……… here’s a list of 10 things I’m NOT thankful to Neuroendocrine Cancer for!
Thanks for growing inside me for years before making your vague announcement
Sorry too late, I’m metastatic and around 50% of patients will be at diagnosis (so I’m not alone!). It’s very SNEAKY!
No thanks for making a right mess inside my body!
I mean, I look really good, I look really well, but you should see my INSIDES
No thanks for generating fibrosis throughout my mesentery and retroperitoneum!
I really didn’t know what to make of this issue at diagnosis, although I did know the aorta was pretty important! Fortunately I had a surgeon who had operated on many NET patients and has seen this issue before. After my first surgery, he described it as a “dense fibrotic retroperitoneal reaction encircling his aorta and cava (inferior vena cava (IVC))”. My surgeon was known for difficult and extreme surgery, so as part of the removal of my primary, he also spent 3 hours dissecting out the retroperitoneal fibrosis surrounding these important blood vessels and managed 270 degree clearance. The remnant still shows on CT scans. Some of the removed tissue was tested and found to be benign, showing only florid inflammation and fibrosis (thankfully). That said, the abstract papers above has led me to believe that my retroperitoneal fibrosis is clinically significant. In fact I have spent the last 3 months worrying about some of it growing into reach of important vessels and only just been given the all clear (for now).
No thanks for screwing up some of my hormones
There are many hormones involved with Neuroendocrine Cancer which is unique in that different types can result in elevated levels of different hormones, often more than one is involved. Serotonin has caused fibrosisin my retroperitoneal area and is currently threatening important vessels. I don’t really need that right now!
No thanks for the ongoing symptoms and side effects
I was showing symptoms of a Neuroendocrine Cancer syndrome known as Carcinoid Syndrome (currently) such as flushing and diarrhea and fatigue was probably there too, but these were thought to be something else or ignored (by me). I don’t suffer too much nowadays other than side effects of the disease or the treatment I’ve had or receiving. However, I know from speaking to many patients the effects of the various syndromes associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer can be pretty debilitating and oppressive to quality of life.
These syndromes can be so strange and so weird, they can be very difficult for patients, nurses and doctors to treat. They can be a real ‘witch’s brew’.
Another pill for life. I have a left-sided thyroid lesion and my treatment also messes with my hormone levels.
No thanks for increasing my diabetes risk
No thanks for pushing me into pre-diabetes. My blood sugar is spiking, most likely due to treatment.
No thanks for making me retire early
I loved my job but not if it was going to kill me. I made my own decision based on how I could survive in a financial sense. Made easier as I was only 8 years from retirement but I guess I’m one of the lucky ones despite the fact I took a big hit on the income going into my bank account.
The truth is that many people still need to work whilst struggling with side effects of the cancer and its treatment. Getting some form of financial assistance from the government is not a done deal.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is a very expensive disease to treat.
This is fast becoming a big issue regardless of country and regardless of healthcare system in place. However, in privately funded healthcare, it can be exacerbated by the level of insurance cover. Read more about financial toxicity for cancer patients which is a growing problem worldwide.
……….. and no thanks to anyone who says it’s a “good cancer“
From other posts, you’ll be aware of the thyroid lesion (now 17x19mm) which I’ve been tracking since 2013. The surveillance has included routine thyroid blood tests, mainly TSH, T3 and 4. Due to trends in TSH and T4, it’s been suggested I’m borderline hypothyroidism. I’m out of range in TSH (elevated) but the T4 is currently at the lower end of the normal range. On 20 March 2018, following an Endocrine appointment, I was put on a trial dose of 50mcg of Levothyroxine to counter the downwards trend in results indicating hypothyroidism. Levothyroxine is essentially a thyroid hormone (thyroxine) replacement. One month after taking these drugs, my thyroid blood levels are now normal for the first time in 4 years (since there are records of test results – it might be longer).
The NET Connection?
To put things into context, hypothyroidism is an extremely common condition and the main treatment is administration of thyroid hormone replacement therapy (i.e. Lewvothyroxine). This is in the top 5 of the most commonly prescribed medication in USA and UK.
However, there are connections with NETs. Firstly there is one type of cancer known as Medullary Thyroid Cancer (MTC) and it also has a familial version known as Familial MTC or FMTC.
There are also connections between regular Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) and the thyroid. It can often be a site for metastasis, something I have not yet written off given it lights up on nuclear scanning – although my biopsy was inconclusive. You can see a summary of the connections and my own thyroid issue in more detail in my article “Troublesome Thyroids”. Please note the parathyroid glands are beyond the scope of this article.
Thyroid Function – the Lanreotide/Octreotide connection
Before I continue talking about hypothyroidism, here’s something not very well-known: Somatostatin analogues might cause a “slight decrease in Thyroid function”(a quote from the Lanreotide patient leaflet). The Octreotide patient leaflet also states “Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)” as a side effect. Many sources indicate that thyroid function should be monitored when on long-term use of somatostatin analogues. It’s also possible and totally feasible that many NET patients will have thyroid issues totally unrelated to their NETs. Remember, NET patients can get regular illnesses too!
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of thyroxine. This leads to an underactive thyroid. It seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, but over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. Both men and women can have an underactive thyroid, although it’s more common in women. In the UK, it affects 15 in every 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men. Children can also develop an underactive thyroid.
What causes Hypothyroidism?
Autoimmune thyroid disease sometimes called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
Radioactive iodine or surgery to correct hyperthyroidism or cancer
Over-treatment of hyperthyroidism with anti-thyroid drugs
A malfunction of the pituitary gland
What are the symptoms of Hypothyroidism?
The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary, depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. But in general, any problems you have tend to develop slowly, often over a number of years. At first, you may barely notice the symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and weight gain, or you may simply attribute them to getting older. But as your metabolism continues to slow, you may develop more-obvious signs and symptoms. Hypothyroidism signs. Below are major symptoms associated with hypothyroidism:
Weight gain or difficulty losing weight (despite reduced food intake)
Coarse, dry hair and dry skin
Sensitivity to cold
Muscle cramps and aches
Abnormal menstrual cycles
Slowed speech (severe cases)
Jaundice (severe cases)
Increase in tongue size (severe cases)
Check out this excellent short video from WebMD – click here or the picture below. It’s based on USA but most of it is relevant globally.
You don’t have to encounter every one of these symptoms to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Every patient’s experience with the disorder is different. While you may notice that your skin and hair have become dry and rough, another patient may be plagued more by fatigue and depression.
When hypothyroidism isn’t treated, signs and symptoms can gradually become more severe. Constant stimulation of your thyroid gland to release more hormones may lead to an enlarged thyroid (goiter). In addition, you may become more forgetful, your thought processes may slow, or you may feel depressed.
Now ….. some of these symptoms look very familiar to me and they also look very familiar to some of the comments I see on patient forums related to somatostatin analogues and some of the NET syndromes – that jigsaw thing again. I guess it’s possible that people are borderline hypothyroidism prior to taking somatostatin analogues and the drug pushes them out of range (similar to what it’s known to do with blood glucose levels and diabetes). I’m not suggesting a direct clinical link in all cases but what I am suggesting is that perhaps some of the answers might be found in checking Thyroid hormone levels.
What are the Thyroid Hormone tests for Hypothyroidism?
A high thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level with a low thyroxine (T4) level indicates hypothyroidism. Rarely, hypothyroidism can occur when both the TSH and T4 are low. A slightly raised TSH with a normal T4 is called subclinical, mild, or borderline hypothyroidism. Subclinical hypothyroidism can develop into clinical or overt hypothyroidism
Routine ‘Thyroid blood tests’ from your doctor will confirm whether or not you have a thyroid disorder. I now test for TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T4 every 6 months. Mostly in range but recently TSH is spiking out of range and T4 is consistently at the lower end of normal range.
Can hypothyroidism be treated?
Yes. A synthetic version of thyroxine taken daily as prescribed. e.g. Levothyroxine tablets
OK that’s Hypothyroidism – what is Hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism is a condition where the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone for the body’s needs. It is also known as an overactive thyroid or thyrotoxicosis. An overactive thyroid can affect anyone, but it’s about 10 times more common in women than men and it typically starts between 20 and 40 years of age.
Hyper – means “over -“
Hypo – means “under -“
The terms “hyperthyroid” and “thyrotoxic” are interchangeable
Graves’ disease – the most common cause
A toxic nodular goitre (a goitre is an enlarged thyroid gland)
A solitary toxic thyroid adenoma (an adenoma is a clump of cells)
Thyroiditis (infection or inflammation of the thyroid gland) which is temporary
A speeding up of mental and physical processes of the whole body, such as
weight loss, despite an increased appetite
palpitations / rapid pulse
sweating and heat intolerance
tiredness and weak muscles
nervousness, irritability and shakiness
mood swings or aggressive behaviour
looseness of the bowels
warm, moist hands
passing larger than usual amounts of urine
an enlarged thyroid gland
If the cause is Graves’ disease, you may also have ‘thyroid eye disease’. Smokers are up to eight times more likely to develop thyroid eye disease than non-smokers.
By a physical examination and blood tests
A low thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level with a high thyroxine (T4) level indicate hyperthyroidism
Surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland
Radioactive iodine to destroy most of the thyroid tissue
Firstly, let me say that I have no intention of advising you how to lose or gain weight! Rather, I’d like to discuss what factors might be involved and why people with NETs might lose or gain weight either at diagnosis or after treatment. Clearly I can talk freely about my own experience and associated weight issues. If nothing else, it might help some in thinking about what is causing their own weight issues.
I wrote a patient story for an organisation over 3 years ago and it started with the words “Did you mean to lose weight”. Those were actually the words a nurse said to me after I nonchalantly told her I thought I’d lost some weight (….about half a stone). I answered the question with “no” and this response triggered a sequence of events that led to all the stories in all the posts in this blog (i.e. my diagnosis).
I annoyingly can’t remember at which point I started to lose the weight but I was initially reported to have Iron Deficiency Anemia due to a low hemoglobin result and my subsequent iron test (Serum Ferritin) was also low and out of normal range. This, combined with the weight loss, the GP was spot on by referring me to a clinic. The sequence of events during the referral led to a diagnosis of metastatic NETs (Small Intestine Primary). If I had been a betting man, I would have put money on my GP thinking “Colorectal Cancer”. So my adage “If your doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything” applies.
I can also tell you that I weigh myself most days at the same time using the same scales. Weight loss or gain needs to be recorded. Clearly 2 or 3 pounds is nothing to worry about, I found you could put on or lose that amount in a day, depending on time of weighing and food intake. I’m looking for downwards or upwards trends of 7lbs or more (3kg).
Why did I lose weight?
The drop from 12st to 11st was clearly something to do with the anemia symptom (the NETs). But after diagnosis, I had major surgery about 10 weeks later. When I left the hospital after my 19 day stay, I was a whole stone lighter (14 lbs or 6.3 kg). I guess 3 feet of intestine, the cecum, an ascending colon, a bit of a transverse colon together with an army of lymph nodes and other abdominal ‘gubbins’ actually weighs a few pounds.
However, add the gradual introduction of foods to alleviate pressure on the ‘new plumbing’, and this is also going to have an effect on weight. I remember my Oncologist after the surgery saying to use full fat milk – the context is lost in memory but I guess he was trying to help me put weight back on. I also vividly remember many of my clothes not fitting me after this surgery. In fact, since 2010, I’ve actually dropped 2 trouser sizes and one shirt/jumper size. I did spend a lot of time in the toilet over the coming months, so I guess that also had an impact! However, what I wasn’t aware of was the side effect of my surgery. I started to put on some weight in time for my next big surgery – a liver resection. The average adult liver weighs 1.5 kg so I lost another 1 kg in one day based on a 66% liver resection.
However, what was also going on was something that took me a while to figure out – malabsorption and vitamin/mineral deficiency. My new ‘plumbing’ wasn’t really as efficient as my old one, so the malabsorption. issues caused by a lack of terminal ileum was slowly starting to have an effect. The commencement of Lanreotide in Dec 2010 added to this complication. That knowledge led me to understand some of the more esoteric nutritional issues that can have a big effect on NET patients and actually lead to a host of side effects that might be confused with one of the several NET syndromes. What it also confirmed to me was that I could still eat foods I enjoy without worrying too much about the effect on my remnant tumours or the threat of a recurrence of my carcinoid syndrome, something I was experiencing prior to and after diagnosis.
Armed with the ‘consequences of NETs’ knowledge, I did eventually adjust my diet and my weight has now ‘flat-lined’ at around 10 st 7 lbs (give or take 1 or 2 lbs fluctuation). Amazingly, the same weight I was when I left hospital after major surgery, looking thin and gaunt and not very well at all! The difference to day is that I have adapted to my new weight and look fit and healthy.
I actually lost another half a stone (7 lbs or 3.5 kg) in 2014 whilst training for an 84 mile charity walk – many commented that I looked thin and gaunt despite being extremely fit from all the training. Perspectives. It took several months to put the weight back on but at least I knew what had caused the loss and then subsequent gain.
I don’t have any appetite issues although I try to avoid big meals due to a shorter gut, so I snack more. With the exception of the 4 months of intense training for the 84 mile hike, I cannot seem to lose or gain weight. As my current weight is bang in the middle of the BMI green zone (healthy), I’m content.
Why do NET patients lose weight?
That’s a tricky one but any authoritative resource will confirm fairly obvious things such as (but not limited to) loss of appetite and side effects of cancer treatments. NETs can be complex so I resorted to researching the ISI Book on NETs, a favourite resource of mine. I wanted to check out any specific mentions of weight and NETs whether at diagnosis or beyond. Here’s some of the things I found out:
Carcinoid Syndrome. Weight loss is listed but not as high a percentage as I thought – although it tends to be tied into those affected most with diarrhea.
Gastrinoma/Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome. Up to half of these patients will have weight loss at diagnosis.
Glucagonoma. 90% will have weight loss.
Pheochromocytoma. Weight loss is usual.
Somatostatinoma. Weight loss in one-third of pancreatic cases and one-fifth in intestinal cases.
VIPoma. Weight loss is usual.
MEN Syndromes. One of the presentational symptoms can be weight loss.
Secondary Effects of NETs.
Many NETs can result in diabetes (particularly certain pNETs) and as somatostatin analogues can inhibit insulin, it could push those at borderline levels into formal diabetic levels (including any type of NET using long term somatostatin analogues). In people with diabetes, insufficient insulin prevents the body from getting glucose from the blood into the body’s cells to use as energy. When this occurs, the body starts burning fat and muscle for energy, causing a reduction in overall body weight.
It must be emphasised that there will always be exceptions and the above will not apply to every single patient with one of the above.
Suggested reading for putting weight back after surgery
An excellent reference document produced by Royal Free Hospital, authored by Tara Whyand and distributed via the NET Patient Foundation – hints and tips for different types of NET by anatomy: click here
What about weight gain?
You always associate weight loss with cancer patients but there are some types of NETs and associated syndromes which might actually cause weight gain. Here’s what I found from ISI and other sources (as mentioned):
Cushing’s Syndrome. Centripetal weight gain is mentioned. (Centripetal – tends to the centre of the body). I also noted that Cushing’s Syndrome tends to be much more prevalent in females. Cushing’s syndrome comprises the signs and symptoms caused by excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol (hypercortisolism) or by an overdosage of drugs known as glucocorticoids.
Insulinoma. Weight gain occurs in around 40% of cases, because patients may eat frequently to avoid symptoms. However, according to an Insulinoma support group site, I did note that after treatment (some stability), things can improve.
Again, it must be emphasised that there will always be exceptions and the above will not apply to every single patient with one of the above. As in weight loss scenarios, the Secondary Effects of NETs can have an effect.Hypothyroidism is another potential issue and weight gain is a listed symptom. I just been diagnosed with hypothyroidism this year but I was not gaining weight!
The NETs Jigsaw
Like anything in NETs, things can get complex. So it is entirely possible that weight loss or weight gain is directly caused by NETs, can be caused by side effects/secondary effects of treatment, and it’s also possible that it could be something unrelated to NETs (Dr Liu “Even NET patients get regular illnesses“). I guess some people might have a good idea of the reason for theirs – my initial weight loss was without doubt caused by the cancer and the post diagnostic issues caused by the consequences of the cancer.
I guess that weight loss or weight gain can be a worry. I also suspect that people might be happy to lose or gain weight if they were under/over weight before diagnosis (every cloud etc). However, if you are progressively losing weight, I encourage you to seek advice soonest or ask to see a dietician (preferably one who understands NETs).
Edit: I changed my blood thinner in May 2017 and lost 2kg (4 pounds) after 6 months.
Edit: I started Creon at the beginning of 2018 (read about this here) and almost immediately put on 2kg (4 pounds) to offset the 2kg loss from 6 months prior. However, no real change after 3 months of Creon (March 2018).
Edit: I was recently diagnosed with Hypothyroidism, one of the symptoms can be weight gain. Clearly that has not applied to me. Hyperthyroidism is the opposite condition where weight loss is a symptom.
Edit: Due to a bad chest infection in June 2018 and due to the consequences of the effects of that illness and most likely the treatments undergone, I have dropped three quarters of a stone (~10lbs). My lightest weight for over 30 years. To me that is a significant loss of weight in such a short space of time. Currently trying to put it back on again – I need the weight!
Edit: 4 Sep 2018. After the 10lbs (~4.5kg) loss following the chest infection, people who see me regularly have noticed the visible difference. I’m still struggling to get back beyond 10st after 2 months. I’m monitoring this really closely.
Edit: 28 Nov 2018. I’m back at 10st after increasing my dosage of Creon.
Edit: 10 Jan 2019. I’m back at 10st 3lbs, my approximate weight before the chest infection. It’s taken 7 months and the recent acceleration coincides with Creon dose increase.
Edit 7th Feb 2019. Changed from Creon to Nutrizym.
Edit: 17 Mar 2019. It appears my trouser waist size is back to 32″. Is the use of Pancreatic Enzymes making me eat more, or getting more nutrients through, or making me eat food which makes me put on weight?
For those wishing to see the output from an online discussion with Tara Whyand on the subject of ‘Weight’ issues for NET patients – please see this link inside my closed Facebook group.
A fairly common disposition of metastatic Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) is a primary with associated local/regional secondary’s (e.g. lymph nodes, mesentery and others) with liver metastases. Technically speaking, the liver is distant. However, many metastatic patients have additional and odd appearances in even more distant places, including (but not limited to) the extremities and the head & neck. In certain NETs, these might be an additional primary (e.g. in the case of Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN); or they could even be a totally different cancer. The worry with NETs is that the ‘little suckers‘ can sometimes make these surprise appearances given that neuroendocrine cells are everywhere.
Cancer doesn’t just spread through the blood steam, it can also spread through the lymphatic system. This is a system of thin tubes (vessels) and lymph nodes that run throughout the body in the same way blood vessels do. The lymph system is an important part of our immune system as it plays a role in fighting bacteria and other infections; and destroying old or abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. The lymphatic system also contains organs, some of which feature regularly in NETs. If cancer cells go into the small lymph vessels close to the primary tumour they can be carried into nearby lymph glands where they stick around. In the lymph glands they may be destroyed (that is actually one of the jobs of the lymph glands) but some may survive and grow to form tumours in one or more lymph nodes.
I also had the usual bulky chains of lymph node metastases in or around the mesentery that frequently appear with an abdominal primary (in my case the small intestine). These were all removed as part of my primary resection. However, I knew since shortly after diagnosis in 2010 that I had ‘hotspots’ in my left ‘axillary’ lymph nodes (armpit) and my left ‘supraclavicular fossa’ (SCF) lymph nodes (clavicle). These were found on Octreoscan but at the time, they were not pathologically enlarged – just ‘lighting up’. They also light up on Ga68 PET.
In early 2012, 15 months after removal of primary and 10 months after liver resection, one of the axillary lymph nodes became palpable (signs of growth) and this coincided with a small spike in Chromogranin A. A total of 9 nodes were removed very shortly after this surveillance, 5 of which tested positive for NETs (Ki-67 <5%). As part of the same operation, 5 SCF left clavicle nodes were removed but tested negative. On a subsequent Octreoscan, the armpit was clear but the clavicle area still lit up. However, there is no pathological enlargement or pain – so this is just monitored. Also lights up on Ga68 PET I have a 3mm lung ‘nodule’, discovered in 2011. Apparently, lung nodules are a pretty common incidental finding with 1 per 500 X-rays and 1 per 100 CT scans finding them. This is monitored.
I have a 19mm thyroid ‘lesion’ which was pointed out to me in 2013. This has been biopsied with inconclusive results. Although the thyroid is an endocrine gland, it looks like a non-NET problem to date. Thyroid nodules are in fact very common and statistically, 50-70% of all 50-70 year olds will have at least one ‘nodule’ present (i.e. if you are in your 50s, there is a 50% chance you will have one nodule and so on). The vast majority will never bother a person while they live. That said, my thyroid blood tests are abnormal and on 20th March 2018, following an Endocrine appointment, I was put on a trial dose of 50mcg of Levothyroxine to counter the thyroid panel results indicating hypothyroidism. Levothyroxine is a thyroid hormone replacement. Early in 2017, during my Endocrine MDT, a surveillance ultrasound spotted a slightly enlarged lymph node on the right side (measuring 9mm x 9mm) described as a ‘level 4’ node (a location indicator meaning the ‘lower jugular group’). The report was passed to the NET MDT for their consideration with the surgical rep on the Endocrine MDT recommending a conservative approach – the NET MDT agreed. I suspect that’s right, it’s still below the worry threshold, nothing is palpable (no lumps) and I don’t have any specific symptoms. There could have been a number of reasons for the enlargement and it might even be back to normal size on my next scan (spoiler alert – it was). All my issues have been left-sided to date, so that was interesting. That said, I did have an MRI in 2014 to investigate pain and a swelling at the site of my right ‘sternoclavicular’ joint – subsequently declared a non-issue. Showed as inflammation on recent Ga68 PET.
Life as a metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer patient is interesting and efficient surveillance is absolutely critical.
In 2013, just when I thought everything seemed to be under control, I was told I had a ‘lesion’ on the left upper lobe of my thyroid. At the time, it was a bit of a shock as I had already been subjected to some radical surgery and wondered if this was just part of the relentless march of metastatic NET disease. The thyroid gland does in fact get mentioned frequently in NET patient discussions but many of the conversations I monitored didn’t seem to fit my scenario – cue relentless study! I’ve been meaning to write this blog for some time but here is a synopsis of my research translated into ‘patient speak’. This is intentionally brief, it’s a big subject. I’ll finish off with an update on where I am with my thyroid issue.
Where is the thyroid and what does it do?
Before I found out about my thyroid problem, I had absolutely no idea what its function was. I can tell you know, it’s a small organ but it has a massive job!
It lies in the front of your neck in a position just below your ‘Adam’s apple’. It is made up of two lobes – the right lobe and the left lobe, each about the size of a plum cut in half – and these two lobes are joined by a small bridge of thyroid tissue called the isthmus. It is sometimes described as butterfly shape. The two lobes lie on either side of your wind-pipe. The fact that it comes up a lot in NET patient discussions is hardly surprising as it’s an endocrine organ responsible for making two hormones that are secreted into the blood: Thyroxine (T4) and Triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are necessary for all the cells in your body to work normally.
Do I have Thyroid Cancer?
I’ve had a number of biopsies on the thyroid lesion, several fine needle aspiration (FNA) and one ‘core’. The FNAs were generally inconclusive and the core confirmed fibrous tissue only. However, the general diagnosis is inconclusive and I have been labelled “THY3F”. Curiously this decodes to “an abnormality is present but it could either be a benign (non cancerous) growth or a malignant cancerous growth of the follicular cells. A quick primer on Thyroid Cancer is below if you’re interested.
It’s easy to worry about irregularities showing up on scans if you have NETs. Take the thyroid for example, the Ga68 PET has a habit of ‘lighting up’ thyroids – this is a worry because it’s an endocrine organ; and there is a type of thyroid NET (not forgetting the parathyroid), and NETs have a habit of metastasizing to strange places. Sure, you should get it checked out when this happens, but while you will only hear about the outliers on social media, statistically, the vast majority of thyroid nodules are benign. We know about ours because we get so many scans but many people will probably never know and will probably never be bothered by them either. When you look at the figures below, it becomes clear that many NET patients are going to have a thyroid nodule regardless of their diagnosis.
The following is a list of facts regarding thyroid nodules:
Thyroid nodules are three times more common in women than in men
30% of 30-year-old women will have a thyroid nodule.
One in 40 young men has a thyroid nodule.
More than 95% of all thyroid nodules are benign (non-cancerous growths).
Some thyroid nodules are actually cysts, which are filled with fluid rather than thyroid tissue.
Purely cystic thyroid nodules (thyroid cysts) are almost always benign.
Most women will develop a thyroid nodule by the time they are 50 years old.
The incidence of thyroid nodules increases with age.
50% of 50-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
60% of 60-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
70% of 70-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
Fear of spread
It’s easy to be concerned about irregularities showing up on scans if you have NETs. However, the Ga68 PET has a habit of ‘lighting up’ thyroids and this is a double worry because it’s an endocrine organ, and there is a type of thyroid NET (not forgetting the parathyroid). But it eventually became clear through research that most are unconnected. Sure, you should get it checked out, but while you will only hear about the outliers on social media, the vast majority of cases are benign. If you constantly fear cancer spread with every single issue you undergo as a human being, you probably need some help. You may therefore find my ‘fear’ articles a useful read plus there are two videos presented by professionals who help caner patients cope with these issues:
Thyroid overdiagnosis and overtreatment. You can find many medical papers confirming that incidence of thyroid tumour diagnosis has increased dramatically in many countries in the developed world over the past three decades. Papillary thyroid cancer, which has been responsible for virtually the entire increase, is rarely lethal. The 20 year survival rate is greater than 90%, and approaches 100% for the smallest cancers. The increasing incidence is most likely due to overdiagnosis—the detection of subclinical cancers never destined to cause harm. This conclusion has been reached because the incidence has been primarily due to the detection of small papillary cancers, mortality due to thyroid cancer has not changed significantly, and small foci of papillary thyroid cancer are commonly found at autopsy in people who died of other causes. Overdiagnosis is a problem because it exposes people to the potential side effects of treatment, but without an equal expectation of benefit, because the cancer is unlikely to advance. We know about ours because we get so many scans.
Issues above the diaphragm
There can be other issues with Thyroids including cancer and clearly this was my concern when the word ‘lesion’ was mentioned. At this point, it’s worth mentioning something from my cancer history which I initially assumed was related but it would appear to be a coincidence (for the time being …..). When I say “above the diagphragm”, I mean above the abdoment in the general neck and chest area. I also have a hotspot in my left supraclavicularfossa (SCF) lymph nodes (near the clavicle), geographically close to the thyroid (and my lesion is left-sided). 5 nodes were removed from this area in Feb 2012 for an exploratory biopsy which subsequently tested negative and CT and Ultrasound both show nothing vascular or pathologically enlarged. BUT …. there is still a hotspot showing on a subsequent Octreoscan and Ga68 PET since the nodes were removed in 2012. For the record, I also had positively tested nodes removed from my left axillary (armpit) during the same procedure (my distant disease has always been left-sided).
The surgeon who operated on my left axillary and SCF nodes also specialises in Thyroids and so it was an easy decision to ask to be referred to him. He explained that whilst he could just take the left lobe or the whole thyroid, it would mean lifelong treatment to add to my current burden and perhaps for something which will never trouble me. As nothing is palpable and I have no symptoms, I agreed to a ‘watch and wait’ approach. I now have regular tests and I saw him Endocrine MDT annually for a blood test review and ultrasound check (but see update below).
See EndocrineWeb for more detail about thyroid issues unrelated to NET.
Latest update as at 15 Jan 2019
After monitoring for the first two years, my specialist was not happy with TSH/T4 blood results (elevated for the second time and also on a retest). On 20 March 2018, following an Endocrine appointment, I was put on a trial dose of 50mcg of Levothyroxine to counter the thyroid panel results indicating mild hypothyroidism. Levothyroxine is a thyroid hormone replacement. My subsequent two x thyroid panel results are back in the middle of the range so all is good. Am detecting a slight increase in available energy.
The results of my first Ga68 PET scan in June 2018 indicated some “uptake” but the report inferred it was physiological uptake (false positive). In fact, at my 2019 appointment, the thyroid lesion is slightly smaller on the latest ultrasound. I’m personally fairly certain this is not connected to NETs and my Endocrine MDT have now referred me back to be survellanced by the NET MDT, they remain on call for any issues.
What else can go wrong with a thyroid?
Apart from cancer, the main issues appear to be an underactive Thyroid or an overactive Thyroid – known respectively as Hypothyroidism (not enough thyroxine is produced for the body’s needs) and Hyperthyroidism (too much thyroxine is produced for the body’s needs). Of course, these issues can be caused or made worse by cancer.
Hypothyroidism – If too little of the thyroid hormones are produced, the cells and organs of your body slow down. If you become hypothyroid, your heart rate, for example, may be slower than normal and your intestines work sluggishly, so you become constipated. Key symptoms: tiredness, feeling cold, weight gain, poor concentration, depression. Some of these symptoms look familiar? The word ‘hashimoto’s’ also comes up on patient forums frequently – this is related to hypothyroidism (underactive).
Hyperthyroidism – If too much of the thyroid hormones are secreted, the body cells work faster than normal, and you have Hyperthyroidism. If you become hyperthyroid because of too much secretion of the hormones from the thyroid gland, the increased activity of your body cells or body organs may lead, for example, to a quickening of your heart rate or increased activity of your intestine so that you have frequent bowel motions or even diarrhoea. Key symptoms – weight loss, heat intolerance, anxiety, and, sometimes, sore and gritty eyes. Hmm, again, some of these look familiar?
Check out this excellent short video fromWebMD – click here. It’s based on USA but most of it is relevant globally.
It’s also worth noting thatsomatostatin analoguesmight cause a “slight decrease in Thyroid function” (it actually states words to this effect in the Lanreotide and Octreotide patient leaflets). Thus why I advise you not to be underactive with your Thyroid surveillance – read more click here
Routine ‘Thyroid blood tests’ from your doctor will confirm whether or not you have a thyroid disorder. I now test for TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T3 and T4 every 6 months. My levels are back to normal ranges since being prescribed thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Remember: Hypo is ‘underactive’, Hyper is ‘overactive’. Sometimes there are very few symptoms.
Also worth mentioning something called the ‘Parathyroid’ as these glands can frequently be related to NET Cancer (see my blog on Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia(MEN)). It’s another subject in its own right but I just wanted to emphasise that this is a totally different organ with a totally different function (it regulates Calcium). They are located adjacent to the Thyroid, thus the term ‘para’.
Quick primer on Thyroid Cancer
There are a number of different types of Thyroid Cancer
Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer, accounting for about 80% of thyroid cancers. While papillary thyroid cancer typically occurs in only one lobe of the thyroid gland, it may arise in both lobes in up to 10% to 20% of cases. Papillary thyroid cancer is most common in women of childbearing age. It sometimes is caused by exposure to radiation. Even though papillary thyroid cancer is usually not an aggressive type of cancer, it often metastasizes (spreads) to the lymph nodes in the neck. Papillary thyroid cancer treatment usually is successful.
Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for about 10% of thyroid cancers. Like papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer usually grows slowly. Its outlook is similar to papillary cancer, and its treatment is the same. Follicular thyroid cancer usually stays in the thyroid gland but sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bone. However, it usually does not spread to lymph nodes. It is more common in countries where diets do not contain enough iodine.
There is a type of thyroid tumour which has recently been removed as a type of cancer. “Encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma” is now known as “noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillary thyroid-like nuclear features” or NIFTP. The word ‘carcinoma’ has gone. Read about this here.
Hurthle cell carcinoma, also called oxyphil cell carcinoma, is a type of follicular thyroid cancer. Most patients diagnosed with Hurthle cell cancer do well, but the outlook may change based on the extent of disease at the time of diagnosis.
Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is the only type of thyroid cancer that develops in the parafollicular cells of the thyroid gland. It accounts for 3% to 10% of thyroid cancers. Medullary cancer cells usually make and release into the blood proteins called calcitonin and/or carcinoembryonic antigen, which can be measured and used to follow the response to treatment for the disease. Sometimes medullary cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, lungs or liver before a nodule is found or the patient has symptoms. MTC can be treated more successfully if it is diagnosed before it has spread. There are two types of MTC:
Sporadic MTC is more common, accounting for 85% of medullary thyroid cancers. It is found mostly in older adults and is not inherited.
Familial MTC is inherited, and it often develops in childhood or early adulthood. If familial MTC occurs with tumours of certain other endocrine organs (parathyroid and adrenal glands), it is called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (see my blog on MEN 2).
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most dangerous form of thyroid cancer. It is makes up only 1% of thyroid cancers. It is believed that anaplastic thyroid cancer grows from a papillary or follicular tumour that mutates further to this aggressive form. Anaplastic thyroid cancer spreads rapidly into areas such as the trachea, often causing breathing difficulties. Anaplastic thyroid cancer sometimes is called undifferentiated thyroid cancer because the cells are so different from normal thyroid tissue.
Thyroid cancer is not very common but diagnoses are ‘skyrocketing’ most likely due to advanced detection techniques. Most are very slow-growing with 5 year survival of 97% according to MD Anderson. There is a very interesting article about the overdiagnosis of Thyroid cancer which I found useful given my situation. You can read it here.
Thyroid ‘nodules’ would appear to be very common with 50-70% of all 50-70 year olds having at least one nodule present and statistically, 95% of these are benign (see EndocrineWeb)
In 2014, Chris and I completed the 84-mile route of 2000 year old World Heritage site of ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ in Northern England. Some people saw this is a charity walk and a chance to make some money for a good cause. It was. However, it was MUCH MORE than that. Much much more.
A few months before this trek, I had come to a crossroads and I was unsure which direction to go. That anguish and a thousand other things were contributing to a degradation of my overall health, it felt threatening. I was not that long out of the main treatments for my metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer and it was still a delicate period as I waited for signs of some stability.
I was getting into some old habits at work (e.g. working long hours) and in hindsight, I can now see that was impacting on my search for normality and stability. However, at the time, it conveniently aided the image of invincibility which was my way of saying “get lost Cancer”. I was reaching out for something I could call normal and for a long time before diagnosis, me working hard was normal! I had always loved a bit of stress but not if it was going to help Neuroendocrine Cancer kill me!
And then boom! – a thyroid lesion is reported. I suddenly realised I had too many balls in the air and I was no longer the expert juggler I was previously. The mask on my poker face was slipping and something needed to change. The thyroid lesion (more on that later) was not the turning point but it was definitely one of a number of signs that I was not invincible, my situation was delicate and I needed to be more proactive on finding the normal I was so desperately seeking. Work was no longer the route I needed to take. To cut a long story short, I decided to retire early BUT in an effort to maintain personal challenges, I set myself some fitness targets which lead to the Hadrian’s Wall walk over 6 days. I actually set up this blog site simply to document the walk and that was the only reason at the time.
Four years later, Lanreotide injections passed the 100 mark, my thyroid lesionis not causing any issues although I have recently been prescribed medication to support my borderline hypothyroidism, I have much less stress in my life and I’m fitter and leaner than I was at diagnosis. I found a new normal and I liked it! Maintaining and improving it is both a physical and mental challenge though.
My Hadrian’s Wall blog was an acorn which has now grown into a nice little Oak tree and I’m truly thankful to everyone for their fantastic support. There’s still plenty tree left to grow
In November 2018, the blog passed three quarter of a million views and I’m on track for the magic one million in summer 2019.