One of the most controversial aspects of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) is the ‘benign vs malignant’ question. It’s been widely debated and it frequently patrols the various patient forums and other social media platforms. It raises emotions and it triggers many responses ….. at least from those willing to engage in the conversation. At best, this issue can cause confusion, at worst, it might contradict what new patients have been told by their physicians (….or not been told). This post will not cover Neuroendocrine Carcinoma which by definition is malignant.
Any definition of the word ‘tumour’ will confirm it can either be benign or malignant. However, and while I’m sure there are benign NETs, the key statement to explain any slow growing or indolent NET is that they all have malignant potential – thus why surveillance and follow up is really important. This is the key factor in the changes found in the 2010 Digestive System World Health Organisation (WHO) classification system from the previous ‘flaky’ version. This reinforcement of the malignant potential of all NETs was duplicated in the recent 2017 Endocrine System equivalent, which is now proposed as a classification scheme for all NETs (see below).
Of course we are not helped by the continued use of the term Carcinoid which decodes to ‘Cancer Like’ – that is potentially regressing the work of those specialists who are trying to undo the last 100 years of complacency in the medical world (and not really the type of awareness we need). The word is gradually being erased from NET nomenclature and the recent 2018 proposal by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and WHO NET expert consensus panel to ditch it from the remaining versions of out of date WHO classifications (e.g. Pulmonary/Lung, Pituitary, Head & Neck, Genito-urinary, Adrenal and Paraganglia, Skin), is the final nail in the coffin for Carcinoid. RIP Carcinoid. This also supports our awareness issues with the media reporting the wrong cancer types based on anatomy of the primary tumour. Dear Doctors, Patient Advocates and Patients ….. please stop using the word!
I have lost count of the stories from Neuroendocrine Cancer patients who have been told their tumour was benign but then returned with incurable and metastatic cancer sometime downstream. Clearly there are doctors who do not understand NETs and/or are not aware of the changes in WHO classification schemes since 2010. Sure, some will prove to be ‘benign’ in nature and may not cause many issues but any Ki-67 below 3% is a formal grade of Neuroendocrine Neoplasm. I accept that it’s currently difficult to work out which cases will turn more aggressive and when, thus why surveillance and follow up are really important and also why patients should be seeing doctors who understand NETs. Worth also noting that many slow growing and indolent tumors can still often produce troublesome NET syndromes.
I’ve even heard one patient story where it was claimed a doctor called a metastatic NET case benign! Any definition of ‘benign’ on any respectable cancer site, will include the statement that they do not spread to other parts of the body. The NET Patient world is full of slow growing Grade 1 Stage 4 patients – by definition, they’re all malignant.
Read more detail in these articles as these issues are inextricably linked.
I’m sure there are scenarios in all cancers where tumours can be benign and will never harm the person but if a Doctor says you have a Neuroendocrine Tumour and not to worry because it’s benign, ask questions. Start with “how do you know it will never turn malignant” and “what will be done going forward to check”.
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I recently wrote a blog called Neuroendocrine Cancer – Exciting Times Ahead! I wrote that on a day I was feeling particularly positive and at the time, I wanted to share that positivity with you. I genuinely believe there’s a lot of great things happening. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot still to be done, particularly in the area of diagnosis and quality of life after being diagnosed. However, this is a really great message from a well-known NET expert.
In an interview with OncLive, Jonathan R. Strosberg, MD, associate professor at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, discussed his presentation on NETs at a recent 2016 Symposium, and shed light on the progress that has been made in this treatment landscape.
OncLive: Please highlight some of the main points from your presentation.
Strosberg: The question I was asked to address is whether we’re making progress in the management of NETs, and I think the answer is unequivocally yes. Prior to 2009, there were no positive published phase III trials.
Since then, there have been 8 trials, 7 of which have reached their primary endpoints. So it’s been a decade of significant improvement. And even though none of these studies were powered to look at overall survival as an endpoint, we’re certainly seeing evidence of improvement in outcomes.
OncLive: What are some of the pivotal agents that you feel have impacted the paradigm in the past several years?
Strosberg: The first group is the somatostatin analogs. We use them to control hormonal symptoms like carcinoid syndrome, but with the CLARINET study, we now know that they substantially inhibit tumor growth.
The next significant drug we use in this disease is everolimus (Afinitor), an oral mTOR inhibitor, which is now approved in several indications based on positive phase III studies. The first was in pancreatic NETs and subsequently, based on the RADIANT-4 trial, it was also approved in lung and gastrointestinal NETs. So that was an important advance.
The next important category of treatment is radiolabeled somatostatin analogs, otherwise known as peptide receptor radiotherapy. The one that’s been tested in a phase III trial is lutetium dotatate, also known as Lutathera. It was tested in patients with progressive midgut NETs and showed a very substantial 79% improvement in progression-free survival, and a very strong trend toward improvement in overall survival, which we hope will be confirmed upon final analysis.
OncLive: Are we getting better at diagnosing and managing the treatment of NETs?
Strosberg: Certainly. I think pathologists are better at making the diagnosis of a NET, rather than just calling a cancer pancreatic cancer or colorectal cancer. They’re recognizing the neuroendocrine aspects of the disease, and doing the appropriate immunohistochemical staining.
We also have better diagnostic tools. We used to rely primarily on octreoscan, and in many cases we still do, but there is a new diagnostic scan called Gallium-68 dotatate scan, also known as Netspot, which has substantially improved sensitivity and specificity. It’s not yet widely available, but it is FDA approved and hopefully will enable better diagnosis as well as staging in the coming years.
And, with the increase in number of phase III studies, we’re developing evidence-based guidelines, which will hopefully lead to more standardization, although knowing how to sequence these new drugs is still quite challenging.
OncLive: With sequencing, what are the main questions that we’re still trying to answer?
Strosberg: If we take, for example, NETs of the midgut, beyond first-line somatostatin analogs, physicians and patients often face decisions regarding where to proceed next, and for some patients with liver-dominant disease, liver-directed therapies are still an option.
For others, everolimus is a systemic option, and then hopefully lutetium dotatate will be an option based on approval of the drug, which is currently pending. Knowing how to choose among those 3 options is going to be a challenge, and I think there will be debates. Hopefully, clinical trials that compare one agent to another can help doctors make that choice. It’s even more complicated for pancreatic NETs. Beyond somatostatin analogs, we have about 5 choices—we have everolimus, sunitinib (Sutent), cytotoxic chemotherapy, liver-directed therapy, and peptide receptor radiotherapy. It’s even more challenging in that area.
OncLive: Are there any other ongoing clinical trials with some of these agents that you’re particularly excited about?
Strosberg: There’s a trial that is slated to take place in Europe which will compare lutetium dotatate with everolimus in advanced pancreatic NETs, and I think that’s going to be a very important trial that will help us get some information on both sequencing of these drugs, as well as the efficacy of Lutathera in the pancreatic NET population, based on well-run prospective clinical trials. I’m particularly looking forward to that trial.
OncLive: Looking to the future, what are some of the immediate challenges you hope to tackle with NETs?
Strosberg: One area of particular need is poorly differentiated neuroendocrine carcinomas. That’s a field that’s traditionally been understudied. There have been very few prospective clinical trials looking at this particular population, and we’re hoping that will change in the near future. There are a number of trials taking place looking at immunotherapy drugs. If these agents work anywhere in the neuroendocrine sphere, they are more likely to work in poorly differentiated or high-grade tumors, in my opinion, given the mutational profile of these cancers. So that’s something I’m particularly looking forward to being able to offer these patients something other than the cisplatin/etoposide combination that goes back decades, and is of short-lasting duration.
See more at: http://www.onclive.com/publications/oncology-live/2016/vol-17-no-24/expert-discusses-recent-progress-in-net-management#sthash.ypkilX2A.dpuf
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There’s a constant debate regarding the validity of the term ‘Carcinoid‘. I’ve posted about this a few times and as far as I know, the debate has been raging for some years.
You may have noticed that ‘Carcinoid’ is often used as a standalone word and tends not to be suffixed with the word ‘Cancer’ or ‘Tumour’ – unlike Bowel Cancer, Breast Cancer, Prostrate Cancer, Lung Cancer, Brain Tumour, etc. Nobody goes around saying “Breast” or “Bowel” do they? But they happily say “Carcinoid”. Unfortunately, the term ‘Carcinoid’ has become entrenched in both pathology and clinical literature over the past 100 years. The main problem with the word Carcinoid is that it means different things to different people. Some use the term almost exclusively to designate serotonin-producing tumours that arise from the enterochromaffin cells that can result in carcinoid syndrome i.e. most commonly in the appendix, small intestine, stomach, lung, rectum and uncommonly in other places. Some use it to (incorrectly) refer to all Neuroendocrine Tumours. The most worrying connotation of the use of the word ‘Carcinoid’ is the belief that they all have benign clinical and biological behaviour. That is dangerous thinking and has the potential to kill people. Fortunately, NET specialists are starting to move away from using the word – check out the quote below:
The following history of ‘Carcinoid’ is well documented: Siegfried Oberndorfer (1876-1944) became the first to adequately characterise the nature of Carcinoid tumours and refer to them as “benign carcinomas.” During his tenure at the Pathological Institute of the University of Munich, Oberndorfer noted in 1907 that the lesions were distinct clinical entities and named them “karzinoide” (“carcinoma-like“), emphasizing in particular their benign features. However, In 1929 he amended his classification to include the possibility that these small tumours could be malignant and also metastasise. (Author’s note – a name change would have been handy at this point).
100 years later
NANETS, UKINETS and ENETS seem to defer to the WHO classification nomenclature and it is here another term is introduced – Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (NENs). NANETs state that “all of the entities under discussion are neoplastic, and neoplasm is therefore a more accurate term than tumor, which means only a mass“. These organisations tend to use the term Neoplasm as a catch-all for all Neuroendocrine disease and then the term ‘tumor’ and ‘carcinoma’ applies to well and poorly differentiated respectively. It’s worth noting that since 2010, the WHO classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential. Neuroendocrine Carcinoma is malignant by defintion. All of this has been reinforced in the 2017 publication. The term ‘Carcinoid’ is conspicuously missing from these texts.
To put it simply – the term ‘carcinoid’ is no longer credible
Due to its historical meaning, Carcinoid does not adequately convey the potential for malignant behaviour that accompanies many of these neoplasms as described above. The term Carcinoid decodes to ‘Carcinoma like’. Contextually “Carcinoid Cancer” decodes to “carcinoma like cancer” which is, of course, totally misleading and its use simply perpetuates the claim by some that it is ‘not a proper cancer’. If we only needed one reason to ditch the word ‘Carcinoid’, this would be it.
I mentioned confusion above and this has led to a hybrid effect of naming the condition. For example, there is a tendency by some (including medical establishments and patient organisations) to use the term ‘Carcinoid’ and ‘Neuroendocrine Tumors’ interchangeably which is patently incorrect. Neither is it helpful that many patients and organisations continue to refer to this disease as “Carcinoid Neuroendocrine Tumor”, “Neuroendocrine Carcinoid Tumor”, “Neuroendocrine Carcinoid Cancer”, “Carcinoid/Neuroendocrine”, “CNET”; and many other variations along these lines. Many seemingly credible organisations will say “Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine Tumors” not realising it’s a contradiction in terms. Continued use of the term in any phrase or standalone context is not doing our case for recognition any good – it’s bad enough that some seem to cling to outdated and invalid diagnostic clichés and icons from the 1980s. All of it needs to go.
I know I’m not alone in this thinking given the decrease of its use in the NET world, including NET Specialists (see lead graphic) and NET Specialist organisations (some have changed their names). There’s an interesting article written by a NET specialist where the term ‘carcinoid’ is described as “unfortunate”, “misleading”, “outmoded”, “archaic”, “confusing” and “misnomer”. Exactly! In the recent SEER NET study, a NET specialist reaffirmed this thinking by stating that “the belief these tumors did not metastasize, did not reach any great size, and appeared harmless, has since been proven false”. Continued use of the term ‘Carcinoid’ has the potential to regress this thinking. We must not let this happen.
So what terms should we be using?
People and organisations will be out of date with modern Neuroendocrine Neoplasms nomenclature and some will still want to continue with their own nomenclature (….. and because of the confusion, some will fall into both categories not realising they’re out of date). Here’s a classic example of the problem we face – the American Cancer Society(ACS) does not even list Neuroendocrine Tumor as a cancer type. Instead you can find “Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors” and “Lung Carcinoid Tumor”. You’ll find Pancreatic NETs inside Pancreatic Cancer. Americans should harangue the ACS to get this right. I could go on with many similar observations on seemingly respectable sites. I intentionally used a US example as this country appears to be way behind in the changes to NET nomenclature, pretty surprising as they tend to be at the forefront of many other aspects in the world of NETs.
Personally, I think the acceptance of a common worldwide nomenclature should come from the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms. They are divided into a number of chapters including ‘Endocrine Organs’, Digestive System, Lung Tumours….. and no doubt some others. Frustrating, but medical people tend to look at things in anatomical terms. Nonetheless, the agreed classification nomenclature for the whole group of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms can be found with some research and access to clinical publications. The correct nomenclature should then be flowed down in regional groupings, e.g. ENETS representing Europe, NANETS representing North America, etc. As I understand it, ENETS and UKINETS are already essentially aligned with WHO and NANETS appears to be. From these organisations, the use of the correct terminology should then rub off on patients, patient advocate organisations and general cancer sites. However, the biggest challenge will be with hospitals/medical centres, cancer registries and insurance companies whose medical record processing is run using reference data (think drop down selections and database structures). Easier said than done but ‘change’ always has to start somewhere. Technically it has started (albeit late) as the big NET medical organisations are already starting to reduce the use of outmoded words such as ‘carcinoid’.
I once argued that the term ‘carcinoid’ needed to be retained as it represented a histopathological grouping of a particular type of NET comprising mostly appendiceal, stomach (gastric), rectal, small intestine and lung NETs. However, reading through the ENETS 2016 guidance in conjunction with the most up to date WHO classification publications, I’ve changed my mind after noticing they no longer use the word ‘Carcinoid’ in relation to a tumor type. Rather, they use the latest WHO terms above and then use the anatomy to distinguish the different types of NET (like we already do for Pancreatic NET or pNET).
Perhaps patients can lead the way here ………
Rather than say:
‘Carcinoid’ or ‘Carcinoid Tumor’….. why not say Neuroendocrine Tumor or NET (adding your primary location if required – see below);
‘Carcinoid Cancer; ….. why not say Neuroendocrine Cancer;
‘Lung Carcinoid’ ….. why not say Lung NET (adding typical or atypical if required);
‘Small intestine Carcinoid’, why not say Small Intestine NET (or ‘SiNET which is becoming popular); p.s. I’m not a fan of ‘small bowel’ due to the potential for confusion with the widely used term ‘bowel cancer’);
‘Gastric Carcinoid’, why not say Gastric NET (adding your type if required);
‘Rectal Carcinoid’, why not say Rectal NET;
‘Appendiceal Carcinoid’, why not say Appendiceal NET;
…. and so on. And you can add your stage and grade/differentiation for a richer picture.
You can listen to a very well known NET Specialist say something similar in this videohere.
Worth noting that even ENETS and NANETS cannot agree on tumor type terminology – the latter uses Small Bowel NETs (SBNETs) whereas ENETS uses Small Intestine NENs (SiNENs). I did say it’s easier said than done.
As I said above, the term ‘Carcinoid’ has become entrenched in both pathology and clinical literature over the past 100 years so it will still appear in many texts and need to be searchable online to support medical and advocacy business. However, these are technical issues and I don’t therefore believe people need to use the terms to make them searchable online. I tag all my posts with ‘Carcinoid’ even if I don’t mention the word in my text. I have started only using the term for context when it is required and am currently reviewing all of my posts to ensure that is still the case.
Hang on…what about Carcinoid Syndrome
When someone wants to know which syndrome you have, you can’t just state (say) “small intestine syndrome” or “midgut syndrome”. ‘NET Syndrome’ doesn’t work either as there are several NET syndromes. This has led to the situation where people try to drop the word ‘carcinoid’ and just say “the syndrome” which is even more confusing! I accept this one is a difficult challenge but I don’t believe it’s insurmountable, just needs some willpower and agreement. I could come up with other terms in about 5 minutes.
What about Carcinoid Heart Disease
Personally I don’t see why this cannot be renamed to ‘Neuroendocrine Heart Disease’ or its technical name – ‘Hedinger syndrome’.
What about Carcinoid Crisis
World renowned NET specialists already make statements that these issues can apply to all types of NET; and it’s well-known that a similar crisis situation already applies to other types e.g. Pheochromocytomas.I cannot see why something along the lines of ‘Neuroendocrine Crisis’ or ‘NET Crisis’ would not be acceptable.
We as patients are unlikely to be able to force changes on the medical and insurance communities but we can be a ‘force for change’ by setting the example of using a correct and more apt terminology to describe our disease.
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