It’s been 5 years since I saw a scalpel (….but my surgeon is still on speed dial)

im-still-here

5 years ago today, I had a bunch of lymph nodes removed. Two separate areas were resected, only one was showing growth but both were showing up as hotspots on an Octreoscan.  I had known since shortly after diagnosis in 2010 that ‘hotspots’ were showing in my left ‘axillary’ lymph nodes (armpit) and my left ‘supraclavicular fossa’ (SCF) lymph nodes (clavicle area). Some 10 months previously, I had a major liver resection and 5 months prior to the liver resection, I had a small intestinal primary removed including work on some associated complications.  There had always been a plan to optimise cytoreduction of my distant metastases, it was just a matter of timing. I still can’t get my head round why metastases from a small intestinal NET managed to get to this area but not others!

Distant nodal metastasis treatment

A total of 9 nodes were removed from my left armpit (a very common operation for breast cancer patients). The surgeon had inspected the area and found some were palpable and my normally stable Chromogranin A marker was showing a small spike out of range.  During the same operation under general anaesthetic, an ultrasound directed SCF nodal ‘exploration’ was carried out.  When biopsied, 5 of the 9 resected axillary nodes were tested positive (Ki-67 <5) but the 5 SCF nodes removed were tested negative. The subsequent Octreoscan still lit up in the left SCF area but the lights on the left axillary area were ‘extinguished’. There is no pathological enlargement or pain in the left SCF area – so this is just monitored.

Side effects

Apart from a very faint scar in the left SCF area, there does not appear to be any side effects from this exploratory surgery.  The left axillary area cut is well hidden by hair growth but I do sense a lack of feeling in the area.  Additionally, I have a very mild case of lymphedema in my left hand which occasionally looks slightly swollen – the consequences of cancer and its treatment.  Fluid build-up, or post-operative seroma, can be a side effect of a lymphadenectomy.  In fact, within a month of the operation, I had to have circa 160mls of fluid removed on 4 occasions from my armpit.  It was uncomfortable and painful, resulting in additional time off work.  The surgeon used a fine needle aspiration to draw out the fluid, a painless procedure. It eventually cleared up and everything was back to normal.  The specialist said my left arm would be slightly more susceptible to infections and suggested to avoid using my left arm for blood draws and other invasive procedures and injuries.

Other close calls (“to cut or not to cut”)

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 so far. 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.  I attend an annual Endocrine MDT where this is monitored in close coordination with the NET MDT. It’s actually managed by the same surgeon who carried out the nodal work above.

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 and hasn’t changed since noted.

You may also be interested in my post “Neuroendocrine Cancer – to cut or not to cut”

I watch and wait but I also watch and learn.  Make sure you are under some form of surveillance.

Thanks for reading

Ronny Allan

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Neuroendocrine Cancer: Nodes, Nodules, Lesions

www-cancer-gov_publishedcontent_images_cancertopics_factsheet_sites-types_metastaticA 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.

diagram-of-the-lymphatic-system_3
The Lymphatic System

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.

thyroidI 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.

You may enjoy my posts:

“Living with Neuroendocrine Cancer – 8 tips for conquering fear”

“Worrier or Warrior”

‘Chinese Dumplings’ and Neuroendocrine Cancer

Chinese Dumpings
Chinese dumplings

One of my daily alerts brought up this very interesting article published in the Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology last month (June 2015).  I personally found it fascinating. Moreover, it gave me some hope that specialists are out there looking for novel treatments to help with the difficult fight against Neuroendocrine Cancer.

This is an article about something generally described as “Intra-operative Chemotherapy”, i.e. the administration of chemo during surgery.  This isn’t any old article – this is written by someone who is very well-known in Neuroendocrine Cancer circles – Dr. Yi-Zarn Wang.  

The general idea behind this isn’t exactly new as there’s also a procedure known as HIPEC (Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy) or “chemo bath”.  This is mostly used intra-operatively for people with advanced appendiceal cancers such as Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP). It normally follows extreme surgery – you can read more about this in a blog I wrote at the beginning of the year entitled “The Mother of all Surgeries”.

However, this is both different and significant because it is targeted at midgut neuroendocrine tumour (NET) patients who are often diagnosed at an advanced stage with extensive mesenteric lymph node and liver metastasis. Despite extensive surgery which needs to be both aggressive and delicate, there can sometimes be small specks left behind which will not show up on any type scan, particularly in the mesentery area.  It is possible these specks could eventually grow big enough to cause fresh metastasis or syndrome recurrence/worsening and then need further invasive treatment.

The treatment aims to eliminate potential tumour residuals in mesenteric lymph node dissection beds using a safe and local application of chemotherapy agent 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). The 5-FU is delivered via ‘intraoperative application’ of 5-FU saturated gelfoam strips secured into the mesenteric defect following the extensive lymphadenectomy. The term ‘Chinese dumpings’ is used to describe the 5-FU saturated gelfoam strips once they are in place in the treatment site.  I understand from other research that they can also be used in liver surgery (anecdotal from a forum site).

The report concluded that those who were treated with the intra-operative 5-FU received less follow-up surgery than those who were not (the control group). However, it added that further studies were required to evaluate its effect on long-term survival.

So…. this form of intra-operative treatment is very interesting. Incidentally there is already a form of intra-operative treatment using radiotherapy (IORT) which is a similar concept but essentially still in its infancy. However, the first IORT machine of its kind in the UK was deployed in Jun 2016.  I blogged about this here.

You can read the report in full here:

Adjuvant intraoperative post-dissectional tumor bed chemotherapy—A novel approach in treating midgut neuroendocrine tumors

p.s. If you get time, the introduction section of this article is a very powerful explanation of the problems and challenges faced by surgeons when presented with extensive abdominal neuroendocrine disease.

Thanks