I spend a lot of time talking about the most common forms of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), but what about the less well-known types? As part of my commitment to all types of NETs, I’d like to shine a light on two less common tumour types known as Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas – incidence rate approximately 8 per million per year. They are normally grouped together and the definitions below will confirm why. If you think it’s difficult to diagnose a mainstream NET, this particular sub-type is a real challenge.
So, let’s get definitions out of the way:
Pheochromocytomas (Pheo for short)
Pheochromocytomas are tumours of the adrenal gland that produce excess adrenaline. They arise from the central portion of the adrenal gland, which is called the adrenal medulla (the remainder of the gland is known as the cortex which performs a different role and can be associated with a different tumour type). The adrenal medulla is responsible for the normal production of adrenaline, which our body requires to help maintain blood pressure and to help cope with stressful situations. The adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys (i.e. there are two). Adrenaline is also called ‘epinephrine’ which is curiously one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome.
Paragangliomas (Para for short)
Paragangliomas are tumours that grow in cells of the ‘peripheral’ nervous system (i.e. the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). Like Pheochromocytomas, they can release excess adrenaline. There can be confusion between the two types of tumour as Paragangliomas are often described as extra-adrenal Pheochromocytomas (i.e. a Pheo external to the adrenal gland).
Going forward, I’m going to talk about both using the single term of ‘Pheochromocytoma’ in the context of an adrenaline secreting tumour but may refer to Paraganglioma where there might be a difference other than anatomical location.
Pheochromocytomas are often referred to as the “ten percent tumour” because as a rule of thumb they do many things about ten percent of the time. However, these figures are slowly changing, so this label is gradually becoming less apparent. The following is a fairly exhaustive list of these characteristics:
A few facts about Pheochromocytomas
As much as 1 in 3 are Malignant but most have undetermined biologic potential. A recent document issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that “Paragangliomas should not be termed benign”.
Around 10% of Pheochromocytomas are Bilateral (i.e. found in both adrenal glands: 90% arise in just one of the two adrenal glands)
Around 10% are Extra-Adrenal (found within nervous tissue outside of the adrenal glands … i.e. 10% are Paragangliomas)
Around 10% are found in Children (i.e. 90% in adults)
Up to 30% are Familial potentially rising to 50% for metastatic cases and Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) involvement.
The recurrence rate is around 16%, i.e. about 1 in 6 patients have a tumor that comes back after surgery. Tumors that come back also have the potential to be malignant. If you have pheo or para and have surgery to remove it, be sure to continue to check in with your doctor to monitor for any returning tumors.
Present with a stroke (10% of these tumours are found after the patient has a stroke)
The classic symptoms of Pheochromocytomas are those attributable to excess adrenaline production. Often these patients will have recurring episodes of sweating, headache, and a feeling of high anxiety.
Headaches (severe)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Excess sweating (generalized)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Racing heart (tachycardia and palpitations)(one of the classic triad, see below)
Anxiety and nervousness
Nervous shaking (tremors)
Pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
Nausea (with or without vomiting)
According to the ISI Book on NETs (Woltering, Vinik, O’Dorisio, et al), Pheochromocytomas present with a classic triad of symptoms and signs: headache, palpitations and sweating. This symptom complex has a high specificity and sensitivity (>90%) for the diagnosis of Pheochromocytomas. The figure is much lower in individual symptom presentations (palpitations 50%, sweating 30%, headaches 20%). In addition to correctly diagnosing from these symptoms, Pheochromocytomas may also be found incidentally during a surgical procedure even after a diagnosis of an ‘adrenal incidentaloma’
Markers. Like serotoninsecreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions). It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines. This test is designed to measure production of the different types of adrenaline compounds that the adrenal glands make. Since the body gets rid of these hormones in the urine, we simply collect a patient’s urine for 24 hours to determine if they are over-produced. Like 5HIAA, there is also a plasma (blood draw) version of the test. According to the ISI Book on NETs, there is also an additional test called ‘Vanillylmandelic Acid (VMA). This reference also indicates the most sensitive test is plasma free total metanephrines. Also read more here.
Genetics. The familial connection with Pheo/Para is complex. Up to 13 genes have been identified including NF1, RET, VHL, SDHA, SDHB, SDHC, SDHD, SDHAF2(SDH5), TMEM127, MAXm EPAS1, FH, MDH2. Read more here ( recent update). The NIH also have a useful section –click here.
Scans. Other than the usual range of scanners, ultrasound, CT/MRI, all of which may be used to find evidence of something, the other scan of note is called MIBG. This is a nuclear scan similar in concept to the Octreotide Scan given to many NET patients (in fact some Pheo patients my get an Octreotide scan if they have somatostatin receptors). The key differences with MIBG is the liquid radioactive material mix which is called iodine-123-meta-iodobenzylguanidine or 131-meta-iodobenzylguanidine (this is where the acronym MIBG originates). Together with the markers above, the results will drive treatment. Depending on availability, the latest PET scans may also be available potentially offering greater detail and accuracy i.e. 18F-FDOPA, 18F-FDG and Ga68. Read more on scans here.
This statement and diagram was provided by Dr Mark Lewis who is an Oncologist and MEN patient. “The algorithm for working up a hyperadrenergic state is attached (and was developed by Dr. Young at Mayo Clinic). It outlines the most reliable testing for a pheo or Paraganglioma”
Additional Factors and Considerations
This is an awareness post so I’m not covering treatment options in any detail except to say that surgery if often used to remove as much tumour as possible. Somatostatin Analogues may also be used in certain scenarios in addition to other hormone suppression or symptom controlling drugs. That said, Pheo/Para patients may be interested in a PRRT trial exclusively for Pheo/Para – read more here (see section entitled – “What about Pheo/Para”)
The adrenal cortex mentioned above is actually the site for Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC) – this is a totally different cancer.
Pheochromocytomas are probably difficult to diagnose (you only have to look at the symptoms to see that). The differential diagnoses (i.e. potential misdiagnoses) are: hyperthyroidism, hypoglycaemia, mastocytosis, carcinoid syndrome, menopause, heart failure, arrhythmias, migraine, epilepsy, porphyria lead poisoning, panic attacks and fictitious disorders such as the use of cocaine and benzedrine.
Many Pheochromocytoma patients will also be affected by Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN), in particular MEN2 (there are some wide-ranging percentage figures online for this aspect). There can also be an association with Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome and lesscommonly with Neurofibromatosis type 1.
Given the nature of the hormones involved with Pheochromocytomas, there is a risk of intraoperative hypertensive crises. This is similar in some ways to Carcinoid Crisis but needs careful consideration by those involved in any invasive procedure.
Newly Approved Drug – AZEDRA
On 30th July 2018, Progenics Pharmaceuticals Announces FDA Approval for AZEDRA® (iobenguane I 131) to Treat Unresectable, Locally Advanced or Metastatic Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma – read more by clicking here.
Pheochromocytomas are very complex involving many of the challenges found in the more abundant and common types of NETs. To underscore this statement, please see this case studywhere one patient was misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems for 13 years before being correctly diagnosed with a metastatic Pheochromocytoma.
This is an extremely basic overview offered as an awareness message about the lesser known types of NETs. I refer you to my disclaimer. If you wish to learn more about Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas, check out the links below.
The word ‘crisis’ has a wide range of meanings and it’s well used in the media to catch the reader’s attention. Lately, the terms ‘political crisis’, financial ‘crisis’ and ‘constitutional crisis’ appear almost daily in media headlines. In a previous life, the term ‘crisis management’ was used daily in the work I was undertaking as I went from problem to problem, dampening or putting out fires (….. that’s a metaphor!). Thinking back, my adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and cortisol must have been very busy!
However, in the world of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), ‘crisis’ has a very significant meaning and its very mention will make ears prick up. The word ‘crisis’ is normally spoken or written using the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ given this is the type of NET with which it has been mostly associated. However, I’ve studied and researched and it would appear that some form of ‘crisis’ might apply to other types of NETs. Perhaps this is another knock-on effect caused by the historical use of the word ‘Carcinoid’ to incorrectly refer to all NETs. In terms of ‘crisis’, maybe there should be a more generic NETs wide term? Of course there should, once again ‘carcinoid’ is causing confusion.
What is (so called) ‘Carcinoid Crisis’?
In the simplest of terms, it is a dangerous change in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing (technical term – cardiopulmonary hemodynamic instability). On an operating table under anaesthetics or an invasive procedure such as liver embolization, this can actually be life threatening. Incidentally, this happens with many other types of conditions (hormones and peptides do exist in other illnesses). However, with a patient already oversecreting these hormones and peptides, it could be a life or death situation.
What is the difference between carcinoid crisis and carcinoid syndrome?
Carcinoid crisis is said to be a situation where nearly all of the possible symptoms of carcinoid syndrome come at the same time and in some severity. Carcinoid crisis is a serious and life-threatening complication of carcinoid syndrome, and is generally found in people who already have carcinoid syndrome. The crisis may occur suddenly, or it can be associated with stress, a reaction to treatment, but it is mainly as a result of the use of anaesthesia. There is a thin line between a very severe bout of carcinoid syndrome and carcinoid crisis but generally it can be characterized by an abrupt flushing of face and sometimes upper body, usually severe falls in blood pressure and even bronchospasm with wheezing can infrequently occur. The attack may look like a severe allergic reaction.
It is said by one very well-known NET expert to “not to be something which happens randomly to all patients, it is usually linked to a medical procedure of some sort when you are having anaesthesia”. Dr Eric Liu also said “Luckily it is relatively uncommon”.
Why does it happen to some NET Patients?
NETs can release a variety of ‘vasoactive peptides’ (hormones) in excess (e.g. serotonin, catecholamines, histamine). Under normal circumstances, these would just present as routine syndromes which may need to be controlled in most cases with somatostatin analogue treatment (Octreotide/Lanreotide).
Excess amounts of these vasoactive substances can cause both hypertension and hypotension (high and low blood pressure respectively). In extreme cases this can lead to what is known as a crisis situation.
How is the risk managed?
Most people are effectively managed on monthly injections of Octreotide/Lanreotide but some people still need ‘rescue shots’ (top ups) where they are experiencing breakthrough symptoms. When I was symptomatic (syndromic), I would regularly flush in stressful situations but that was definitely syndrome rather than crisis. Check out my video explaining how I felt. It’s worth reading something called the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome, probably useful to other types of NETs as I’m sure there is some overlap.
If you research this plus perhaps from your own experience, you will know there are different ideas and ‘protocols’. However, they all mostly involve some pre-procedure infusion of a somatostatin analogue (normally Octreotide) – although I’d love to hear from anyone who has had Lanreotide as an alternative. Some doctors or hospitals are known to have their own ‘protocols’ and I’ve uploaded the one from the ISI NET book page 215 (Wang, Boudreaux, O’Dorisio, Vinik, Woltering, et al). Click here. Please note this is an example rather than a recommendation as this is something the NOLA team have developed for their own centre.
In all the big procedures I’ve had done in my local NET Centre, I have always been admitted the day before to receive what they describe as an ‘Octreotide Soak’. The link below is an example of the UK standard for pre and peri-operative protection (please note your NET team may be working to a slightly different protocol based on their own version of best practice, just to emphasise that this is an example and not advice).
Patients are always asking about the risk and requirements for smaller procedures such as an Endoscopy. There does not seem to common guidance on this but Dr Woltering who is always forthcoming with advice suggests 200 micrograms of Octreotide before the procedure commences.
Dental visits involving anaesthetics can also be an issue and you can see Dr Woltering’s advice in my blog about the 5 Es of Carcinoid Syndrome. Additionally there is advice for users of ‘Epi Pens’. You also need to derisk those situations.
What about other types of NETs
The ISI Book Link above (herefor convenience), does state “regardless of tumor type, all NETs should be pre-treated with Octreotide for protection against crisis“. I know that NET patients other than those with ‘Carcinoid Tumours’ are also treated with somatostatin analogues, as they too can be subject to the effects of excess secretion of certain vasoactive peptides.
Why is the issue relative to Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma?
Pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas are catecholamine-producing neoplasms that can cause life-threatening hemodynamic instability, particularly intraoperatively, when the tumor is manipulated. In some ways their version of ‘crisis’ is more complex and dangerous than in the issues with carcinoid crisis above. There needs to be significant pre-operative preparation in addition to peri-operative measures, in fact with this type of tumour, post surgical treatment and monitoring is also required.
I recently read an article about a person with a Pheochromocytoma. The person had what was described as an ‘Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis‘ that appeared to be caused by her tumour type rather than the sort of incident that might occur in a standard surgery. Hypertension (high blood pressure) can be a symptom of Pheochromocytoma so you can see the problem with surgery and other procedures. An interesting issue with this type of NET is that after surgery, the patient is at risk for hypotension (low blood pressure) from venous dilation caused by the sudden withdrawal of catecholamines. Read more here.
I highly suspect there are many examples from the NET world beyond the ‘carcinoid’subtype of NETs and I’ve already given you one above. I’ll update this blog as I discover other examples. In the meantime, make sure you ask your medical team about ‘crisis protection’ if you are to undergo any surgical or invasive medical procedure. Minor procedures should also be assessed.
Do we need to rename the term Carcinoid Crisis to Neuroendocrine Crisis? Probably …… let’s give it a red card!
I think most people have had a form of medical testing at some point in their life, i.e. the sampling and testing of blood, urine, saliva, stool or body tissue. In a nutshell, the medical staff are just measuring the content of a ‘substance’ and then taking a view whether this is normal or not based on pre-determined ranges. These tests are normally done as a physician’s reaction to symptom presentation or maintenance/surveillance of an existing diagnosed condition. Sometimes, abnormal results will lead to more specialist tests.
In cancer, these tests are frequently called ‘markers’. Most tumour markers are made by normal cells as well as by cancer cells; however, they are produced at much higher levels in cancerous conditions. These substances can be found in the blood, urine, stool, tumour tissue, or other tissues or bodily fluids of some patients with cancer. Most tumour markers are proteins. However, more recently, patterns of gene expression and changes to DNA have also begun to be used as tumour markers. Many different tumour markers have been characterized and are in clinical use. Some are associated with only one type of cancer, whereas others are associated with two or more cancer types. No “universal” tumour marker that can detect any type of cancer has been found.
There are some limitations to the use of tumor markers. Sometimes, noncancerous conditions can cause the levels of certain tumor markers to increase. In addition, not everyone with a particular type of cancer will have a higher level of a tumour marker associated with that cancer. Moreover, tumour markers have not been identified for every type of cancer. Tumour markers are not foolproof and other tests and checks are usually needed to learn more about a possible cancer or recurrence.
I’d also like to talk about a group of associated tests, in particular, hormone levels as these tests are really important to help determine the type of Neuroendocrine Tumour. NETs will sometimes oversecrete hormones and this can give clues to the type. The constraints mentioned above apply to hormone levels and other tests to a certain extent.
What this article will not cover
Routine Testing – the post will not cover routine blood tests (i.e. complete blood count etc). Although they may point to a problem, these tests do not necessarily indicate a particular type of NET without other supporting evidence.
Biopsy Testing – Technically, the Immunohistochemical ‘stains’ used in biopsy testing are tumour markers but I’ll not be discussing that today. I did cover the output of biopsies in my blog on NETs – Stages and Grades.
Genetic Testing. This is very specialised but you may find my Genetics and NETs article is of interest.
Sequencing of marker testing – diagnosis
The sequencing of marker testing may have been different for many patients. In my own experience, I had a biopsy and then the biochemical checks were carried out. So regardless of the results of my marker tests, I was to be diagnosed with NETs. Those with lengthy and difficult diagnostic phases will perhaps have had a different sequence with the biochemical markers providing evidence for further tests to formally diagnose. Markers alone will normally not be enough for a diagnosis but they do, however, feed into the treatment plan and provide a baseline at diagnosis and for tracking going forward.
Interpreting test results – International/National/Regional differences
The use of markers tends to be different on an international basis, e.g. specific marker tests can be developed in-country by independent labs. Testing can also vary in the same country as in-country labs use different commercially available ‘testing kits’. Not all tests are available in all countries.
Reference ranges can be dependent on many factors, including patient age, gender, sample population, and test method, and numeric test results can have different meanings in different laboratories. The lab report containing your test results should include the relevant reference range for your test(s). Please consult your doctor or the laboratory that performed the tests to obtain the reference range if you do not have the lab report. Moreover, the ‘normal’ test range can vary from hospital to hospital, even within the same tests. I suspect clinical staff have their own versions of risk thresholds when dealing with test results. Even when results are just above or below, individual physicians can take their own view in a subjective manner. Testing is best done at the same lab each time if possible.
There’s a great website called LabTestsOnlinewhich can describe each test. It’s peer-reviewed, non-commercial and patient-focused but just please note you should always refer to your own lab ‘normal ranges’ which will be printed on your test results. For these reasons, you will not find reference ranges for the majority of tests described on this web site. The link above will take you to the list of ‘country’ affiliated versions with specific information on a country basis.
Here’s some tips I always give people:
1 – Always try to get your own copy of results (preferably on paper) and track them yourself (I use a spreadsheet).
2 – When comparing results inside patient forums, always add the range and if possible, the unit of measurement (i.e. g/L, mmol/L, umol/L etc etc). Failure to do this can at best confuse, and at worst frighten patients. Compare apples with apples not with pears! (this is why it’s important to know the unit of measure and the reference range in addition to the figure).
3 – Don’t get too excited about rises if the test is still inside the normal range – normal is normal!
4 – Don’t get too excited about rises taking you just outside of normal range – your doctors are looking for bigger spikes.
5. Don’t get too excited about a single test result, your doctors are looking for trends, a single test result is not much to go on.
Although some routine blood markers (complete blood count etc) are useful in NETs, it’s pretty much impossible to cover these in any general detail. I’m going to focus on tumor and hormone associated markers
There are many markers involved with NETs. Some do different jobs and some are just variants measuring the same thing (more or less efficiently). You may also see something called ‘gold standard’ in reference to NET Tumour markers. Although thinking is changing (more on this below) and can vary from country to country, it is generally accepted that Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are the gold standard markers for tumour bulk and tumour functionality respectively. These gold standard tests may not be applicable to every type of NET, particularly 5HIAA. I’m also aware that US doctors are reducing the dependency on CgA and using Pancreastatin instead (although many are measuring both).
NETs are known to be heterogeneous in nature (i.e. consisting of or composed of dissimilarelements;nothaving a uniformqualitythroughout). Whilst some markers can be used widely, it follows that there are many very specialist marker tests for individual types of NET. I think this applies to 3 broad categories of NETs: Tumours known to potentially oversecrete Serotonin and and perhaps others (mainly midgut), Pancreatic NETs (or pNETs) secreting various hormones by type; and other less common types and/or syndromes which might be considered by some to be even more complex than the former two and in some cases there are big overlaps.
Another interesting thing about NET markers is that an undiagnosed patient may undergo several specialist tests to eliminate the many possibilities that are being presented as vague and common symptoms. Sometimes this is necessary to eliminate or ‘home in’ on a tumour type or syndrome/hormone involved (it’s that jigsaw thing again!).
Markers too can be divided into broad categories, those measuring how much tumour is in your body and its growth potential and those measuring how functional (or not) those tumours are. The latter can probably be expanded to measure/assess excess hormone secretion and syndromes.
Certain tests can be anatomy related so to add context and to prevent big repetitive lists when using the terms ‘foregut’, ‘midgut’ and ‘hindgut’, you may find this graphic useful.
Markers for measuring Tumour bulk or load/growth prediction
Chromogranin (plasma/blood test)
Chromogranin is an acidic protein released along with catecholamines from chromaffin cells and nerve terminals. This statement alone might explain why it is a good marker to use with NETs. Depending on the test kit being used, you may see test results for Chromogranin A (CgA) and Chromogranin B (CgB) – the inclusion of CgB tends to be confined to Europe. There is also mention of Chromogranin C (CgC) in places but I’ve never heard of this being used in conjunction with NETs.
One of the disadvantages of CgA is that the results can be skewed by those taking Proton Pump Inhibitors(PPIs). Many NET patients are taking PPIs to treat GERD (….and Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome). In the long-term, this has the result of increasing gastrin levels which can lead to an increase of CgA in the blood including for some months after discontinuing. Opinions differ but many texts I found did suggest stopping PPIs for 2 weeks before the CgA blood test. CgB is said not be as influenced by the use of PPI as CgA. In addition to the issue with PPIs, CgA levels may also be elevated in other illnesses including severe hypertension and renal insufficiency. CgB is also said to be more sensitive to Pheochromocytoma.
Elevated CgA is a constant and somewhat excitable discussion point on patient forums and not just because of the lack of unit of measurement use I discussed above. Some people get quite excited about a single test result. I refer to Dr Woltering et al (ISI Book) where it clearly states that changes in CgA levels of more than 25% over baseline are considered significant and a trend in serial CgA levels over time has been proven to be a useful predictor of tumour growth (i.e. a single test result with an insignificant rise may not be important on its own). Dr Woltering also gives good advice on marker tests when he says “normal is normal” (i.e. an increased result which is still in range is normal).
Here is a nice graphic explaining what else could be the cause of elevated CgA:
CgA appears to be a widely used tumour marker and is effective in most NETs (foregut, midgut and hindgut). It is also sensitive to Pheochromocytoma, particularly when correlated with a 131I-MIBG scan. Interestingly Chromogranin can also be used in the immunohistochemical staining of NET biopsy samples (along with other methods).
As for my own experience, my CgA was only elevated at diagnosis, remained elevated after intestinal surgery but returned to normal after liver surgery (indicating the effect of liver tumour bulk on results). It also spiked out of range when some growth in a distant left axillary node was reported in Jan 2012. Following a lymphadenectomy, it returned to normal again and has remained in range to this day. It has been a good predictor of tumour bulk for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.
In effect, this marker does the same job as CgA. Interestingly, Pancreastatin is actually a fragment of the CgA molecule. There have been many studies (mainly in the US) indicating this is a more efficient marker than CgA, and not only because it is not influenced by the use of PPI. It has also been suggested that it’s more sensitive than CgA and therefore capable of detecting early increases in tumour burden. It has also been suggested it can be an indication of tumour ‘activity’ (whatever that means). It is widely used in the US and some physicians will use it in preference to CgA (…..although from what I read, CgA also seems to be tested alongside). I’m starting to see this mentioned in the UK.
Neurokinin A (NKA)
This is not a well publicised test. However, it is something used in USA but I’d like to hear from others to validate its use elsewhere. In a nutshell, this test, which only applies to well differentiated midgut NETs, appears to have some prognostic indication. I discovered this test in the ISI NET Guidance and it’s backed up by a study authored by names such as Woltering, O’Dorisio, Vinik, et al. This is not a one-off test but one designed to be taken serially, i.e. a number of consecutive tests. These authors believe that NKA can also aid in the early identification of patients with more aggressive tumors, allowing for better clinical management of these patients. NKA is sometimes called Substance K.
Neuron-Specific Enolase (NSE)
In patients with suspected NET who have no clear elevations in the primary tumor markers used to diagnose these conditions, an elevated serum NSE level supports the clinical suspicion.
Markers for measuring Tumour functionality/hormone/peptide levels
So far, I’ve covered basic tumor markers which have a tumor bulk and/or prognostic indication. This section is a slightly more complex area and many more tests are involved. There’s often a correlation between CgA/Pancreastatin and these type of markers in many patients i.e. a serial high level of CgA might indicate a high level of tumour bulk and therefore increased production of a hormone in patients with a syndrome or oversecreting tumor. However, it frequently does not work out like that, particularly when dealing with non-functioning tumours.
The type of marker for this element of NET diagnosis and surveillance will vary depending on the type of NET and its location (to a certain extent). Like tumour bulk/growth, there might be different options or test variants on an international basis. There are too many to list here, so I’ll only cover the most common.
Serotonin Secreting Tumors
There are a few markers in use for measuring the functionality of this grouping of tumours. This tumour group has a tendency to secrete excess amounts of the hormone Serotoninalthough it differs depending on the area of the primary. For example, hindgut tumours tend to secret lower levels than foregut and midgut and therefore this test may present within range. Please also note there may be other hormones of note involved. The antiquated and misleading term ‘Carcinoid’ is sometimes used as a descriptor for these tumours and more and more NET scientific organisations and specialists are now avoiding use of this term.
5HIAA. 5HIAA is a metabolite of Serotonin thus why it’s a useful thing to measure to assess functionality in this grouping of tumours. 5HIAA is actually the ‘gold standard’ test for functioning serotonin secreting tumours. It’s a key measure of the effects of carcinoid syndrome and the risk of succumbing to carcinoid heart disease. However, there are two methods of testing: Urine and Plasma. The latter is mainly used in USA but other countries are now looking at implementing the plasma version (in fact I’m now tested in both at my local hospital in UK). The rather obvious key difference between the two is practicality. With the 24 hour urine, there are two key issues: 1. The logistics (i.e. lug the jug). 2. Fasting for up to 3 days prior to the test (4 if you count the day of the test). There are numerous variations on the fasting theme but most labs tend to say not to eat at least the following foods that contain high levels of serotonin producing amines: avocados, bananas, chocolate, kiwi fruit, pineapple, plums, tomatoes, and walnuts. Some lists contain additional items. With the plasma version, the fasting period is reduced to 8 hours. There are also medicinal limitations including drugs that can also alter 5-HIAA urine values, such as acetanilide, phenacetin, glyceryl guaiacolate (found in many cough syrups), methocarbamol, and reserpine. Drugs that can decrease urinary 5-HIAA levels include heparin, isoniazid, levodopa, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, methenamine, methyldopa, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants. Patients should talk to their doctor before decreasing or discontinuing any medications.
As for my own experience, my 5HIAA (urine) was elevated at diagnosis only returning to normal after removal of my primary and commencement of Lanreotide. It has been a good measure of tumour functionality for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.
Other tests for the tumour subgroup include but not limited to:
Serum Serotonin (5-HydroxyTryptamine; 5-HT). Firstly let’s deconflict between 5HIAA above and the serotonin (5-HT) blood test. 5HIAA is a metabolite of serotonin but the serotonin test is a measure of pure serotonin in the blood. Morning specimens are preferred and this is a fasting test (10-12 hours). There is always debate on forums about Serum Serotonin results. I have Dr Liu on record as saying “a high serotonin level measured in the blood in isolation really isn’t that dangerous. It’s the 5HIAA (a breakdown product of serotonin, which is easily measured in the blood and urine) that is considered to be more indicative of persistent elevated hormone. It’s this test that is most closely related to the carcinoid heart disease”.
Substance P. A substance associated with foregut and midgut tumours. It is a vasoactive protein that can cause wheezing, diarrhea, tachycardia, flushing
Histamines – Usually associated with foregut tumors. Appears to be involved in patchy rashes and flushing. The advice in the ISI NET book is no anti-histamine medication to be taken for 48 hours prior to blood draw.
Gastric NETs (Stomach)
Testing will be different depending on the Type:
Type 1 – Typical Low Grade, tends to be caused by atrophic gastritis.
Type 2 – Atypical Intermediate Grade and tends to be caused by gastrin secreting tumours. Type 2 normally needs a check for MEN1/Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome.
Type 3 – Tend to be larger and more aggressive tumours.
The key makers are CgA and Gastrin although Gastrin may not be elevated in Type 3. Gastrin ph is useful to differentiate between Type 1 and Type 2. 5HIAA can be considered but Carcinoid Syndrome is rare in Gastric NETs.
NETs of the Pancreas (pNETs)
pNETs can be very difficult to diagnose and not only because they share some presentational similarities to their exocrine counterparts. Some pNETs actually comprise tumours arising in the upper part of the duodenum (small intestine) close to the Pancreas. Moreover, more than half of pNETs are non-functional which increases the difficulty in suspecting and then finding the tumours. However, where there is clinical presentation or suspicion, these symptoms can lead to the appropriate testing to support the output of scans. The fasting gut profile mentioned above can be useful in identifying the offending hormones when the type of NET is not yet known.
Gut Hormones (Glucagon, Gastrin, VIP, Somatostatin, Pancreatic Polypeptide)
A gut hormone screen is used for the diagnosis of a variety of endocrine tumours of the pancreas area. Analysis includes gastrin, VIP, somatostatin, pancreatic polypeptide, and glucagon, but there may be others depending on processes used by your ordering specialist or hospital.
1. You may see this referred to as a ‘Fasting Gut Profile’ or a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile’.
2. The individual hormones measured seem to differ between hospital labs.
3. The fasting conditions also vary between hospitals and labs but all agree the conditions are critical to the most accurate results. Always ask for instructions if you’re offered this test.
The gastrin test is usually requested to help detect high levels of gastrin and stomach acid. It is used to help diagnose gastrin-producing tumours called gastrinomas, Zollinger-Ellison (ZE) syndrome, and hyperplasia of G-cells, specialised cells in the stomach that produce gastrin. It may be measured to screen for the presence of multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN) It may be used if a person has abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and recurrent peptic ulcers. A gastrin test may also be requested to look for recurrence of disease following surgical removal of a gastrinoma.
Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) measurement is required for diagnosis of pancreatic tumour or a ganglioneuroma which secretes VIP. Administration of VIP to animals causes hyperglycaemia, inhibition of gastric acid, secretion of pancreatic bicarbonate and of small intestinal juice, and a lowering of systemic blood pressure with skin flush. These features are seen in patients with a tumour of this type which is secreting VIP.
Glucagon is measured for preoperative diagnosis of a glucagon-producing tumour of the pancreas in patients with diabetes and a characteristic skin rash (necrolytic migratory erythema).
Pancreatic polypeptide (PP) production is most commonly associated with tumours producing vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and with carcinoid syndrome and, less commonly, with insulinomas and gastrinomas.
When secreted by endocrine tumours, somatostatin appears to produce symptoms similar to those seen on pharmacological administration, i.e. steatorrhoea, diabetes mellitus and gall stones.
There are several types of pNETs, each with their own syndrome or hormone issue. When they are suspected due to the presentational symptoms, the markers that could be used are listed below. These types of tumours are complex and can be related to one or more syndromes. A patient may be tested using multiple markers to include or exclude these. Depending on other factors, some physicians may recommend additional marker testing in addition to the most common types below.
Somatostatinoma – Somatostatin (plasma somatostatin like immunoreactivity)
PPoma – Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP)
Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma – Adrenaline-producing tumours. Plasma and urine catecholamines, plasma free total metanephrines, urine total metanephrines, vanillylmandelic acid (VMA)
Medullary Thyroid Cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) starts as a growth of abnormal cancer cells within the thyroid – the parafollicular C cells. In the hereditary form of medullary thyroid cancer (~20% of cases, often called Familial MTC or FMTC), the growth of these cells is due to a mutation in the RET gene which was inherited. This mutated gene may first produce a premalignant condition called C cell hyperplasia. The parafollicular C cells of the thyroid begin to have unregulated growth. In the inherited forms of medullary thyroid cancer, the growing C cells may form a bump or nodule in any portion of the thyroid gland. Unlike papillary and follicular thyroid cancers, which arise from thyroid hormone-producing cells, medullary thyroid cancer originates in the parafollicular cells (also called C cells) of the thyroid. These cancer cells make a different hormone called calcitonin, which has nothing to do with the control of metabolism in the way thyroid hormone does. The other test often seen in MTC is Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA). CEA is a protein that is usually found in the blood at a very low level but might rise in certain cancers, such as medullary thyroid cancer. There is no direct relationship between serum calcitonin levels and extent of medullary thyroid cancer. However, trending serum calcitonin and CEA levels can be a useful tool for doctors to consider in determining the pace of change of a patient’s medullary cancer.
[please note there are extremely rare occurrences of elevated calcitonin from places outside the thyroid – read more here.
Parathyroid– Parathyroid hormone (PTH), Serum Calcium. Parathyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted from four parathyroid glands, which are small glands in the neck, located behind the thyroid gland. Parathyroid hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, largely by increasing the levels when they are too low. A primary problem in the parathyroid glands, producing too much parathyroid hormone causes raised calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcaemia – primary hyperparathyroidism). You may also be offered an additional test called Parathyroid Hormone-Related Peptide (PTHrP). They would probably also measure Serum Calcium in combination with these type of tests. The parathyroid is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1 – see MEN below.
HPA AXIS – It’s important to note something called the HPA axis when discussing pituitary hormones as there is a natural and important connection and rhythm between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and the Adrenal glands.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It’s production is stimulated by receiving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the Hypothalamus. ACTH is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol (see below), levels of ACTH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ACTH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ACTH may be due to:
Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ACTH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ACTH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome). It is likely that a Cortisol test will also be ordered if Cushing’s is suspected.
This is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure. Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people who work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately. Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol oversecretion can be associated with Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma (ACC) which can sometimes be grouped within the NET family.
Other hormones related to ACC include:
Androgens (e.g. Testosterone) – increased facial and body hair, particularly females. Deepened voice in females.
Estrogen – early signs of puberty in children, enlarged breast tissue in males.
Aldosterone – weight gain, high blood pressure.
Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. For this reason, the disease is sometimes called chronic adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.
A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ACTH (also called ectopic ACTH). With NETs, this is normally a pNET, Lung/Bronchial NET or Pheochromocytoma.
Carcinoid Heart Disease(CHD) (Hedinger syndrome)I’m not really talking directly about a tumour here but thought it would be useful to include a blood test called NT-proBNP. I’ve left a link to my CHD article in the paragraph heading for those who wish to learn more about CHD in general. For those not offered an annual Echocardiogram or are ‘non-syndromic’ there is a screening test that can give an indication of any heart issue which might then need further checks.
The Future – Molecular Markers?
This is testing using DNA and genes. Exciting but complex – check out this article which involved some NETs.
Tumour Markers and Hormone levels – complex subject!
This article is designed for patients to understand in a simple way and only covers the basics. If you are a medical professional, I recommend this artilcle:
Herrera-Martínez, A., Hofland, L., Gálvez Moreno, M., Castaño, J., de Herder, W., & Feelders, R. (2019). Neuroendocrine neoplasms: current and potential diagnostic, predictive and prognostic markers, Endocrine-Related Cancer. Retrieved Apr 5, 2019, from CLICK HERE
Since my diagnosis, I seem to have been in a perpetual learning phase! What not to do, what not to eat, what not to read! However, a couple of years ago, I came across a list of ‘E’ words (5 of them) which is a handy reminder for Carcinoid Syndrome patients, particularly those whose symptoms are not under control. When I say “carcinoid syndrome” in this article, I only mean the syndrome that is caused by what was once called “Carcinoid Tumors”, i.e. mainly serotonin secreting types but include tumours which are well differentiated found in the small intestine, appendiceal, rectal, lung, and one or two other less common places.
There are many variations of this list but this is my take! I suspect some of this also applies to other types of NETs and other NET Syndromes.
On analysis of this list, it struck me that I was aware of the issues and their potential effects and I’m certain there is science to substantiate the content. These E’s are apparently the most common ‘triggers’ for Carcinoid Syndrome. Clearly, they are not going to have the same effect on every patient e.g. I have the occasional drink of ‘Ethanol’ and I always enjoy it, I go for long exhausting walks and I always feel great after. I had dental treatment without any precautions before I was aware of the risks …….. nothing happened! Before I was treated, stressful meetings at work would make me flush though! As for eating – well that’s another couple of blog’s worth! (see the Diarrhea Jigsaw and Nutrition Blog 4 – Food for Thought)
The 5 Es are, however, very important, as a severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome symptoms could be debilitating and life-threatening and I’m fairly certain the list was compiled with this in mind. Some people are more affected by Carcinoid Syndrome and this is not necessarily related to the extent or aggressiveness of their disease. Some people just react differently. An extremely severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome can also be known as a ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ which is very dangerous on the operating table due to the effects of anaesthetics – thus why many NET patients may be infused with somatostatin analogues (usually Octreotide) prior to and during surgery or other medical procedures. There’s a lot of excitement generated around the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’but it is generally uncommon.
I’m not saying the 5Es should be ignored but NET Cancer is complex and most things need to be read in the correct context. What works for some may not work for others. There can also be confusion surrounding the source of symptoms, i.e. are they syndrome or something else? This is why I believe NET patients need to answer some key questions when considering the risks associated with the 5 E’s:
Are you currently syndromic? If you are, then the 5 ‘E’ list is probably very good advice but interpreting the advice in the correct context remains important.
Are your syndrome related biochemistry results normal (e.g. 5HIAA)? Normal readings (in range) tend to mean the syndrome is under control and many people who were diagnosed with a syndrome may actually be non-syndromic following treatment.
Have you had treatment or are having treatment likely to produce side effects which might be confused with Carcinoid syndrome? For example, surgery can be the long term cause of diarrhea and other issues. Despite the role of somatostatin analogues, these could also be the root cause of certain reactions.
The vagaries of this disease will no doubt throw up some exceptions and additions. There will be patients who have no syndrome but have elevated biochemistry and vice versa! Additionally, there will be patients who have had surgery and/or are being treated with somatostatin analogues but will still be syndromic in varying degrees of severity.
The so-called ‘5 Es’ are as follows:
Epinephrine: This was a new piece of information for me and I only discovered this as a potential problem when I started monitoring some of the USA Facebook forums. This does not appear to be that well-known in UK. Epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) is often used in dentistry mixed with a local anaesthetic. I won’t risk this, so I’ve instructed my Dentist to place a note on my record asking for epinephrine not be used (and clearly I’ll remind them each visit!). According to NET guru Dr Woltering, plain novocaine, carbocaine or plain marcaine are preferred. You should also check that your anaesthetist for any procedure you may be undergoing is aware of your carcinoid syndrome. However, the danger is not just with dentistry work. Any anaesthesia is risky. Check out my post ‘carcinoid crisis’.
For those who have standby ‘Epi Pens’, I did read the following statement on the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation website: “ …….. one exception is the administration of epinephrine in the case of an allergic anaphylactic reaction (i.e. a bee sting), so it cannot be avoided in this case, just make sure that Octreotide (Sandostatin) is also available“. This advice is also extremely relevant to Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma patients who may be a high risk of intraoperative hypertensive crisis.
Eating: This is very individual. Certain foods or large meals can be difficult, particularly if you have had any gastrointestinal surgeries. I keep a personal diary trying to identify things that upset my system. I try to find some balance between what I know is good for me and also what I know I enjoy. For example, I found that very large meals do not agree with my ‘new plumbing’. If I eat a lot of sweets, I’ll also suffer …..so I just eat a little – check out my blog post Chocolate – The NET Effect.
Personally speaking, I’m fairly certain the vast majority of my issues are related to my treatment (past and present) rather than being provoked by Carcinoid Syndrome, i.e. if I rush to the toilet after a meal, it’s not syndrome, it’s a reaction of my compromised digestive system. So with this in mind, I try to reduce those things but additionally strike a balance between quality of life and excessive and rigid adherence to some of the guidance out there (see below) – as I said above, interpretation and context is important. My compromised system cannot deal with big meals so I ‘graze’ most of the day and then eat a small to medium-sized meal in the evening. I’ve been doing this for 3 years and reduced my visits by 300% without any special or expensive medication.
In my blog Nutrition Blog 4 – Food for Thought, I’ve linked to authoritative sources on potential diet triggers. I’m not suggesting you cut out all of the foods on these lists (you won’t last long!). Some can indulge in those foods and some cannot. For example, chocolate and caffeine (tea/coffee) are on the lists but I eat/drink those frequently (in moderation) and have no problem. It’s a case of testing things out. I like to describe my eating as ‘The Risk Management of my Quality of Life’. By the way, no-one is suggesting that a NET patient with carcinoid syndrome (and don’t forget this is only one syndrome of many with NETs) should stop eating foods high in the offending amines or are precursors to serotonin (e.g. tryptophan). They do not make tumours grow (a myth) but just make sure you adhere to the dietary restrictions for any 5HIAA test.
Emotions: Stressful situations can cause symptoms to flare up. While it is difficult to avoid all stress (work, home, commuting, etc), it is helpful if you can manage or reduce it. Like eating, this is a very individual area. From personal experience, I know stress can exacerbate carcinoid syndrome. Before I started my treatment, I was regularly flushing in meetings at work (….. think boxing matches!). After my treatment, stress was definitely a factor causing increased bowel motility. I’ve removed a lot of stress from my life and it helps. You may need to be ruthless in managing this aspect of your illness.
Exercise: Exercise is extremely important for overall health and well-being and I know quite a lot of NET Cancer patients who exercise regularly without issues. It can, however, trigger carcinoid syndrome if you overdo it – it is, however, like eating, a very individual thing. I take the view that ‘zero’ exercise might potentially be an even higher risk. Even a walk around the garden or gardening is exercise. When I was at work, I would walk to see people rather than phone them. Sometimes I walk to town rather than drive, it all adds up! I have evidence from my own exercising regime proving in my case that exercise can reduce the knock-on effects of some of the other E’s (emotions and eating) and/or the side effects of treatment – check out my blog entitled Exercise is Medicine. Those who are syndromic and/or have other conditions to manage are probably best to take medical advice on how much exercise they need to do.
Ethanol (alcohol, liquor):Many NET patients have difficulty tolerating wine, beer and spirits (hard liquor). I was never a big drinker so for me it was easy to go almost teetotal. I do have the occasional beer but very infrequently and normally on holiday – I personally don’t get any issues with the odd beer but again this is trial and error. I really enjoy my beer when I celebrate my ‘Cancerversaries‘. Also check out my blog Alcohol – the NET Effect
I’m sure there could be a 5 A’s to 5 Z’s list of things to avoid but as I said above, this needs to be balanced with what the actual risks for you are and if you’re like me, quality of life. If you read most Facebook closed group or forums, you will always find at least one person is affected by something which affects no-one else. Please note this article is just my own appreciation of these issues and I emphasise once again that everyone has different experiences. I do, however, think it’s important to consider any secondary illnesses, effects of surgery and biochemistry results (or indeed a combination of one or more of these factors). Everything in life involves some kind of risk management and if you are totally risk averse, then you are unlikely to have much of a life (or a diet!).
It’s not easy but my daily diary helps me assess trends and work out what things upset me more than others – I can then reduce or eliminate. You need to tailor your own advice perhaps with the help of a doctor and/or dietician versed in NET Cancer. I also have some related posts on the subject of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malabsorption and probiotics – check them out as the problems associated with these subjects could potentially look like a worsening of carcinoid syndrome and lead to unnecessary worry and unnecessary treatment.
For most, Carcinoid Syndrome can normally be controlled by the use of debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide). However, there is a new drug called ‘Teloristat Ethyl’ (XERMELO) which looks like it may provide supplementary treatment for patients whose carcinoid syndrome diarrhea is not adequately controlled by somatostatin analogues. It’s an expensive drug and comes with side effects so you need to be sure it’s your syndrome causing the problem before you commit to a prescription.