OPINION – nothing in here should be taken as advice from the author.
On paper, surgery remains the only potentially ‘curative‘ option for Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) but there are stage, grade and anatomical constraints to that opinion. Many people get ‘twitchy’ about any inference of the ‘C word’ (cure) but our most eminent NET specialists use the term frequently including in the major treatment guidelines.
I use the word ‘curative’ with some reservations because for many who are diagnosed at an advanced stage, surgery will not cure but will debulk or cytoreduce as much tumour as possible in order to palliate symptoms and improve quality of life. This is a big deal because NETs is one of a small number of cancers where debulking surgery can often provide a survival advantage for metastatic cases. One of the reasons it’s a big deal is because with more aggressive cancers at an advanced stage, surgery just might not be offered. It follows that surgery is most likely adding to the fairly decent NETs survival statistics, including for those with metastatic disease at diagnosis. More on this below.
That’s a fairly simplistic explanation on behalf of surgery. However, as we all know, nothing in Neuroendocrine Cancer is simple. There are always a number of factors involved and every decision can in some way be on an individual basis. There are guidelines for treatment of most types of NETs but ……. they are just that – guidelines. NET Centres and NET Specialists are encouraged to use these guidelines, for example, a European Centre of Excellence has ENETS Guidelines. There is a North American equivalent set published by NANETS and NCCN have a decent complementary set. The UK and Ireland guys (UKINETS) also published a set although many UK centres are ENETS accredited.
Whether to cut or not to cut (or watch and wait then cut if necessary) and the sequencing of treatments is a really difficult issue for NET specialists. I quite liked watching these two video clips and they cover this issue quite nicely including some interesting abdominal challenges in surgery from known NET Specialists – these short video sessions are highly recommended:
a. Risk Stratification and Management of NETs – click here
Surgery can sometimes be a tough call (……to cut or not to cut?)
It is an area where I have some sympathy for physicians and surgeons who sometimes have tough decisions to make. Surgery is risky, particularly where people are presenting in a weak condition, perhaps with very advanced disease, secondary illness and comorbidities. I also suspect age is a factor (I was surprised to find myself considered ‘young’ at 55). Physicians and surgeons need to weigh up these risks and the consequences of the surgery against a ‘watch and wait’ or alternative non-surgical approach. This would normally be discussed via a ‘Tumor Board’ or Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) meeting. However, and although imaging helps, the situation is not really 100% clear until the surgeon ‘gets inside’. Remember, all physicians and surgeons are bound by the ‘Hippocratic oath’ of “Do no harm“. Sometimes with NETs, it’s a tough call not only before they go inside but whilst they’re inside.
Surgery should be a carefully considered treatment (…..think before cutting?)
I read many stories from many different parts of the world and I also hear them from people who contact me privately on a daily basis. Some of them are perplexed why they are not receiving surgery and some are not entirely happy with the surgery they received. Many are perplexed by different advice from different doctors. I find it very difficult to respond to many. My most frequent answer is “ask your doctor” but I’m normally pretty helpful with the sorts of questions to ask.
One thing which tends to surprise people is speed – or lack of it! With lower grade NETs, the extent of the tumour (stage), its metastases, histological grade and secretory profile should be determined as far as possible before planning treatment. I like to remind people that in 2010, it took from 26 July to 9 Nov before my body saw a scalpel. With Grade 1/2 well differentiated NETs, you can often get away with that gap. Sometimes when you are diagnosed with NET, it’s a case of ‘hurry up and wait’.
Back to the guidelines, of course most people will probably fit reasonably well into the relevant guidelines flow chart. A very generic example here (not for active use please, your area may have an alternative based on availability of treatments etc):
If you search long and hard, you will find articles about whether to “cut or not to cut”. Not just a dilemma for NETs but also for many cancer types. During my research, I found there’s some overlap between this conundrum and the issue of “overdiagnosis”. By “overdiagnosis”, I mean the unnecessary declaration and treatment of something which would probably not harm a person whilst they live. This is a bit of a modern phenomena as diagnostic tools and screening programmes become more sophisticated and more sensitive …..something to consider with Ga68 PET scans as they are more widely used. If you search for ‘overdiagnosis’ you will see many articles, in particular (and as an example), with many Thyroid diagnoses. In another example, I read an article about Rectal cancerwhere the author suggested a ‘wait and see’ approach might be better for most. Worth adding at this point that many autopsies show up NETs in areas such as the appendix (…..more often than you think) – check out my article “Benign vs Malignant” and The Invisible NET Patient Population. When I attended ENETS 2017 and 2018, I heard many ‘experts’ talk about conservative approaches. However, I also heard many talk about aggressive approaches. Another term I see a lot is “one surgeon’s inoperable is another’s operable”.
Timing of Surgery (……to cut now, to cut later?)
Following on from the scenario above, timing of surgery can be another factor in a ‘watch and wait’ situation. I guess this might be something in the back of the minds of more cautious doctors when faced with a rather indolent and very slow growing Neuroendocrine Tumour. For some this can be a sensible thing – ‘kicking butt’ in a surgical context is sometimes the wrong approach. The worry is that if they are not a NET specialist, they may not fully understand the vagaries of neuroendocrine tumor behaviour (i.e. they all have malignant potential – WHO 2010/2017). We’ve all heard the stories of people being told it’s not cancer, right? Please note my article Benign vs Malignant. However, you may be interested in this post from someone who is one of the most experienced NET surgeons on the planet. Dr Eric Liu talks quite candidly about the ‘timing’ of surgery suggesting a ‘watch and wait’ approach in certain scenarios.
Of course cutting now might actually be a pre-emptive measure. For example, if physicians can see a growth which is critically placed close to an important structure such as a blood vessel or the bile duct or bowel. Even if the disease cannot be cured, removing the tumour may prevent problems in the future by removing disease from key areas before the vital structure has been damaged or blocked. For example, my surgeon conducted a high risk operation on some desmoplasia (serotonin fibrosis) which had encircled my aorta and cava almost occluding the latter. There’s an excellent surgery pamphlet from NET Patient Foundation and I strongly recommend a read as it’s an experienced surgeon’s approach to surgery with NETs (actually written by my own surgeon Mr Neil Pearce!). Click here to read it.
One NET centre in USA has published very detailed surgical statistics indicating that surgical cytoreduction in NET patients has low morbidity and mortality rates and results in prolonged survival. Their conclusion went on to say “We believe that surgical cytoreduction should play a major role in the care of patients with NETs”. You can read the extract from this document by clicking here. Authors: Woltering et al.
Was Steve Jobsa smart guy who made a stupid decision when it came to his health? It might seem so, from the broad outlines of what he did in 2003 when a CT scan and other tests found a cancerous tumour in his pancreas. Doctors urged him to have an operation to remove the tumour, but Mr. Jobs put it off and instead tried a vegan diet, juices, herbs, acupuncture and other alternative remedies. Nine months later, the Neuroendocrine Tumour had grown. Only then did he agree to surgery, during which his doctors found the cancer had spread to his liver. The rest is summarised in my article Steve Jobs.
This is a difficult subject and no one size fits all. Treatment for NETs can be very individual including surgery. I guess you need to be comfortable with your team. I was lucky, in that I lived close to a NET Centre. I was referred to their surgical team once my staging and grading were complete and I was stabilised on somatostatin analogues (carcinoid syndrome under control). I realise it’s difficult for many but I always say to people who make contact, it’s best if you can be seen by a NET centre or an experienced NET specialist – at least be guided by one if not possible or practical. Personally, I think the surgeon’s experience in dealing with NETs is really important. But even experienced NET centres/specialists have to make tough calls.
You may benefit from my 10 Questions article which also has links to NET Specialists.
There’s a saying that the patient is the most underused person in healthcare and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. However, I would suggest with Neuroendocrine Cancer, it’s less true than for many other cancers. There are so many NET Cancer patients out there who know quite a lot about their cancer, and in some detail. Even the great Dr Liu once said that NET Patients frequently know more about NET Cancer than their doctors.
If you go onto Twitter, if you go onto Facebook, if you read newspaper stories, you will find cancer patient stories in abundance and they will normally be patients diagnosed with the big 4 cancers. This is not surprising as these tend to affect more people. However, the ratio of NET Cancer patient stories still does not seem to be right. I’m not ‘dissing’ breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancer patients, all credit to them for pushing their cancer awareness – respect!
I truly believe that patient stories, whether they are written, presented live or recorded for mass media, are an extremely valuable tool in spreading awareness of NET Cancer. A ‘human being’ talking is a thousand times more potent than the endless stream of ‘memes’ and cartoons that seem to pervade our community – one reason why I don’t use them on my own site. It’s also the reason why I always jump at the opportunity to tell my story, because it’s real, it’s factual and I’m sensing an increasing willingness from the medical and healthcare communities to use patients in this way. Quite right too, patients have a lot to offer.
I’ve been video’d several times in the past 12 months and one day you might actually get to see those, there are some contractual reasons why I cannot yet share them with you. It’s quite a scary thing to do and I found it mentally exhausting – but very worthwhile.
I was therefore delighted to find this recently published group of videos from Cure Connect. Within the clips, there are 2 patients stories, one Pancreatic NET (pNET) and one Carcinoid and they are interspersed and integrated by input from NET specialist Dr. Reidy-Lagunes (a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker). Each clip is only around 5 minutes long so not too taxing. The pNET patient, Michael, is a great supporter of my blog and one of the first NET patients I met on twitter. I’m very thankful to him for alerting me to the videos. Dr Reidy-Lagunes is fast becoming a ‘fav’ of mine and I note she emphasises some of the things I’ve been consistently saying in my blogs; i.e. this cancer can be treated and it’s not as rare as people think.
Another bonus is the addition of Carcinoid Cancer Foundation (CCF) and my friend Grace Goldstein. CCF is the largest and most respected NET Cancer organisation on the planet and Grace works tirelessly to spread awareness and help patients including me! CCF was the first site I found and remains my go-to site today.
Well done Michael and Brenda. Thanks also to Dr. Reidy-Lagunes, Grace Goldstein/CCF and Cure Connect for once again highlighting our cancer.
As it’s Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I’d share a personal story with you. This is something regarding my own diagnosis and something as yet unpublished. I don’t tend to share some very personal stuff but this is on the boundary of that rule and there are some important messages to be teased out. For those who follow my blog in detail, you will remember the post entitled “Neuroendocrine Cancer – Signs, Suspicions, Symptoms, Syndromes, Side-Effects, Secondary Illnesses, Comorbidities, and Coincidences”. As you can see from the title, I got hooked on a bunch of synonyms (small s) that represent the difficulty in sorting out what can be attributed to Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) and what might be something else. You’ll note they all begin with the letter ‘S’ except ‘Comorbidities’ and ‘Coincidences’. These 2 were actually retrospective add-ons to the blog title and there is a potential overlap between both.
Life is full of coincidences and I’m certain this is also the case with issues NET patients have from time to time. There is a high possibility that some things which were going to happen health-wise before NETs came along, will most likely still happen and it can often seem like the NETs have some causal effect. As my friend Dr Eric Liu says ‘Even NET patients get regular illnesses’.
I also suspect the same thing can happen pre-diagnosis and if you’re unlucky, during the diagnostic phase. This sort of event has the potential to confuse an already confusing diagnosis! So here’s a story about my ‘COINCIDENCE’ which eventually turned out to be a ‘COMORBIDITY’.
At the beginning of 2010 (remembering my diagnosis was July that year), I did what all men should regularly do – I checked my ‘chaps’ for lumps. Sometime in January, I got the feeling my left ‘chap’ was bigger than the right and I monitored that for a few days. Eventually, it was patently obvious there was an abnormality. I immediately went to my GP and he diagnosed a hydrocele. Apparently these are quite common with men. He was able to quickly work this out by shining a torch through the offending gonad area and as the light came out the other side, this was confirmation it was excess fluid. He said it might go away on its own but explained there were medical procedures to correct it including fine needle aspiration (not normally a permanent fix) or surgical repair (the most permanent fix). I left it for a few weeks and as time passed, the size of my left ‘chap’ increased. It became really uncomfortable and painful so I asked to be referred to a specialist. Bear in mind at this point, I still didn’t know I had Neuroendocrine Tumours burrowing away inside me for years.
Fast forward 1 month, the hydrocele is not yet sorted and I’m speaking to a specialist having been referred for a low hemoglobin score (the trigger for my NET diagnosis). At this point, I’m convinced there is a connection and amongst the plethora of tests and checks, the specialist also carried out a fine needle aspiration of my left ‘chap’ (I can hear the male audience wincing). The fluid was sent off for testing and subsequently returned negative. My left ‘chap’ was now back to normal (every cloud…..). By the way, the hydrocele returned around 2 months later. I eventually got the date for my hydrocele surgical procedure (hydrocelectomy) but decided to postpone it to sort out another little matter …… Cancer!
I eventually got it repaired in Sep 2011 after 14 months of NET treatment and had no issues since. Now…… I can almost hear the cogs turning …… the testes are an endocrine organ etc. I’ve been through this too and I was still suspicious for a year after diagnosis. However, I’ve been categorically told there is no connection and there is nothing showing on ultrasound, CT scan or Octreoscan. 4.5 years later, I’m happy there was no connection 🙂
However, I did my duty, I checked my chaps, found an issue and fortunately it was nothing too serious. Crap timing though!
A couple of years ago, I received a request from a reader asking if I would write an article about all the symptoms experienced by a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient and how to sort out what is and what isn’t associated with NETs.
Although I chuckled and raised eyebrows at the request, inside I was genuinely humbled that someone thought I was capable of achieving this herculean task. I actually gave it quite a bit of thought to the point of compiling a matrix of types of NET, main symptoms, cross-referenced with the symptoms of the most common reported comorbidities. After it started to look like it might be bigger than the Empire State Building, I came to the conclusion that it’s an almost impossible task for a wee Scottish guy with less common disease 🙂 I also started to suspect that even the world’s top NET experts had not accomplished it either.
Here’s a picture of my work to date:
I have, however, dabbled in attempts to work out my own problems over the past few years. NETs can present with a ‘syndrome’ – a bunch of symptoms normally caused by excessivehormone secretion, some of which are particularly vague and can sometimes continue to cause issues after treatment and beyond – it’s a real witch’s brew of symptoms. They can also cause non-syndromic issues pertaining to treatment side effects and it must also be noted that even NET patients get regular illnesses which adds to the issues healthcare professionals and patients face in monitoring NETs.
In my article “Neuroendocrine Cancer Syndromes – early signs of a late diagnosis”, I focused on the key symptoms experienced pre-diagnosis and then discussed how you might go about sorting out the symptoms from main side effects post treatment (another regular conundrum for most). On a similar subject, you might want to check out my 5 E’s blog for carcinoid syndrome. I also compiled an article about the source of flushing and diarrhea given there were many differential diagnoses and not just syndromes.
NETs vs Other Illnesses
Adding another jigsaw piece to the issues with cancer and side effects – common comorbidities (many of an endocrine nature) can arise simultaneously. Is it connected with NETs are just another illness to manage alongside? All of these factors can make it really difficult to determine the source of the symptoms. I’m always conscious that the majority of NET patients are in their 5th decade onward and at an age where things start to go wrong quite naturally due to ‘time’ and ‘wear and tear’.
Here’s one classic example of this problem, I can see many people on forums also have diabetes (an endocrine disease). In the United States alone, nearly 7 million people have undiagnosed diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. I can also see from the news in UK, that this is becoming a much bigger deal too – a report published in Feb 2018 claims that diagnoses have doubled in 20 years. I’ve used the diabetes link as an example, there will be many other very common factors at play, e.g. hypothyroidism an age and gender relation issue. It is certainly possible that many of the problems people face might just be an as yet undiagnosed/underlying condition, unconnected with NETs. To quote the great Dr Eric Liu, “even NET Patients get regular illnesses”. Working it out is rather difficult though. Sometimes pragmatism is required.
Syndromes vs Side Effects of Treatment
On forums where most people have a diagnosis and are undergoing treatment, there is regular discussion and Q&As about the source of symptoms, i.e. are they a result of a functioning syndrome (i.e. a consequence of the cancer) or something else? For example, some people complain they still have (so-called) carcinoidsyndrome diarrhea after bowel surgery………that needs some careful thought and understanding before coming to what might just be the wrong conclusion, particularly if all tumour markers are normal. I have lost count of the number of times someone has asked about a symptom on a forum and got 50 different answers. One of the reasons why forums can be good at frightening rather than frighteningly good. Personally, I never compare myself to strangers on the internet. I just hope most people are using the forums as ‘sounding boards’ and are simultaneously addressing these very complex issues with their doctors when they are genuinely concerned.
I really feel for anyone who is going through a difficult diagnosisor has been diagnosed and then continues to have numerous problems after initial treatment. I also have a little bit of sympathy for primary care medical staff on the basis this is just one of over 200 types of cancer, many of which have wide age groupings adding to the complexity and difficulty. Moreover, many of the symptoms experienced by NET patients on analysis look very similar to everyday illnesses and other ailments. And if that wasn’t demanding enough for doctors, many patients present with already established and diagnosed comorbidities (other illnesses) which add another level of complexity. These difficulties can then continue throughout treatment. It can be a real challenge and I’m sure even Doctors can be totally flummoxed on occasion by patient presentations.
It is extremely difficult to “sort out the symptoms” when faced with multiple locations/tumour sub-types, multiple treatments causing multiple side effects, multiple side effects causing multiple symptoms, multiple comorbidities with symptoms similar to cancer syndromes and treatment side effects (and vice versa). This disease can be very individual and what happens to one might not happen to another. Although we hope doctors generally take a holistic view when treating NET patients, I have a view that sometimes focussing in on a particular symptom might occasionally be a more effective route (the bottom-up approach – pun not intended!). When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time! It’s useful to know about the range of tumor markers and hormone markers – read more here.
One thing I have learned ……educate yourself to the best of your abilities. This will help you to better advocate for yourself. Improvements are possible.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is a very difficult jigsaw and you sometimes need to look very hard for the missing piece! The ‘missing piece’ can be variable and very individual, i.e. a NET specialist, access to a particular treatment or even just more support or access to support information that works.
Although initially considered rare tumours up until 10 years ago, the most recent data indicates the incidence of NETs has increased exponentially over the last 4 decades and they are as common as Myeloma, Testicular Cancer, and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In terms of prevalence, NETs represent the second most common gastrointestinal malignancy after colorectal cancer. Consequently, many experts are now claiming NETs are not rare (see below). A recent study published on 5 Dec 2018 reports that even if you isolate Small Intestine NETs in the USA population, the incident rate is 9/100,000. Contrast this against the US incident rate as at 2012 of 7/100,000 for all NETs. The rare threshold in Europe is 5/100,000 and below.
And on 7th January 2019, an internationally known NET Specialist described NETs as very common.
In fact, the graph of the SEER database figures for NETs in both 2004 and 2012 indicates the rate of incidence increase is faster than any other cancer on the planet, particularly attributed to lung, small intestine, and rectal NETs. The World Health Organisation’s revised classification of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms in 2010, abandoned the division between benign and malignant NET as all NETs have malignant potential and should be graded accordingly. The 2004 SEER data compiled did not take into account what might have been considered to be benign NETs.
However, the most recent USA study up to 2012 has confirmed the incidence beyond 2004 has continued to rise (and rise, and rise, and rise) and this is covered below in the section entitled “Meanwhile inUSA”. One of the principal authors of both database studies has now gone public and said NETs are no longer rare.
Incidence and Prevalence
Before I continue, it’s important to understand the difference between incidence and prevalence. In the crudest of terms, incidence is the number of new cases of a disease being diagnosed (normally aligned to a specific quota of the population per year, generally 100,000). Prevalence normally indicates an amount of people living at any one time with a disease. It’s also important to note that different nations or groups of nations classify ‘rare’ in different ways – not really helpful when looking at worldwide statistics.
So why the increase? I suspect the reasons include (but are not limited to), more awareness (population and medical staff), better detection techniques and probably more accurate reporting systems, at least in USA, Norway, Canada and now in the UK i.e. a mixture of underdiagnoses and misreporting. The Canadian study is important as it also noted the proportion of metastases at presentation decreased from 29% to 13%. This is the first study that suggests an increased incidence of NETs may be due to an increased (and earlier?) detection. This has the knock on effect of increasing prevalence as most NET Cancer patients will normally live for longer periods. Add to this the plethora of better treatments available today, you have a highly prevalent cancer. Most of that is good news.
However, their true incidence may be higher owing to the lack of diagnosis until after death. For example, in USA, a respected NET specialist stated that the autopsy find for (excuse the outdated terminology) ‘carcinoid‘ is 4 times the recorded diagnosis rate. In Australia, one study claimed that 0.05% of all autopsies found a Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma. A very interesting slideshow from a well respected NET expert claimed there are 200,000 undiagnosed NET patients in USA. Slide below: You may also wish to check out my article “The Invisible NET Patient Population” where this is explored further.
US SEER 2004 – The Trigger and Turning Point
In the largest study of its kind up to that point, well-known Neuroendocrine Cancer expert James C. Yao researched the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database. His team studied 35,825 cases of Neuroendocrine Cancers in the United States covering data between 1973 and 2004. The report concluded that in 2004 there were 5.25 new cases of NETs per 100,000 people, compared with 1.09 per 100,000 in 1973 . This is in contrast to the overall incidence of malignancies, which has remained relatively constant since 1992 (see the yellow line on the graph).The study also pointed out that due to increased survival durations over time, NETs are more prevalent than previously reported. If you analyse the NET data for 1994 (10 years before the end of the study period), you will see an incidence rate of approx 3.25/100,000. In 2004, the incidence rate had risen to 5.25/100,000. Although not an exact science, it does suggest the potential incidence rate at 2014 (10 years after the study period) might possibly have climbed well beyond 6/100,000 and even further if the same rate of increase displayed by the study had continued (spoiler alert – it actually came out as 7/100,000 see below under ‘Meanwhile in USA’). This study also confirmed a prevalence of 103,000 NET patients as at 2004. As this is regarded as the most accurate NET statistic ever produced, it is interesting to note that was at a time when the prognostics for NET were not as good as they are today indicating there must be a very significant increase if extrapolated to the current time. Moreover, this was prior to the WHO 2010 reclassification of NETs so more diagnoses will be counted today that were not counted in 2004. See below to see the significance of this figure (see section ‘Do the math’).
The 2004 data was an astonishing set of statistics – particularly as they were based on 12 year old data. However, there is now new data up to 2012 that overtakes the above-mentioned groundbreaking study and confirmed the incidence is now even higher. See section entitled “Meanwhile inUSA …….”
Meanwhile in Norway ……
Data from the Norwegian Registry of Cancer showed a similar incidence of Neuroendocrine Cancers with a 72% increase between 2000 and 2004 compared with 1993–1997. Also in Norway, an article published in 2015 entitled “Epidemiology and classification of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms using current coding criteria” indicated a high crude incidence of GEP-NEN, at 5·83 per 100 000 inhabitants over the period 2003-2013 (adjusting to 7.64 for Europe in 2013 – see diagram below extracted from cited article 2a). It was also noted together with the statement “….a significant increasing trend over time”. [2a] Citation [2b]
Meanwhile in Canada …….
CNETs have highlighted an article published in the magazine ‘Cancer’, February 15, 2015, showing that the incidence of Neuroendocrine Tumours has markedly increased in Canada over the course of 15 years (1994-2009). The results showed that the incidence of Neuroendocrine Tumours has increased from 2.48 to 5.86 per 100,000 per year. 
Meanwhile in UK …….
The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) indicate the incidence of NETs has risen to almost 9/100,000 (i.e. not rare) using the latest International Classification of Diseases for Oncology (ICD-O) methodology version 3 – ICD-O-3. Even that figure is understated because it does not include Lung Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (i.e. SCLC and LCNEC). As at 31 Mar 2016, the age-standardised incidence rate for NETs in England (excluding small and large cell neuroendocrine carcinomas, SCLC and LCNEC respectively) was 8.84, 8.37 in males and 9.30 in females – rising from 3.9 in 2001. These figures are from the NET Patient Foundation and were issued as a result of a NPF and PHE (NCRAS) partnership project which has been compiling statistics on the incidence, prevalence and survival of NET Patients in England using English cancer registry data. They also have an aim to also access the rest of UK cancer registry data to get UK wide figures.
A slide from the recent UKINETS 2017 conference indicating an agreement from UK and Ireland NET Specialists.
Meanwhile in New Zealand …….
Meanwhile in USA …….
The latest evidence of its rise is contained in the largest ever study ever conducted. It is based on data up to 2012 so it’s worth noting that this data is now 5 years old (3 years for the project prevalence figure), so even these figures may still be conservative. The document, which was published in 2017 can be found here: Click here. A short summary follows:
In this population-based study that included 64 971 patients with neuroendocrine tumors, age-adjusted incidence rates increased 6.4-fold between 1973 and 2012, mostly for early stage tumors. Survival for all neuroendocrine tumors has improved, especially for distant stage gastrointestinal and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.
Of the 64 971 cases of NETs, 34 233 (52.7%) were women. The age-adjusted incidence rate increased 6.4-fold from 1973 (1.09 per 100 000) to 2012 (6.98 per 100 000). This increase occurred across all sites, stages, and grades. In the SEER 18 registry grouping (2000-2012), the highest incidence rates were 1.49 per 100 000 in the lung, 3.56 per 100 000 in gastroenteropancreatic sites, and 0.84 per 100 000 in NETs with an unknown primary site. The estimated 20-year limited-duration prevalence of NETs in the United States on January 1, 2014, was 171 321
Conclusion: The incidence and prevalence of NETs have continued to rise in the United States, owing to the increased diagnosis of early-stage disease and possibly stage migration. The survival of patients with NETs has improved, and this improvement has been greater for those with distant gastrointestinal NETs and, in particular, distant pancreatic NETs.
Combine that with a revised annual incidence rate of 23,000 and the very well known fact that NETs is a highly prevalent disease, it must be mathematically impossible for the figure not to be above the USA rare threshold of 200,000 in 2017. As you can see from the graph below, the incidence rate for NETs continues to outstrip the incidence rate for all malignant neoplasms (another word for tumour). Amazingly, the report authors even state “…….. it is likely that we have underestimated their true incidence and prevalence”.
The NET Research Foundation published an amazing infographic which summarises the output of the SEER 2012 study (although it does omit the prevalence figure ‘as at’ date). See it below and you can read the accompanying text here.
Let’s do the Math
Neuroendocrine Cancer is not only the fastest growing cancer in incidence terms but as a group of cancers, given the mounting epidemiological evidence, it can no longer be rare as a grouping of cancers. Neuroendocrine disease IS NOT RARE.
For example, if you roughly extrapolate the US SEER data graph above to 2017 and recalculate the prevalence rate based on 23 000 per year from the 2014 figure of 171 321. Unfortunately, some people will have passed, but it’s well documented as a highly prevalent cancer and therefore more people live. The prevalence of neuroendocrine tumors in USA was higher than the combined estimated prevalence of esophageal cancer (n = 36,857), gastric adenocarcinoma (n = 79,843) and pancreatic adenocarcinoma (n = 49,620) in 2013. In fact, one of the conclusions of the 2012 SEER report is that we are living longer with NETs. This is in line with many other cancers due to improved diagnostic and treatment regimes. Cleary more work still needs doing.
The heading of this section is my name for those who have not yet been diagnosed with NETs but are walking around having been either misdiagnosed, diagnosed with another cancer in the same part of the anatomy, living and putting up with the symptoms whilst the tumours grow. To add to this part of the underdiagnoses of NETs is this most amazing piece of research published in 2018 – Pan-cancer molecular classes transcending tumor lineage across 32 cancer types, multiple data platforms, and over 10,000 cases. It was published in the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) journal ‘Clinical Cancer Research and authored by Chad Creighton et al. DOI: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-17-3378. This was a pan cancer piece of research which indicated that Neuroendocrine disease may be more prevalent than anyone had ever thought. There’s a summary article here which I suggest you read fully. The rather explosive extract is as follows:
Whilst reporting has been improved, it is most likely still not 100% accurate. Therefore, even the figures above may be understated due to an incorrect cause of death reporting and incorrect diagnosis/recording of the wrong cancers (e.g. pNETs recorded as Pancreatic Cancer, Lung NETs recorded as Lung Cancer, etc). This is certainly still happening in UK and I suspect in most other countries. Add to that the regular reports of Neuroendocrine Tumours being found during autopsies and you have the potential for an even further unrecorded increase had these been found prior to death. In fact, according to SEER 2012, the true incidence and prevalence is most likely underestimated. In fact here is a statement straight from the horse’s mouth:
The issue is also complicated by the method used in USA for naming a disease ‘rare’. Rather than use incidence rates, the USA uses the number of people living with the disease at any one time (i.e. essentially the prevalence). This is currently 200,000 as a threshold – anything below that is considered rare. It seems mathematically impossible for NETs to be less than 200,000 given the data provided above.
When I first started researching NETs back in 2010, the US figure (which varies from source to source) was around 125-150,000. Why are people quoting figures less than this in 2017 when the 2014 figure has now been confirmed above? There also seems to be a selective omission of the new US incidence rate of 7/100,000.
You will also see that Dana Farber is estimating more than 200,000 people are as yet undiagnosed. Even if that were 50% accurate, it would put the current prevalence figure in US over 300,000.
Let’s cut to the chase – NETs are not rare, they are just less common
Are we shouting loud enough about this? I don’t think so. ‘Rare’ is very frequently used within the NET community almost to the point of being a status symbol. Based on these figures, this looks like an outdated approach along with its associated icons. The evidence above is so compelling that saying the group of cancers officially called Neuroendocrine Neoplasms is rare is starting to sound like fake news.
“A neoplasm on the rise. More prevalent than you may think. Incidence increased dramatically during past 3 decades” (Novartis)
“it’s less rare than we used to think. It’s more malignant than we previously thought” (Dr Richard Warner)
“…..it is one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the U.S. There has been a 500-percent increase in the last 30 years” (Dr Edward Wolin)
“Estimated more than 200,000 undiagnosed cases in the US” (Dana Farber)
“I actually think NETs are not a rare cancer” (Dr James Yao)
“NETS will no longer be rare” (UKINETS 2017 one of the opening slides)
“NETs are no longer rare” (Dr Andrew Hendifar)
“…..when you think of prevalence, NETs are actually quite common” (Dr Jonathan Strosberg)
“One study showed that the number of people diagnosed has risen 50% over the last decade and unfortunately, I worry that is an underestimate” (Dr Eric Liu)
“Neuroendocrine Cancer – NETs are not rare, just less common. We need a new paradigm” (Ronny Allan since 2015)
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.