Did you hear the one about the constipated NET patient?

constipation
did you hear the one about the constipated NET Patient?

In my neck of the woods, “did you hear the one about the ………” is normally a precursor to a witty comment, or a joke.   However, constipation for NET patients is not actually funny – read on.

Certain types of Neuroendocrine Cancer are very heavily associated with diarrhea, either as a symptom of one of the NET Syndromes (yes there is more than one …..); or as a result of surgery or certain other treatments.  Occasionally, these symptoms and side effects can all combine to make it quite a nasty and worrying side effect.

I must admit to being surprised to find myself with feelings of constipation from around 4-5 years after my treatment and I set about trying to find out why that might be. To understand why I got to this stage, I assessed the history of my treatment and what I changed in an attempt to improve my Quality of Life (QoL) – I feel there is a strong connection.

When I underwent my primary surgery (Nov 2010), my surgeon said it would take months for my ‘digestive system’ to return to some form of normality.  I soon found out what he meant, I seemed to be permanently affixed to a toilet seat (plenty of reading opportunities though ….. every cloud!).   I suddenly realised that I needed to start looking seriously at my diet.  I did find some improvements by trying to eat things that would bulk up my stools vs trying to avoid things that might increase frequency (i.e. I wanted a reduction in frequency combined with a bulkier stool). Eventually, I settled on a regime for the first couple of years and to be honest, I didn’t need to change my diet in any radical sense.  I was also determined not to take any medication (I was taking enough) and wanted this to work as naturally as possible.

Things were still not ideal and in 2013, I even remember saying to my Oncologist that although I was never misdiagnosed with IBS, I felt like I now had it. I decided to attack this issue following professional advice from one of the eminent experts in the NET specialist dietitian world – Tara Whyand.  My regime was now based on science (although it isn’t really an exact type!), that is checking the ‘at risk’  nutrient levels were OK (particularly ADEK and B12), taking supplements where necessary to help with deficiencies, and tackling things such as malabsorption and diet.

The patient has a big part to play in any improvement strategy, so in 2013/14 I experimented more and completely changed my breakfast and lunch regime to oatmeal/porridge and toast which made a significant difference. I started to avoid eating large meals and I reduced fat consumption generally. I started taking probiotics to counter the effect of any bacterial imbalance as a result of my surgery (i.e. to combat SIBO).  To keep track of everything, I set up and maintained a detailed diary to help identify things making it worse, tinkering as I went along. For those who are contemplating this sort of strategy, let me tell you – it takes time, effort and patience!

I seemed to make excellent progress with ‘frequency’, which is down to once or twice per day – i.e. I felt like a normal bloke 🙂 Quality was not consistently good but I’m of the opinion, this may be something I need to live with. Stomach cramps are reduced, as is gas and bloating reduced (I’m fairly confident that is mainly down to probiotics). Happy days, my strategy has worked.  I reduced my average daily ‘visits’ by 400% without any medicine. 

However …. (have you noticed, there’s always a ‘however’ with NET cancer?).

Although I’m generally well, I did start to think in 2016 that the balance was not quite right. My ‘visits’ were starting to last longer due to a consistent feeling of incomplete emptying – i.e. movement is OK but is followed by what seems like constipation. Additionally, I’ve had several episodes of constipation and pain with no ‘movement’ for 24-36 hours. This happened in May, September and December 2016.  Had 3 more episodes in 2017 and 2 so far in 2018.  My diary now has numerous ‘zero’ entries in the daily bowel movements column, something I never thought I would see again in my lifetime!

When you’ve had small intestinal surgery, as many midgut NET patients have, this sort of thing can be extremely worrying. A bowel obstruction can be dangerous and I’d like to avoid additional surgery at this stage. The second occurrence was particularly severe and the pain lasted for 1-2 weeks. Fortunately, the issues eventually settled and appear to have been a result of a sluggish system, although my regular scans check to see if any issues in that area might have been contributing. (Note – lactulose (oral) is awful, will never touch it again!). I seem to remember a few years ago thinking constipation would be a luxury.  I can assure you it isn’t – things need to keep moving, the opposite is much worse!

So … am I a victim of my own dietary regime success? Possibly.  The GP who assessed my constipation and pain in September 2016 told me to stop taking a Calcium supplement which was prescribed by the same practice at the beginning of that year – Calcium can slow your system down apparently (…..the calcium is a long story but it was a counter to an osteoporosis risk that I have due to long-term use of blood thinners).  I already get enough calcium (and vitamin D) through the normal channels plus supplements, so it was a low risk action. I tinkered with my diet again, reducing my fibre intake and then built up again slowly. Additionally, I could probably do with more water!  Perhaps my Lanreotide is having some effect too? In 2018, I changed my bread to one with less fibre as a test, nothing to report so far.

Is it just me with constipation issues? No….. I carried out some covert searches on forums and found this issue has been mentioned numerous times.

I suspect we need science and some specialist NET research in this area, not sure the over the counter prescription is the optimum solution.  I was therefore delighted to see a patient survey produced by NET Patient Foundation in conjunction with the Royal Free Hospital presented right in front of me in Barcelona at ENETS 2018.  In this survey (which I remember completing), they found that the most self reported side effect of somatostatin analogues was in actual fact constipation (shock horror!).

Tara poster
The poster as presented at ENETS 2018 – featuring Tara Whyand

As you can see from the picture, the survey results came along with some pertinent advice which you will already find in some of my articles co-authored by Tara Whyand who was involved in the survey results analysis.  Interestingly, Tara commented on the constipation figure pointing out that the constipated feeling may in fact be confused with ‘incomplete emptying’ as I indicated I was experiencing above.  I think she’s right.

self reported survey
Abstract posted at ENETS 2018

I’m always skeptical about patient surveys as they tend to be gathered from a very small percentage of the actual patient population and tend to be sourced from those with the worst issues (something I call ‘situating the appreciation’).  There’s a little skepticism in me about this particular survey, mainly because the results were not scientifically investigated i.e. were these self-reported side effects actually caused by somatostatin analogues or something else?

However, many of the things reported in this patient survey are issues that I know patients tend to talk about anecdotally in patient forums. Some of them are already listed on patient information leaflets (often without patients knowing I might add) so this is further confirmation of the official trial results.  Wide variances or new unlisted issues probably need looking at though.

Despite some of these side effects being listed, I believe doctors need to provide more support for patients who experience these issues.  So, even if constipation (or incomplete emptying) is not totally caused by somatostatin analogues, at least this survey should start up a dialogue.

p.s. I recently started taking Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy to combat some of the well known side effects of somatostatin analogues but not yet evaluated their overall impact with the above story.  Read about this and a Q & A session with Tara Whyand in this article – click here

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

Neuroendocrine Cancer – the diarrhea jigsaw

NETCancer Diarrhea Jigsaw

Diarrhea can be a symptom of many conditions but it is particularly key in Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) Syndromes and types, in particular, Carcinoid Syndrome but also in those associated with various other NET types such as VIPoma, PPoma, Gastrinoma, Somatostatinoma, Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma.

Secondly, it can be a key consequence (side effect) of the treatment for Neuroendocrine Tumours and Carcinomas, in particular following surgery where various bits of the gastrointestinal tract are excised to remove and/or debulk tumour load.

There are other reasons that might be causing or contributing, including (but not limited to) endocrine problems such as hyperthryoidism, mastocytosis or Addison’s disease (which may be secondary illnesses in those with NETs).  It’s also possible that ‘non-sydromic’ issues such as stress and diet are contributing. It could be caused by other things such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Yes, believe it or not, NET Patients can get normal diarrhea causing diseases too!

Define Diarrhea

I want to give a general definition of diarrhea as there are many variants out there. In general, they all tend to agree that diarrhea is having more frequent, loose and watery stools. Three or more stools per day seems to be the generally accepted threshold, although some sites don’t put a figure on it.  It’s not pleasant and just about everyone on the planet will suffer it at some point in their life, perhaps with repeated episodes. Normally it’s related to some kind of bug, or something you’ve eaten and will only last a few days before it settles (acute diarrhea). Diarrhea lasting more than a couple of weeks is considered chronic and some people will require medical care to treat it.  It can also be caused by anxiety, a food allergy/intolerance or as a side effect of medicine. Pharmacists and GPs will be seeing many patients with this common ailment every single day of business.

Diarrhea induced by a Syndrome

When you consider the explanation above, it’s not really surprising that diarrhea related symptoms can delay a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer (and most likely other cancers too, e.g. pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer). For example, diarrhea is the second most common symptom of Carcinoid Syndrome (Flushing is actually the most common) and is caused mainly by the oversecretion of the hormone Serotonin from the tumours. Please note diarrhea in other types of syndromes or NETs may be caused by other hormones, for example it may also be caused by excess calcitonin in the case of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma or VIP in the case of a functional pNET known as VIPoma. I’ve heard stories of people being told they have IBS or something similar for years before they received what is now a late diagnosis and at an advanced cancer stage. This is only one of the reasons why NETs is not an easy condition to diagnose, although it is possible that some people actually had IBS and it was masking the NET. Even after treatment to remove or reduce tumours, many people will remain syndromic and need assistance and treatment to combat diarrhea induced by a NET syndrome (see below).

Diarrhea as a Consequence (Side effect) of Treatment for Neuroendocrine Cancer and Other Conditions

All cancer treatments can have consequences and Neuroendocrine Cancer is definitely no exception here. For example, if they chop out several feet of small intestine, a chunk of your large intestine, chunks (or all) of your stomach or your pancreas, your gallbladder and bits of your liver, this is going to have an effect on the efficiency of your ‘waste disposal system’. One effect is that it will now work faster! Another is that the less effective ‘plumbing’ may not be as efficient as it was before.  There are also knock-on effects which may create additional issues with the digestive system including but not limited to; Malabsorption and SIBO.  I recommend you read my posts on Malabsorption and SIBO.

Surgery can often be the root cause of diarrhea.  A shorter gut for example, means shorter transit times presenting as increased frequency of bowel movements.  Another example is the lack of terminal ileum can induce Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption) in degrees of severity based on size of resection. Lack of a gallbladder (common with NETs) can also complicate.  Bile Acids are produced in the liver and have major roles in the absorption of lipids in the small intestine. Following a terminal ileum resection which includes a right hemicolectomy, there is a risk that excess Bile Acids will leak into the large intestine (colon) via the anastomosis (the new joint between small and large intestines).  This leakage can lead to increased motility, shortening the colonic transit time, and so producing watery diarrhea (or exacerbating an existing condition). Although this condition can be treated using bile acid sequestrants (i.e.  Questran), it can be difficult to pinpoint it as the cause.

Surgery of the pancreas can also produce effects such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which can lead to a malabsorption condition known as steatorrhea which may be confused with diarrhea (although some texts call it a type of diarrhea).   It isn’t really diarrhea but it may look like it given the presentation of the faeces and patients may suffer both diarrhea and steatorrhea concurrently.  Patients will recognise it in their stools which may be floating, foul-smelling, greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Treatment options will mainly include the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy or PERT for short (Creon etc).

Many non-surgical treatments can also cause diarrhea, including but not limited to; somatostatin analogues (see below), chemotherapy, biological targeted therapy (e.g. Everolimus, Sunitinib), radiotherapy.

Somatostatin analogues are an interesting one as they are designed to inhibit secretion of particular hormones and peptides by binding to the receptors found on Neuroendocrine tumour cells. This has the knock-on effect of inhibiting digestive/pancreatic enzymes which are necessary to break down the fat in our foods leading to Malabsorption of important nutrients.  This may worsen the steatorrhea in pancreatic NET patients but also lead to steatorrhea in others with non-pancreatic locations who have been prescribed these drugs.

Other conditions may actually be the cause of the diarrhea or the treatment for those conditions.  For example, it is possible that people actually do have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  Treatment therapy for common conditions may also be contributing, for example the use of Proton Pump Inhibitors for acid reflux.

 

Treatment for Syndrome Induced Diarrhea 

Like many other NET patients, I’m on a 28 day injection of somatostatin analogues (in my case Lanreotide).  Both Octreotide and Lanreotide are designed to reduce the effects of NET syndromes and therefore can often make a difference to syndrome induced diarrhea. These drugs also have anti-tumour effect and so even if you are not syndromic or they do not halt or adequately control syndrome induced diarrhea, they are still a valuable contribution to NET treatment.

Some syndromic patients find they still have diarrhea despite somatostatin analogues and they end up having ‘rescue shots’ or pumps for relief (both of these methods tend to be Octreotide based).  (Hopefully they are not getting confused between diarrhea caused by the non-syndrome effects – see above).  Some have more frequent injections of the long acting versions of somatostatin analogues which has the effect of increasing the dosage.  There’s a new drug available for those whose carcinoid syndrome induced diarrhea is not adequately controlled or perhaps they are unable to have somatostatin analogues as a treatment. Telotristat Ethyl works by inhibiting tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor involved in the manufacture of serotonin, which is the main cause of syndrome induced diarrhea.  It was approved by the US FDA in February 2017, EU areas in September 2017, and is on the way to being approved elsewhere.  Read about this drug here.

telotristat-etiprate-clinical-trial-serotonin-as-a-key-driver-of-carcinoid-syndrome

Sorting out the symptoms – post diagnosis

I like to describe this as the Neuroendocrine Cancer jigsaw. It’s a really difficult one and sometimes you cannot find a piece, or the pieces won’t fit. However, metaphorically speaking, the missing piece might be a NET specialist presentation, a comment, statement or view from another patient, a link to an article from a reputable source, or even something you do to improve your lot – there might even be trial and error involved. It might even be this blog post!

How do you work out whether diarrhea is caused by a hormone producing tumour or by the side effects of treatments? There’s no easy answer to this as both might be contributing. One crude but logical way is to just accept that if you have normal hormone markers, for example 5HIAA (there could be more for other tumour/syndrome types), and you’re not really  experiencing any of the other classic symptoms, then your syndrome might be under control due to your treatment (e.g. debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues, or another drug). My Oncologist labels me as ‘non-syndromic’ – something which I agree with. I’m 99.999999% sure my issues are as a result of the treatment I’ve had and am receiving.

This disease is so individual and there are many factors involved including the type of syndrome/NET, patient comorbidities and secondary illnesses, consequences of the surgery or treatments performed, side effects of drugs – all of which is intermingled with suspicion and coincidence – it’s that jigsaw again!  I always like to look in more detail to understand why certain things might be better than others, I always challenge the ‘status quo’ looking to find a better ‘normal’.  I really do think there are different strategies for syndrome induced diarrhea and that which is a result of treatment or a side effect of treatment.  There’s also different prices, with inhibitors costing thousands, whilst classic anti-diarrhea treatments are just a few pennies.  Adjustments to diets are free!

When I was discharged from hospital after the removal of my small intestinal primary, I was in the toilet A LOT (I was actually in the toilet a lot before I was discharged – check out my primary surgery blogs here) .  My surgeon did say it would take months to get back to ‘normal’ – he was right and it did eventually settle – although my new ‘toilet normal’ was soft and loose and several times daily.  My previously elevated CgA and 5HIAA were eventually back to normal and my flushing had disappeared.  I didn’t have too many issues with diarrhea before diagnosis.  Deduction:  my issues are most likely not syndrome induced.

I read that many people find basic ‘Loperamide’ (Imodium) helps and I tend to agree with that if you are non syndromic and just need that little bit of help.  I decided long time ago I would not become ‘hooked’ and only really take it for two purposes:  1) if I have a bad patch and 2) if I’m going on a long journey (i.e. on a plane perhaps).  I estimate I’ve used 4 packets in as many years.  Loperamide decreases the activity which causes intestinal motility (peristalsis). This has the effect of increasing the time material stays in the intestine therefore allowing more water to be absorbed from the fecal matter.  Ideal for those with a shorter bowel due to surgery and advice from a medical professional is always advisable.  To reduce the risk of malabsorption induced diarrhea and steatorrhoea, both of which can lead to loss of valuable nutrients, the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) might need to be introduced as required by your NET specialist.

Have a look at Enterade – the results from trials look good.

enterade

Clearly, I cannot offer any professional medical advice on coping with diarrhea, I can only discuss my own situation and what I found worked for me. Don’t forget, like many diseases, what works for one, might not work for another. However, I did tackle my problems following the advice of an experienced dietitian who specialises in NET Cancer. That said, I was ‘sleep walking’ for over 2 years thinking my issues were just part of the way things were after my treatment.  I was wrong about that!

As for my own strategy,  here’s things that helped me:

  • made some changes to diet (they were not huge changes),
  • included supplementation where necessary,
  • reduced stress as far as is practical to do,
  • exercise,
  • maintained a diary to help with monitoring progress or setbacks,
  • hydration is also important (….still working on that one).
  • started taking PERT (Creon) on 23 Dec 2017 (changed to Nutrizym Feb 2019) but looks reasonably positive so far.

With no fancy and expensive drugs, I’ve gone from 6-8 visits to 1-2 visits (as a daily average, it’s actually 1.5).  This didn’t happen overnight though, it took a lot of time and patience.  All of this doesn’t mean to say I don’t have issues from time to time …… because I do!


In summary, I think it’s important that people be sure what is actually causing their diarrhea after diagnosis so that the right advice and the optimum treatment can be given.

Listen to Dr Wolin talking about this particular jigsaw puzzle – click here

Also see a nice article that come out of NANETS 2017 – click here

Of course, some people sometimes have the opposite effect but that’s in another blog here – Constipation

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. I’m also building up this site here: Ronny Allan

Disclaimer

My Diagnosis and Treatment History

Most Popular Posts

Sign up for my twitter newsletter

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Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

Ronny Allan is an award winning patient leader and advocate for Neuroendocrine Cancer.

 

Please Share this post for Neuroendocrine Cancer awareness and to help another patient

Ignore this post about Neuroendocrine Cancer


ignore-this-post

When I was diagnosed, I wasn’t feeling ill. In hindsight, I now know some of the signs were there, I just put up with them. Neuroendocrine Cancer had laid a trap for me and I fell right into it. You see, Neuroendocrine Cancer can be very quiet and unobtrusive. It also plays the ‘long game’ and will sometimes take years before it’s finally discovered.  It is very very very sneaky.

Not satisfied with loitering in your small intestine, appendix, lungs, stomach, pancreas and a host of other places, it wants to reach out to your liver, your lymph nodes, your bones, bung you up with fibrosis, and get into your heart where it can cause the most damage. It will also try to get into your head, metaphorically speaking – however, it will also try the physical route.

As it spreads, it can become noisier through growth but also by secreting excess amounts of hormones and other substances. It knows that tumour growth and these excess hormones and substances will mimic routine illnesses such as IBS, diarrhea, stool changes including steatorrhoea, stomach cramps and bloating, asthma, facial flushing, menopause, weight loss, anaemia, fatigue, tachycardia (fast heart beat), pain, and nausea – a real witch’s brew of symptoms. These may manifest themselves as common endocrine conditions e.g. it can mess with your blood sugar and thyroid levels.  These are a few examples, there can be many others – it’s a real witch’s brew of symptoms. Neuroendocrine Cancer thinks this is great because it fools doctors into misdiagnosing you with something else which means it can continue to grow undetected and unfettered, spreading further inside you.

If nothing is done to stop its relentless growth, it will eventually kill.

However, sometimes an inquisitive doctor or nurse upsets its progress by thinking ‘outside the box’. Neuroendocrine Cancer hates when people are aware of its devious nature and hates when people know which tests can be used to find it and which treatments are best to attack it. Inquisitive, proactive and determined patients can also add to this effect and sometimes a bit of luck is involved.

It doesn’t give up easy and tries to work around your treatment. It knows your treatment will come with certain consequences and it will try to exploit this situation by keeping you guessing between cancer activity and these consequences. It really hates observant medical staff and patients, particularly those who understand Neuroendocrine Cancer.

Unfortunately for Neuroendocrine Cancer, there is now more knowledge about its devious activities and the latest statistics indicate it’s starting to be caught earlier. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to become complacent.

Neuroendocrine Cancer hates awareness and it will be extremely happy if you don’t share this post.