CT for the detection of primary small bowel lesions or their associated lymphadenopathy, but is good for the detection of primary pancreatic NETs. A study comparing MRI, CT and standard somatostatin receptor-based imaging (OctreoScan) reported 95.2% sensitivity for MRI, 78.5% sensitivity for CT and 49.3% sensitivity for the OctreoScan in detecting hepatic metastases. MRI also detected significantly more liver lesions than the other two modalities.
You may see something called Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam that produces detailed images of the hepatobiliary and pancreatic systems, including the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas and pancreatic duct.
The primary role of conventional ultrasound in neuroendocrine disease is detection of liver metastases and estimation of total liver tumor burden. This technique has the advantages of near-universal availability, intraoperative utility, minimal expense and lack of radiation. Most examinations are performed without contrast, which limits their sensitivity (compared with CT and MRI). I know in my own situation, US was used as a quick check following identification of multiple liver metastasis during a CT scan. I’ve also had US used to monitor distant lymph nodes in the neck area but always in conjunction with the most recent CT scan output.
Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)
With increased access to endoscopy, NETs in the stomach, duodenum, and rectum are increasingly incidentally detected on upper endoscopy and colonoscopy. Patients are frequently asymptomatic without any symptoms referable to the a NET (i.e. non-functional). EUS has also been used to survey patients at increased risk of developing pancreatic NETs. For example, patients with multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN). They are also frequently used in conjunction with biopsies using fine needle aspiration (FNA) guided by EUS.
Somatostatin receptor-based imaging techniques
Somatostatin is an endogenous peptide that is secreted by neuroendocrine cells, activated immune cells and inflammatory cells. It affects its antiproliferative and antisecretory functions by binding to one of five types of somatostatin receptors (SSTR1- SSTR5). These are G-protein coupled receptors and are normally distributed in the brain, pituitary, pancreas, thyroid, spleen, kidney, gastrointestinal tract, vasculature, peripheral nervous system and on immune cells. Expression of SSTRs is highest on well-differentiated NETs. Somatostatin receptor type 2 is the most highly expressed subtype, followed by SSTRs 1 and 5, SSTR3 and SSTR4.
It must be noted that even the most modern scans are not an exact science. Radionuclide scans are like conventional imaging, they can be subject to physiological uptake or false positives, i.e. they can indicate suspicious looking ‘glows’ which mimic tumours. This article explains it better than I can – click here.
The ubiquity of SSTRs on NET cell surfaces makes them ideal targets for treatment (e.g. Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) and PRRT), but also for imaging. There are two primary types of somatostatin receptor-based imaging available:
Octreoscan – In111 based
The most common (currently) is the OctreoScan or Somatostatin Receptor Scintigraphy (SRS), which uses the ligand 111In-DPTA-D-Phe-1-octreotide and binds primarily to SSTR2 and SSTR5. In its original form, it provided a planar, full body image. In modern practice, this image is fused with single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and CT. This takes advantage of the specificity of the OctreoScan and the anatomic detail provided by SPECT/CT, improving OctreoScan’s diagnostic accuracy. These improvements have been shown to alter the management in approximately 15% of cases, compared with just OctreoScan images. In primary tumors, the OctreoScan’s sensitivity ranges from 35 to 80%, with its performance for unknown primary tumors dipping beneath the lower end of that range (24%). Its ability to detect the primary is limited by the size but not SSTR2 expression, as tumors less than 2 cm are significantly more likely not to localize but do not have significantly different SSTR2 expression than their larger counterparts.
Octreoscan – Tc99m based
In one study, it was shown that sensitivity and negative predictive
values of Tc-99m-Octreotide scan is significantly higher than that of CT
and MRI. Using Tc-99m instead of In-111 had several advantages that
include better availability, cheaper and higher quality images. In
addition, to less radiation exposure to both patients and nuclear
medicine personnel. In the absence of Ga68 PET, this could prove a reliable alternative. Please note this scan is completed in a single day vs In111 Octreotide time of 2-3 days.
Ga68 PET (or SSTR PET in general)
The newest somatostatin receptor-based imaging modality, although it has been around for some time, particularly in Europe. The most common of these labeled analogs are 68Ga-DOTATOC, 68Ga-DOTANOC and 68Ga-DOTATATE. They may be known collectively as ‘SSTR-PET’. Additionally, the DOTATATE version may often be referred to as NETSPOT in USA but technically that is just the commercial name for the radionuclide mix.
These peptides are easier and cheaper to synthesize than standard octreotide-analog based ligands, boast single time point image acquisition compared to 2 or 3 days with Octreoscan. Its superior spatial resolution derives from the fact that it measures the radiation from two photons coincidentally. SPECT, in comparison, measures the gamma radiation emitted from one photon directly. This results in different limitations of detection – millimeters for 68Ga-PET compared with 1 cm or more for SPECT. There are a few choices of ligands with this type of imaging, but the differences lie primarily in their SSTR affinities – all of the ligands bind with great affinity to SSTR2 and SSTR5. 68Ga-DOTANOC also binds to SSTR3. Despite these differences, no single 68Ga ligand has stood out as the clear choice for use in NETs. As with standard somatostatin receptor-based imaging, these 68Ga-PET studies are fused with CT to improve anatomic localization.
Comparison studies between 68Ga-PET and standard imaging techniques (CT, OctreoScan) have universally demonstrated the superiority of 68Ga-PET in detection of NET primary tumors and metastases. Two early studies compared 68Ga-DOTATOC to standard somatostatin imaging (SRS)-SPECT and CT. Buchmann et al. reported that 68Ga-DOTATOC detected more than 279 NET lesions in 27 patients with histologically proven NETs, whereas SRS-SPECT detected only 157. The greatest number of lesions were detected in the liver. 68Ga-DOTATOC found more than 152 hepatic lesions, while SRS-SPECT found only 105, resulting in a 66% concordance rate between the two modalities. The concordance for abdominal lymph nodes was worse at 40.1%. Cleary these advantages are going to impact on treatment plans, some needing to be altered. In addition, 68Ga-DOTA PET imaging can be used to determine which patients might benefit from use of Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) and PRRT – you can read more about this integrated and potentially personalised treatment in my article on ‘Theranostics‘ – click here.
It’s worth pointing out that SSTR PET is replacing previous types of radionuclide scans, mainly Octreoscan (Indium 111) and is not replacing conventional imaging (CI) such as CT and MRI etc. Whilst SSTR-PET has demonstrated better sensitivity and specificity than CI and In-111, there are specific instances in which SSTR-PET is clearly preferred: at initial diagnosis, when selecting patients for PRRT, and for localization of unknown primaries. For patients in which the tumor is readily seen on CI, SSTR-PET is not needed for routine monitoring. The Journal of Nuclear Medicine has just published “Appropriate Use Criteria for Somatostatin Receptor PETImaging in Neuroendocrine Tumors” which gives guidance on it’s use – issued by the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNMMI).
Other PET Scans
18-Fluoro-Deoxy-Glucose PET (FDG PET) is used to detect malignancy for a variety of tumor types. Unfortunately, its utility has not been borne out in NETs, as the majority of NETs tend to be relatively metabolically inactive and fail to take up the tracer well. However, high-grade NETs are more likely to demonstrate avid uptake of 18FDG, giving these scans utility in identifying tumors likely to display more aggressive behavior.
The use of Fluoro-18-L-Dihydroxyphenylalanine (18F-FDOPA) in PET was developed in the 80’s for the visualisation of the dopaminergic system in patients with degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease and related disorders. The ﬁrst publication on the use of 18F-FDOPA PET for brain imaging was in 1983, which was followed by many others on the use of 18F-FDOPA PET for the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Years later, in 1999 the ﬁrst publication on the use of 18F-FDOPA PET for imaging of neuroendocrine tumour appeared. The value of 18F-FDOPA PET has now been proven for the diagnosis and staging of many neuroendocrine tumours, brain tumours and congenital hyperinsulinaemia of infants.
18F-FDOPA is accurate for studying well differentiated tumours. However the difficult and expensive synthesis have limited its clinical employment. It currently can be successfully used for imaging tumours with variable to low expression of somatostatin receptors (SSTR) such as Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma, Neuroblastoma, Pheochromocytoma), and others that cannot be accurately studied with Somatostatin SSTR scans such as the OctreoScan (Somatostatin Receptor Scintigraphy (SRS)), which uses the ligand 111In-DPTA-D-Phe-1-octreotide or the newer 68Ga DOTA-peptides. Read more about the use of 18F-FDOPA in ‘endocrine tumours’ here. Please bear in mind that more recent Ga68 PET studies may supersede some of the data mentioned. If in doubt ask your specialist.
Radioiodinated (123I) metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) is an analog of norepinephrine that is used to image catecholamine-secreting NETs such as pheochromocytomas, paragangliomas and glomus tumors. It can also be used to look for Neuroblastoma in children. In patients with functional pheochromocytomas or paragangliomas, this modality has a sensitivity of 90% and positive predictive value of 100%. However, it has limited use in Gastrointestinal (GI) NETs, as this modality was positive in only 49.1% of patients. In the same cohort of patients, OctreoScan was positive in 91.2%. As an imaging tool, this study is best used to confirm a diagnosis of pheochromocytoma or paraganglioma and define the extent of metastatic disease in these tumors. (Note – the Ga68 PET is rising in prominence though). Its most practical use in GI NETs may be to determine whether patients with metastases may benefit from treatment with 131I-MIBG (a form of radiotherapy). Please bear in mind that more recent Ga68 PET studies may supersede some of the data mentioned. If in doubt ask your specialist.
Parathyroid Scan – Sestamibi
Sestamibi scanning is the preferred way in which to localize diseased parathyroid glands prior to an operation. This parathyroid scan was invented in the early 1990’s and now is widely available. Sestamibi is a small protein which is labeled with the radio-pharmaceutical technetium99 (Tc99m). This very mild and safe radioactive agent is injected into the veins of a patient with hyperparathyroidism (parathyroid disease) and is absorbed by the overactive parathyroid gland. Since normal parathyroid glands are inactive when there is high calcium in the bloodstream, they do not take up the radioactive particles. When a gamma camera is placed over the patient’s neck an accurate picture will show the overactive gland. Only the overactive parathyroid gland shows up…a very accurate test.
The Sestamibi scan will display the hyperactive gland which is causing hyperparathyroidism in about 90 percent (90% sensitivity) of all patients. If the Sestamibi does show the hyperactive gland it is almost always correct (98-100% specificity). It takes approximately two hours to perform the Sestamibi scan after it has been injected. Pictures of the neck and chest are usually taken immediately after the injection and again in 1.75 to 2.0 hours (shown above). Newer techniques allow for more complete two and three dimensional images to be obtained of a patient’s neck. This technique is called SPECT scanning (Single Proton Emission Computerized Tomography) but it is usually not necessary.
Skeletal Scintigraphy (bone scan)
Quite often, bone metastases in NETs will be found via conventional imaging or special to NET nuclear scans such as Ga68 PET or MIBG. However, a bone scan can often find them or confirm findings of scans looking for NETs.
Skeletal scintigraphy is a special type of nuclear medicine procedure that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose and assess the severity of a variety of bone diseases and conditions, including fractures, infection, and cancer.
Nuclear medicine imaging procedures are non-invasive and — with the exception of intravenous injections — usually painless medical tests that help physicians diagnose and evaluate medical conditions. These imaging scans use radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals or radiotracers. Radioactive energy emitted from the radiotracer is detected by a special camera or imaging device that produces pictures of the bones called scintigrams. Abnormalities are indicated by areas of abnormal bone that take up more or less of the radiopharmaceutical which appear brighter or darker than normal bone on the scintigram.
Because nuclear medicine procedures are able to image the functions of the body at the molecular level, they offer the potential to identify disease in its earliest stages as well as a patient’s response to therapeutic interventions. In fact, a bone scan can often find bone abnormalities much earlier than a regular x-ray exam.
Taking the camera inside and directly to the Tumour
Of course there are other ways to “see it” via several types of Endoscopy procedures – taking the camera to the tumour. Read my article about this by clicking here
A look to the future of PET Scans
Just imagine something which is 40 times better than current PET scan technology? That’s what the scientists are working on now. Here’s an example called “EXPLORER“. Clearly there are more answers required in order to see if this is suitable for use with NETs (i.e. will it work with our radionuclide tracers etc) but it is very exciting and like something out of Star Trek. A little bit of me is worried about ‘overdiagnosis’ so interpretation of something that detailed will be very important to avoid unnecessary worry. Read more here and there is a later update here. Check out this cool video of the 3D images:
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Scanning is a key diagnostic and surveillance tool for any cancer. Even though you have elevated bloods or urine (….or not), a picture of your insides is really like a thousand words…. and each picture has a story behind it. Scanning can be a game changer in the hunt for tumours and although scans can’t (yet) confirm the cancer type and grade, they certainly help with that piece of detective work and are key in the staging of the cancer.
When I read stories of people in a difficult diagnosis, I always find myself saying ‘a scan might resolve this’ and I always suggest people should try to get one. Even in the case of a story about late diagnosis or a misdiagnosis, I find myself thinking ‘if only they had done a scan earlier’. Despite what you read on NET forums, a CT scan will normally find some evidence of most tumour activity.
However, scans are not an exact science…..not yet! Apart from human error, sometimes tumours are too small to see and/or there are issues with ‘pickup’ (i.e. with NETs, nuclear scans need efficient somatostatin receptors). However, technology is improving all the time and you can read about this in my blog Neuroendocrine Cancer – Exciting times Ahead.
As for my own experience, I was very lucky. I managed to get a referral to a specialist early on in my diagnosis phase. He looked at the referral notes and said “what are you doing this afternoon”. I replied “whatever you want me to do”. He wanted to scan me. He didn’t know I had cancer but his instincts led him to believe he needed to see inside my body. The scan results were pretty clear – I had a metastatic Cancer and further checks were now needed to ascertain exactly what it was. So I took my seat on the rollercoaster. Here’s something I always say I believe is so much better than the impractical early diagnosis messages that seem to pervade our community: If your doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything and I believe this is a very frequent outcome of many diagnoses for many cancers (not just NETs).
There’s frequent discussion about the best types of scans for different types of NETs and even for different parts of the anatomy. This is correct and there’s also different views on the subject (including in the medical community), However, a few well known facts that can be gleaned from authortative NET sources. I found this useful video summary from the NET Patient Foundation describing the different scans for NET Cancer and what to expect. Worth a look.
Sooner we can all get access to the latest radionuclide scans the better!
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.
“I’m only as good as my last scan”. I received this comment last week in response to one of my posts and I thought it was a very pragmatic thing for someone to say.
A NET patient under surveillance has regular tests at determined intervals but the one that is most likely to spot disease progression, stability or regression is a scan. Markers such as (say) Chromogranin A (CgA) or 5HIAA are clearly useful but in an ongoing surveillance scenario, they alone would not be used as a firm declaration of progression, stability or regression. Every picture tells a story and a scan is normally the confirmation required whether it’s a CT, MRI or PET (etc).
Scans are also important at the diagnostic phase and I’m sure like myself, many people had their first ever scan at this point. You can have many checks, investigations and tests but for most, the scan is normally the main test that is going to confirm the presence of tumours. This then leads to further checks to confirm the staging and grading (i.e. a biopsy) and then hopefully, a proper diagnosis.
I don’t mind scans, they are probably the test that is going to alert my team to anything odd going on. Thus why I don’t mind doing them – in fact, they are a piece of cake!
The build up to NET Cancer Day has begun and I can hear hoofbeats becoming louder every day. Is it a horse, is it a zebra etc etc. However, is this aged equine medical adage still applicable as an awareness tool for Neuroendocrine Cancer or should we be looking for something which is more impactful, up to date, more compelling, more likely be taken seriously and attract new audiences?
For those unaware, the term ‘Zebra’ is a North American medical slang for arriving at an ‘exotic’ medical diagnosis when a more commonplace explanation is more likely. The original context of the term was to correctly indicate that the most obvious diagnosis of symptoms is normally correct – i.e. hoofbeats is almost always the sound of a horse.
“When you hear hoofbeats, think zebra” is clearly not practical and pretty dangerous to those who have the obvious diagnoses (i.e. the vast majority). It’s also likely to turn out to be a very expensive way to do business as common things are common (in fact Neuroendocrine Cancer is now much more common that it was 20 years ago…..).
I’m not suggesting those who are destined to be diagnosed with ‘exotic’ diseases should be ignored for the ‘greater good’, I’m saying that hoofbeats are in actual fact normally the sound of horses in both equine and medical terms – thus why the saying was invented in the first place. By the way, Neuroendocrine Cancer has the fastest rising incidence of all cancers on the planet so it’s far from exotic. What I’m also saying is that perhaps we should stop ‘beating up’ and potentially insulting medical staff using a maladjusted version of the hoofbeat analogy in our PR. I’m afraid the use of cartoon zebras looking sanctimoniously down on cartoon doctors is perhaps not the way to win friends and influence the people we need to work with in helping diagnose quicker.
Moreover, we really need to stop dehumanising patients. I think most NET advocate organisations tend to agree with this view as they mostly do not have zebra icons in their own branding i.e. they get it, even though they might not admit it for fear of upsetting the zebra HQ. By the way, if you hear the sound of hoofbeats in Kenya, it’s likely to be a zebra, so should the Kenyan NET organisation ask their doctors to look for horses? Slightly flippant but necessary to make the point that our disease is international and yet certain organisations appear to be aloof by using it as an international slogan when it is just not relevant internationally.
The use of this skewed version of the phrase might be a great ‘rallying cry’ within the NET Cancer community and for some a ‘populist’ Facebook ‘like farming’ scheme but sharing quite ridiculous pictures of animals that will only be shared by patients is NOT real awareness. In fact, and in my opinion, the ancient, outdated and misleading zebra term is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways.
1. Context. Contextually, the zebra represents a term for a diagnosis (i.e. a disease) but the patients are not their diagnosis, they are not their disease – they are humans.
So when someone says “I am a zebra”, they are in effect saying “I am a disease”. If they say “Dear Zebras”, they are saying “Dear Diseases”. Or the cringeworthy “My fellow diseases”
2. Scope. The term is heavily associated with diagnostics i.e. it has a very narrow scope. It does not sit nicely with the increasingly important long-term maintenance of patients – crucial when you consider this is mostly a slow-growing and therefore highly prevalent disease.
3. Confusion. The term ‘Zebra’ is not exclusively used by the Neuroendocrine Cancer community, it can be, and is used by, other conditions which quite often leads to confusion.
4. Relevance. The term is inextricably linked to rare diseases and as we all now know, NETs are no longer rare. Anyone who says that the group of diseases called Neuroendocrine Tumors (or Neuroendocrine Neoplasms to use the correct scientific term) is rare, is clearly out of touch with the latest incidence and prevalence data (….or chooses to ignore for their own agenda).
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe we need a paradigm shift in the way we (the Neuroendocrine Cancer community) spread external awareness of this less common type of cancer. I think everyone agrees we need a lot more public awareness of Neuroendocrine Cancer and also that we need some high-profile ‘ambassadors’ (preferably themselves patients) in order to help promote our cause. Yes, money is useful too but in a ‘chicken and egg’ sense, we need a compelling case to attract the funds. We need new audiences outside the ‘bubble’ I think we appear to be trapped inside. The zebra posse sharing zebra pictures between each other is not efficient awareness.
Here’s my beef. If you speak to any primary or secondary care doctor, you’ll find they are very well aware of the conundrum when faced with a patient who presents with vague and odd symptoms and negative tests. Almost all will say they don’t need reminding that it might be an oddity, and that it is difficult to diagnose. They will definitely accept that some conditions are more difficult to diagnose than others and if you think about the fact that there are over 200 different types of cancer and literally thousands of conditions out there, you can see they have a really difficult job.
Let’s be realistic, very few people are going to be diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer at their very first visit to a doctor. The same could be said for many cancers and many other illnesses. Many conditions are difficult to diagnose and many are misdiagnosed for other things – yes this happens with NETs too. NETs are not as special in these areas as some people make out. Whilst we’re on that subject, please don’t quote patient surveys to me, they are also fundamentally flawed both in terms of numbers of participants and the source of the participants. It amazes me that the NET community uses this flawed (and outdated) information annually including alongside animal antics which degrades what limited value they already have.
I also know that many people (including medical staff and patients) are both confused and incredulous at the NET communities failure to ditch this out of date and single issue awareness message. Some avoid the use of these animal gimmicks and then lapse their real beliefs on 10 Nov just to appear to fit in. However, that’s rather transparent and so people see right through it, like me they want these progressive organisations to stick to their principles. They tell me they don’t like the zebra model but then say a different thing to Zebra HQ.
To quote one famous NET Specialist “….zebras …. we’re beyond that now”
We need our awareness to cover the whole spectrum of being diagnosed and then living with Neuroendocrine Cancer. We share so many issues with many cancer patients in the challenges of living with a long-term condition. This is not special, not unique, and it certainly isn’t a rare occurrence. Key facts continually missed and continually ignored by the ‘zebra posse’ (perhaps intentionally), is that this disease of ours is no longer rare and diagnosis is improving, both of which are now well documented. The ‘zebra posse’ will ensure that quite ridiculous pictures of zebras, zebra patterned clothing and jewelry all take precedence over genuine patient concerns on Facebook forums, i.e. it is hindering proper support for NET patients – NET patients are suffering because of this infatuation.
As one well known NET patient said, “unfortunately the community has become too cute with the icon”.
He’s right, it is really holding us back. It’s a PR disaster.
I’m sure that earlier access to diagnostic testing (scanning in particular) will lead to earlier diagnosis, in fact access to better scans is cited in the lasts SEER NET report as a factor resulting in increased incidence rates. That’s a resource/process issue rather than just a training/knowledge one. We need to work with doctors, not shoot them down for not knowing every minute fact about medicine. NET Cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed at secondary care and we should be equally or even more focused at that level.
If your Doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything is a more practical and realistic phrase than the impossible and impractical one in current use by our community. Additionally, to suggest that NET Cancer always presents with years of vague symptoms and requires several visits to a physician before a proper diagnosis is simply not true and is a myth. To suggest that an international patient survey of 5000 accurately represents the experience of hundreds of thousands of NET patients out there is way off beam, particularly when the source of the survey patient cohort is taken from those affected most, those with the biggest issues. Big Facebook forums do not represent the average experience of a NET patient.
Finally, I think the patient has a big part to play in diagnosis. Thanks to the internet and the stellar rise of social media, many patients are now much more savvy and are presenting to doctors and specialists with lists of their symptoms and a diary. Some will even have already compiled a list of questions to ask and have their own suggestions about what might be wrong with them. I see undiagnosed patients every day on my social media very clued up, thanks the rise of the online world, and I guarantee you they are (indirectly) educating their first line medical staff when they reel off NET facts. Add in better diagnostic testing and greater access to it (including via primary care), then I think there are positive times ahead for the earlier diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer. You might say it’s a bit of a dark horse.
To summarise ….. The first word of this post is “Opinion” but it is a pretty strong opinion as you would have gathered from the flow of the text. Everyone does indeed have a story and you only tend to hear the bad stories on NET patient forums. Additionally, newspapers love a bad story – they never print “cancer patient quickly diagnosed and treated for cancer – the end”. It’s a bit like in NET world, where the worst cases will be the majority constituents of any forum, because they are looking for help and support. The biggest US forum has around 4000 people but there are over 200,000 people living with NETs in USA (i.e. not rare). There’s a similar quota in UK. I really believe the bad experiences you regularly see on NET forums are the extreme cases (the minority). Unfortunately, most NET patient surveys are taken from these patients so the statistics are totally skewed, presenting a false picture of reality. That’s not to say we ignore this section of the community but we owe them a much better campaigning tool than the now outdated, unfashionable and very inward looking animal analogy.
Let’s move into the 21st century and get on with that.
Thanks for reading
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I enjoyed reading the recent blog written by Dr Eric Liu entitled The Complications of Surgery.In his article, Dr Liu, himself a surgeon, explains that surgery comes with risks and patients should be made aware and able to discuss these risks with their doctors.
This got me thinking about my own experience which goes back to the autumn (fall) of 2010 when I first met my surgeon. At that time, there were a few articles about whether surgery or biochemistry was the best treatment for certain types, grades and stages of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs). Another difficult issue for NETs can be the decision to cut or not to cut – as outlined in this article.
NETs are not that much different to other Cancers in this respect – there is always a balance between maximizing QoL and extending life. I was very lucky that I lived on the south central coast of England because the local Neuroendocrine Cancer expertise was (and still is) one of the best in the country. After initial diagnosis, I was followed up with more specialist tests and then offered multimodal treatment including surgery. The risks of surgery were always fully explained to me – in any case I had to sign the consent forms where they were listed! Not sure why but I couldn’t help laughing (probably nervously!) when I noted that ‘death’ was one of the risks. It didn’t put me off and I told him to “get on with it“.
What also caused me to smirk was my surgical labelling as a “young, slim and fit man”. I was then 55 years old, slightly heavier than I thought I should be and although I had been fit for most of my life, I wasn’t that fit at the time of diagnosis. However, my surgeon was clearly doing his own risk assessment and I seemed to tick all the boxes to be able to withstand what was to be a fairly rigorous 9 hours on his table. However, it was clear to me that age, weight/BMI and level of fitness are risk factors for surgery.
I don’t want to get too deep into the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by surgeons but Dr Liu’s very honest blog and my own patient experience, highlights the need, not only for a two-way conversation between surgeon and patient, but also the need for informed consent.
I clearly survived but to be honest, it was a tough period. During my first major operation, some risks were realised resulting in a much longer stay in hospital and some effects are still present today. Many of the risks involved the dissection of desmopasia (fibrosis from NETs) around the aortic area (read more here). The planned 10 day stay was extended to 19 due to a suspected infection (elevated white blood cell count) and a post operative seroma (a pool of ‘liquid’) which was causing some pain. The white blood cell count eventually settled down but for the post operative seroma, I was subjected to a CT guided needle aspiration which was great fun to watch. Fortunately for this short notice and risky procedure, I was in the hands of one of the best Interventional Radiologists in the country. Some six weeks after discharge, a follow-up scan spotted Pulmonary Emboli (blood clots) on one of my lungs and I’ve been on blood thinning treatment ever since. I returned to the same surgeon’s table 4 months later for a liver resection using laparoscopic techniques (keyhole). Again the risks were explained but it was a breeze and I was home after 6 days.
Yes, surgery comes with risks – sometimes they are realised, sometimes they are not. Action planning to counter the common risks if realised is no doubt sensible (and I suspect already part of surgical procedures and training). However, as Dr Liu says, there can be unforeseen circumstances in the course of the operation and recovery.
Almost 8 years on from diagnosis, I’m certain the two major surgeries have played a big part in keeping me alive and as well as can be expected. For me surgery remains the The Gift that keeps on Giving. If you have time, I also published a blog Surgery for NETs – Chop Chop! which contains links to surgeons talking about surgery for Neuroendocrine Cancer. There are also links to some surgical videos – I personally found them fascinating.