In my article ‘Ever wonder what caused your NET’, I concluded that currently, the only known scientifically explained causes for NETs were hereditary/genetic in nature. This is mostly associated with those who have MEN syndromes (yes, they are a syndrome not a type of tumour) and a few other less common types of NET including Pheochomocytoma/Paraganglioma (Pheo/Para) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma (MTC) (the familial version of MTC is often referred to as FMTC). However, please note this does not mean that all those diagnosed with pancreatic, parathyroid, pituarity, Pheo/Para and MTC tumours, will have any hereditary or genetic conditions, many will simply be sporadic tumors.
In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that a number of Neuroendocrine tumours arise as a result of germline genetic mutations and are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern. The number of genes implicated is increasing.
Apparently, 5-10% of Gastroenteropancreatic NETs (GEP NETs) are estimated to have a hereditary background. Hereditary syndromes associated with these include Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN), Von Hippel Lindau (VHL), Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1), Tuberous Sclerosis (TS) and others. People who have a genetic condition may present with the tumors (perhaps along with an associated functional hormone syndrome) and so the genetic condition if there is one, may not be known at this point.
How will I know if I am affected?
Some people do worry about this, often because of what they find on the internet including inside patient forums. I suspect some people already know via family connections and as an example (there are many), I guess if you have 2 tumors found in (say) parathyroid and pancreas, it should at least raise a suspicion for MEN1 and be investigated.
Many people say how do I know, how do I check and this is obviously a delicate subject. Of course, your first port of call should be your NET specialist if you suspect or know of any connection.
Thus why I was interested in a paper published in Springer Link – titled “When should genetic testing be performed in patients with neuroendocrine tumours.” When reading, you’ll find it’s actually much more than that! Check it out here:
When should genetic testing be performed in patients with neuroendocrine tumours?
In this review, the authors examined the features which may lead a clinician to suspect that a patient may have an inherited cause of a NET and they outlined which underlying conditions should be suspected. They also discussed what type of screening may be appropriate in a variety of situations. If there is a way to identify which patients are likely to have a germline mutation, this would enable clinicians to counsel patients adequately about their future disease risk, and allows for earlier detection of at-risk patients through family screening. There’s a couple of minor errors in the text but I’ve contacted the authors who also agreed they should have included the pituitary.
The authors focused on presentations of NETs of the gastrointestinal system, chromaffin cell tumours (Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma. Pituitary tumors (normally associated with MEN1), were not considered in scope for the review. Interesting thought, the review includes news of a move by endocrinologists to reclassify ‘Pituitary Adenomas’ as Pituitary NETs (PitNETs). Read the abstract here. This would appear to be in line with a gradual shift from the benign nomenclature associated with certain NETs to the ‘malignant’ potential of these type of tumors. The abbreviation is also in line with others, e.g. pNET, SiNET, etc. A useful reminder that we must stop using the term ‘Carcinoid‘ as this is regressing this extremely useful initiative to highlight the malignant potential of all NETs.
There also appears to be some linkage to the study looking at the possibility of familial Small Intestine NETs (SiNETs). You can read more about a US registered trial here (with apologies for use of the now defunct term ‘Carcinoid‘).
This is a complex subject and the text above is very basic. If you wish to dig further, the quoted reference is a good read. Just to emphasise, it’s aim is to provide advice about when to recommend genetic testing for NETs, and in doing so provides some useful reference information. Please also note they are finding new genetic links all the time so there could be some omissions of recently discovered genes but the article remains good enough as a primer on the subject. It’s broken down into 4 distinct tumor groupings:
On the day I was diagnosed, I hadn’t really thought about questions, the only one I actually remember asking was “how long do I have left to live” (I watch too many movies!). On the day of diagnosis and a period beyond, people tend to feel emotions of shock, denial, anger and sadness, before going on to accept their situation. Yes, I ‘googled‘ but not a great deal really – although some things I found did frighten me. I wish I had found this article way back then.
As things progressed in the weeks after ‘D-Day’, I started to work out the sort of things to ask but even then it was limited. I had been referred to an experienced NET team so I felt confident they would do whatever needed doing. In hindsight, I can now think of a quite a few questions I should have asked. That said, I suspect my team probably gave me the answers without having been asked the questions!
My blogging efforts have turned into a ‘Community’ of sorts. Consequently, I’m contacted daily from people finding me on the web. Many of these people are at the pre-diagnosis or initial phase. Many are undiagnosed. Most are looking for information and some sound like they are already at the ‘acceptance stage’; some are frightened about the future, some are angry because they think they are not being told important information and some also feel they have been messed about or ‘fobbed off’ by their doctors. Of course I’m happy to help but only after reminding them that I’m just a wee Scottish guy with the same disease!
I have to say that some people arrive on my site without a diagnosis but often seem to be very well prepared – the power of the internet I suspect. The questions I mostly get involve finding experts and then what questions to ask them.
As an extra bonus to this post, I offer you a starting point for the best places I know for finding NET expertise:
One US center is now the first to achieve a European NETs Center of Excellence accreditation – read more hear about University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center – click here
NANETS have listed “NET Centers” here – NANETS NET Centers and Clinics
The NET Research Foundation as they also have a ‘Doctor Database’ section which differs slightly from CCF below.
Dr. Shereen Ezzat at Princess Margaret in Toronto (PMH)
Dr. McEwan, The Cross Clinic, Alberta?
Dr Kavan at Montreal Jewish General Hospital (Oncology)
Dr Buteau / Beauregard at Quebec Hotel Dieu (Radiation Oncology (PRRT, Ga68)
Dr Rivera at Montreal General Hospital (Endocrinology)
Dr Metrakos at the Montreal Royal Victoria Hospital (Surgeon) sees a lot of NET patients
On the French side Dr Andre Roy at the CHUM in Montreal (surgeon) also sees a lot of NET patients
Dr. Jamil Asselah also treats net patients. He is an oncologist….Quebec
Michael Sawyer at Cross Clinic in Alberta Edmonton.
Drs. Parkins, Card, and Paseka at the Tom Baker CC in Calgary.
London Ontario: Dr. David Laidley, Dr. Robert Reid in the Neuroendocrine Clinic at London Regional Cancer Program and Dr. Daryl Gray, Surgeon.
Russia – Clinical Oncology Research Institute, N. N. Blokhin RCRC RAMS, Address: 24, Kashirskoye sh., Moscow, 115478, RF. NET specialist Alla Markovich
In my Group – ask other patients: Click here to join.
Neuroendocrine Cancer – 10 questions to ask your specialist
Many people ask me what sort of questions to ask and because NETs is such a diverse bunch of diseases, that leads to me ask them a series of questions to ascertain what they might consider asking. I’m not surprised to find some are unable to answer my questions and so those then become some of their questions to ask!
Also, questions don’t end at the diagnosis phase, they continue and in fact, some of the answers to the questions below, may bring up new questions in your mind. Some of these questions can be asked time and time again in the event of issues downstream.
If you’re currently confused about the essential facts of your condition, you’re not alone. In a recent study, almost half of cancer patients did not know basic stuff such as grade and stage of cancer, and after their initial treatment, whether they were free of disease or in remission.
For those entering or are recently just beyond the diagnostic phase, you may find certain questions cannot yet be answered without further test results etc. However, if the answer is not yet known for whatever reason, at least you have it on your list for follow up appointments. Consequently, I’ve constructed this list of questions that should function as a generic set. There may also be ‘specific to country’ questions such as insurance cover in addition to this suggested list. Of course, some of you may not want the answer to so certain questions. That’s perfectly understandable, so don’t ask!
1. Where is my primary tumour and what type of NET is it?
This is a fundamental question and it’s likely many will already have some inkling about location and perhaps a type. The difference between NETs and other types of cancer is the primary can be found wherever there are Neuroendocrine cells rather than a specific part of the anatomy in terms of naming the type of cancer, i.e. a NET of the pancreas is not Pancreatic Cancer.
The type of NET is key as it will drive a lot of other stuff including treatment. Location and type of NET are not always aligned, for example, you may have a NET in your Pancreas but there are several types of Pancreatic NET (or pNET) and these may depend on identification of a particular hormone (see syndrome below). Many NETs are non-functional (there is no oversecreting hormone).
For some the primary will not yet be found (i.e. cancer of unknown primary or CUP). There may also be multiple primaries.
2. What is the grade and differentiation of my tumour(s)?
Another fundamental question as this defines the aggressiveness of the disease and is absolutely key in determining overall treatment plans. Treatment plans for poorly differentiated can be very different from well differentiated. Read more here – Grading and here – Benign or Malignant
3. What is the stage of my disease?
Fundamental to understanding the nature of your disease. Stage confirms the extent of your disease, i.e. how far has it spread. Again this will drive treatment plans and long-term outlooks. Scans are really important in determining the Stage of your cancer – check out my scans post here. Read more here on Staging
4. Do I have a NET Syndrome?
Many NET patients will have been experiencing symptoms prior to diagnosis, perhaps for some time. It’s possible these symptoms form part of what is known as a ‘Syndrome’ and there are several associated with NETs. Syndromes are mostly caused by the effects of over-secretion of hormones from the tumours, a hallmark of Neuroendocrine disease. Carcinoid Syndrome is the most common but there are many more depending on the primary location. Read more here – NET Syndromes.
5. What is my treatment plan, and what are the factors that will influence my eventual treatment? When will I start treatment
This is a very complex area and will depend on many factors. Thus why your specialist may not have the answers to hand. Decisions on treatment are normally made by some form of Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT). Many people diagnosed with cancer expect to be whisked away to an operating theatre or chemotherapy treatment. However, for many this is not what actually happens. Depending on what testing has been done up to the actual diagnosis, it’s possible that even more testing needs to be done. Additionally, for those with an accompanying syndrome, this will most likely need to be brought until control before certain treatments can be administered; and even then, there may be checks to make sure the treatment will be suitable. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘Hurry up and wait’. My first treatment was 6 weeks after diagnosis and that was designed to control my syndrome ready for surgery which was undertaken 14 weeks after diagnosis. It’s also possible you will be placed on a ‘watch and wait’ regime, at least to begin with.
6. Can you comment on the potential for my type of NET to be related to any familial or genetic aspects of cancer?
A small percentage of NETs are hereditary/genetic in nature. This is mostly associated with those who have Multiple Endocrine Neoplasms (MEN) syndromes and a few other less common types of NET including Pheochomocytoma / Paraganglioma(Pheo/Para) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma (MTC) (the familial version of MTC is often referred to as FMTC). However, please note this does not mean that all those diagnosed with pancreatic, parathyroid, pituitary, Pheo/Para and MTC tumours, will have any hereditary or genetic conditions, many will simply be sporadic tumors.
7. Will you be able to get rid of all my disease?
This is a really difficult question for any specialist, even a Neuroendocrine expert. All published articles on NETs will say they are a heterogeneous collection of diseases (i.e. consisting of dissimilar entities) which makes this question (and others) difficult. I have read articles written by the world’s foremost NET experts and they all have the word ‘curative’ mentioned in various places. So I guess in particular scenarios with certain NETs, and if the disease is caught early enough, that possibility exists. However, for many, the disease could be incurable, particularly where there is distant metastasis. But, the disease has many treatment options for most types and for many it is possible to live as if it were a chronic condition. I call it ‘incurable but treatable’. Read more here – Incurable vs Terminal
8. What Surveillance will I be placed under?
Again, this is very individual in NETs and is mainly dependent on type of NET, grade and stage and how the patients reacts to treatment. This may not be known until you have undergone your initial treatment. For example, surveillance scans can be any period from 3 months to 3 years depending on tumour type(location) and stage/grade. Marker testing tends to average around 6 monthly but could be more or less frequently depending on what’s going on. Read more here – click here
9. Will I receive support and specialist advice after my treatment?
Let’s not be afraid of the word ‘Palliative’, it does not always mean ‘end of life’ care. Another example is nutrition. Many people with NETs, the condition in combination with the side effects of treatment may necessitate an alteration of diet and this is a very individual area. I would also emphasise that dietitians not well versed in NETs might not offer the optimum advice. Read more – My Nutrition Series.
10. How will treatment affect my daily life?
This is a question that many people miss but it’s becoming more important as we all live longer with cancer Again, this may not be possible to answer immediately but perhaps this question could be reserved once you know which treatment(s) you will be receiving. All treatment comes with side effects and can last for some time or even present with late effects after some years. The ‘consequences’ of cancer treatment need to be factored in earlier so that the necessary knowledge and support can be put in place. See also Unmet Needs for NET Patients
I suspect others will have suggestions for this list so feel free to submit these to me. I quite often refresh my posts over time.
There’s a lot of inaccurate and out of date information out there. Some is just a lack of understanding, often with a combination of patient forum myth spreading. Some can only be described as propaganda.
Myth 1: All Neuroendocrine Tumours are benign
Not true. By any scientific definition, the word ‘tumour’ means ‘an abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumours may be benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous)’. Sure, some NETs will be benign. However, The World Health Organisation (WHO) 2010 classification for digestive system is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential. This has been reinforced in the 2017 update to include clarification for other endocrine organ types of NET including Pheochromocytoma. Read more here. The word ‘Carcinoid’ is inextricably linked with this issue – read here why we need to stop using the term to help fight the benign myth.
Myth 2: Neuroendocrine Tumours is a terminal condition
Not true. By any definition of the word terminal in a medical diagnostic context, most NET patients have a good prognostic outlook, even those with metastatic and incurable variants of the disease. Read more here.
Myth 3: Carcinoid is another word for Neuroendocrine Tumours
Not true. Carcinoid is a very old term and was phased out years ago. Carcinoid is not mentioned in the latest WHO Classification schemes for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (a term covering Neuroendocrine Tumours and Neuroendocrine Carcinoma). Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated by organisations and individuals who still use the word. Also, those who use the following terms:
“Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine”,
“Neuroendocrine and Carcinoid”,
“Carcinoid NETs” or “CNET”
These are all contextually incorrect and misleading terms (not to mention the bad grammar). ENETS, NANETS and NCCN publications are gradually phasing the word out except in relation to Carcinoid Syndrome (and even then there could be easy solutions for this). Read more here and here.
Myth 4: All NET patients get ‘carcinoid syndrome’
Not true. Firstly, many NET cancers are non-functional; and secondly, carcinoid syndrome is only one of a number of “NET Syndromes” associated with the various types of NET. However, the issue is further confused by those who use the word ‘Carcinoid‘ to incorrectly refer to all NETs and use Carcinoid Syndrome to refer to all NET Syndromes. Read more here.
Not true. Steve Jobs had a Neuroendocrine Tumour of the Pancreas. Ditto for a few other famous names. Read more here.
Myth 7: I’m not getting chemotherapy, I must be doing OK?
Not true. For some cancers or some sub-types of cancers, although it remains an option, chemotherapy is not particularly effective, e.g. some types of Neuroendocrine Cancer (NETs). In general, well differentiated NETs do not normally show a high degree of sensitivity to chemotherapy, although some primary locations fare better than others. However, many of the treatments for NET Cancer are somewhat harsh, have long-term consequences, and have no visible effects. NET patients are often said to “look well” but that doesn’t mean they are not struggling behind the scenes or under the surface. Read more here. P.S. Afinitor (Everolimus), Sutent (Sunitinib) are not chemo – Read more here.
Myth 8: All diarrhea is caused by carcinoid syndrome
Not true. It could be one of the other syndromes or tumor types or a side effect of your treatment. Check out this post.
Myth 9: Neuroendocrine Tumours is a ‘good cancer’
Not true. Simply, no cancer is good. Some are statistically worse than others in prognostic terms, that’s true…… but living with NETs is very often not a walk in the park. However, no one cancer is better to get than any other – they’re all bad. Read more here.
Myth 10: Every NET Patient was misdiagnosed for years
Not true. Many NET Patients are correctly diagnosed early on in their investigation and in a reasonable time. This myth is perpetuated because of two things: firstly, on forums, the ratio of long-term misdiagnosis is high creating a false perception; and secondly, the method of capturing patient surveys is not extensive enough – again creating a false perception. In fact, the latest and largest database analysis from US indicates earlier diagnosis is improving, with more and more NETs being picked up at an early stage. Read more here.
Myth 11: Somatostatin Analogues are a type of Chemotherapy
Not true. Somatostatin Analogues (e.g. Octreotide and Lanreotide) are not chemotherapy, they are hormone inhibiting drugs. They are more biotherapy. As the drugs latch onto somatostatin receptors, they are more targeted than systemic. For the record, Everolimus (Afinitor) and Sunitinib (Sutent) are not chemotherapy either. Read more here.
Myth 12: Stuart Scott (ESPN) and Audrey Hepburn had Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Not true. This is a common misunderstanding within the community. They both had Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP). Read more about PMP here.
Myth 13: I’ve been diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Tumours – my life is over
Not true. Many patients live a very long time and lead fairly normal lives with the right treatment and support. It’s difficult but I try not to use ‘I can’t’ too much. Read more here.
Myth 14: There are only a handful of Neuroendocrine specialists in the world
Not true. There are many specialists in many countries. Get links to specialists by clicking here
Myth 15: The Ga68 PET scan is replacing the CT and MRI scan in routine surveillance for all NET Patients
Not true. It is actually replacing the Octreotide Scan for particular purposes, or will eventually. Read more by clicking here.
Myth 16: All NET Patients are Zebras
Not true. They are in fact human beings and we should treat them as such. Please don’t call me a zebra, I and many others don’t appreciate it. Please don’t use the term on my social media sites, the comment or post will be removed. Sorry but I refuse to perpetuate this outdated dogma. Read why here:
Myth 17: Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) is a type of Neuroendocrine Tumour
Not true. Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia are syndromes and inherited disorders not tumours. You can actually have MEN and not have any tumours. However, these disorders can put people at more risk of developing Neuroendocrine or Endocrine Tumours. Read morehere
Myth 18: Palliative Care means end of life or hospice care
Not true. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. A multidisciplinary care team aims to improve quality of life for people who have serious or life-threatening illnesses, no matter the diagnosis or stage of disease. Read more here
Myth 19: Serotonin is found in foods
Not true. Serotonin is manufactured in the body. Read more here
Myth 20: NETs cannot be cured
Not true. If caught early enough, some NETs can be treated with curative intent (totally resected with margins) with little or no further follow up. It says this in ENETS and NANETS publications which are authored by our top specialists. If we can’t believe them, who can we believe? Read more here.
Myth 21: Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (Creon etc) is only for pancreatic patients
Not true. It’s for any patient who is exhibiting exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Read more here.
Myth 22: High Grade NETs are Carcinomas
Not entirely true. Grade 3 (high grade) comprises well differentiated tumours and poorly differentiated tumours. Only poorly differentiated tumour are carcinomas. Read more here.
More to follow no doubt
For general cancer myths and the dangers of fake health news, please see my ARTICLE HERE
Thanks for reading
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OPINION – nothing in here should be taken as advice from the author.
On paper, surgery remains the only potentially ‘curative‘ option for Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) but there are stage, grade and anatomical constraints to that opinion. Many people get ‘twitchy’ about any inference of the ‘C word’ (cure) but our most eminent NET specialists use the term frequently including in the major treatment guidelines.
I use the word ‘curative’ with some reservations because for many who are diagnosed at an advanced stage, surgery will not cure but will debulk or cytoreduce as much tumour as possible in order to palliate symptoms and improve quality of life. This is a big deal because NETs is one of a small number of cancers where debulking surgery can often provide a survival advantage for metastatic cases. One of the reasons it’s a big deal is because with more aggressive cancers at an advanced stage, surgery just might not be offered. It follows that surgery is most likely adding to the fairly decent NETs survival statistics, including for those with metastatic disease at diagnosis. More on this below.
That’s a fairly simplistic explanation on behalf of surgery. However, as we all know, nothing in Neuroendocrine Cancer is simple. There are always a number of factors involved and every decision can in some way be on an individual basis. There are guidelines for treatment of most types of NETs but ……. they are just that – guidelines. NET Centres and NET Specialists are encouraged to use these guidelines, for example, a European Centre of Excellence has ENETS Guidelines. There is a North American equivalent set published by NANETS and NCCN have a decent complementary set. The UK and Ireland guys (UKINETS) also published a set although many UK centres are ENETS accredited.
Whether to cut or not to cut (or watch and wait then cut if necessary) and the sequencing of treatments is a really difficult issue for NET specialists. I quite liked watching these two video clips and they cover this issue quite nicely including some interesting abdominal challenges in surgery from known NET Specialists – these short video sessions are highly recommended:
a. Risk Stratification and Management of NETs – click here
Surgery can sometimes be a tough call (……to cut or not to cut?)
It is an area where I have some sympathy for physicians and surgeons who sometimes have tough decisions to make. Surgery is risky, particularly where people are presenting in a weak condition, perhaps with very advanced disease, secondary illness and comorbidities. I also suspect age is a factor (I was surprised to find myself considered ‘young’ at 55). Physicians and surgeons need to weigh up these risks and the consequences of the surgery against a ‘watch and wait’ or alternative non-surgical approach. This would normally be discussed via a ‘Tumor Board’ or Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) meeting. However, and although imaging helps, the situation is not really 100% clear until the surgeon ‘gets inside’. Remember, all physicians and surgeons are bound by the ‘Hippocratic oath’ of “Do no harm“. Sometimes with NETs, it’s a tough call not only before they go inside but whilst they’re inside.
Surgery should be a carefully considered treatment (…..think before cutting?)
I read many stories from many different parts of the world and I also hear them from people who contact me privately on a daily basis. Some of them are perplexed why they are not receiving surgery and some are not entirely happy with the surgery they received. Many are perplexed by different advice from different doctors. I find it very difficult to respond to many. My most frequent answer is “ask your doctor” but I’m normally pretty helpful with the sorts of questions to ask.
One thing which tends to surprise people is speed – or lack of it! With lower grade NETs, the extent of the tumour (stage), its metastases, histological grade and secretory profile should be determined as far as possible before planning treatment. I like to remind people that in 2010, it took from 26 July to 9 Nov before my body saw a scalpel. With Grade 1/2 well differentiated NETs, you can often get away with that gap. Sometimes when you are diagnosed with NET, it’s a case of ‘hurry up and wait’.
Back to the guidelines, of course most people will probably fit reasonably well into the relevant guidelines flow chart. A very generic example here (not for active use please, your area may have an alternative based on availability of treatments etc):
If you search long and hard, you will find articles about whether to “cut or not to cut”. Not just a dilemma for NETs but also for many cancer types. During my research, I found there’s some overlap between this conundrum and the issue of “overdiagnosis”. By “overdiagnosis”, I mean the unnecessary declaration and treatment of something which would probably not harm a person whilst they live. This is a bit of a modern phenomena as diagnostic tools and screening programmes become more sophisticated and more sensitive …..something to consider with Ga68 PET scans as they are more widely used. If you search for ‘overdiagnosis’ you will see many articles, in particular (and as an example), with many Thyroid diagnoses. In another example, I read an article about Rectal cancerwhere the author suggested a ‘wait and see’ approach might be better for most. Worth adding at this point that many autopsies show up NETs in areas such as the appendix (…..more often than you think) – check out my article “Benign vs Malignant” and The Invisible NET Patient Population. When I attended ENETS 2017 and 2018, I heard many ‘experts’ talk about conservative approaches. However, I also heard many talk about aggressive approaches. Another term I see a lot is “one surgeon’s inoperable is another’s operable”.
Timing of Surgery (……to cut now, to cut later?)
Following on from the scenario above, timing of surgery can be another factor in a ‘watch and wait’ situation. I guess this might be something in the back of the minds of more cautious doctors when faced with a rather indolent and very slow growing Neuroendocrine Tumour. For some this can be a sensible thing – ‘kicking butt’ in a surgical context is sometimes the wrong approach. The worry is that if they are not a NET specialist, they may not fully understand the vagaries of neuroendocrine tumor behaviour (i.e. they all have malignant potential – WHO 2010/2017). We’ve all heard the stories of people being told it’s not cancer, right? Please note my article Benign vs Malignant. However, you may be interested in this post from someone who is one of the most experienced NET surgeons on the planet. Dr Eric Liu talks quite candidly about the ‘timing’ of surgery suggesting a ‘watch and wait’ approach in certain scenarios.
Of course cutting now might actually be a pre-emptive measure. For example, if physicians can see a growth which is critically placed close to an important structure such as a blood vessel or the bile duct or bowel. Even if the disease cannot be cured, removing the tumour may prevent problems in the future by removing disease from key areas before the vital structure has been damaged or blocked. For example, my surgeon conducted a high risk operation on some desmoplasia (serotonin fibrosis) which had encircled my aorta and cava almost occluding the latter. There’s an excellent surgery pamphlet from NET Patient Foundation and I strongly recommend a read as it’s an experienced surgeon’s approach to surgery with NETs (actually written by my own surgeon Mr Neil Pearce!). Click here to read it.
One NET centre in USA has published very detailed surgical statistics indicating that surgical cytoreduction in NET patients has low morbidity and mortality rates and results in prolonged survival. Their conclusion went on to say “We believe that surgical cytoreduction should play a major role in the care of patients with NETs”. You can read the extract from this document by clicking here. Authors: Woltering et al.
Was Steve Jobsa smart guy who made a stupid decision when it came to his health? It might seem so, from the broad outlines of what he did in 2003 when a CT scan and other tests found a cancerous tumour in his pancreas. Doctors urged him to have an operation to remove the tumour, but Mr. Jobs put it off and instead tried a vegan diet, juices, herbs, acupuncture and other alternative remedies. Nine months later, the Neuroendocrine Tumour had grown. Only then did he agree to surgery, during which his doctors found the cancer had spread to his liver. The rest is summarised in my article Steve Jobs.
This is a difficult subject and no one size fits all. Treatment for NETs can be very individual including surgery. I guess you need to be comfortable with your team. I was lucky, in that I lived close to a NET Centre. I was referred to their surgical team once my staging and grading were complete and I was stabilised on somatostatin analogues (carcinoid syndrome under control). I realise it’s difficult for many but I always say to people who make contact, it’s best if you can be seen by a NET centre or an experienced NET specialist – at least be guided by one if not possible or practical. Personally, I think the surgeon’s experience in dealing with NETs is really important. But even experienced NET centres/specialists have to make tough calls.
You may benefit from my 10 Questions article which also has links to NET Specialists.
One of the most controversial aspects of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms, in particular low grade Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), is the ‘benign vs malignant’ question. It’s been widely debated and it frequently patrols the various patient forums and other social media platforms. It raises emotions and it triggers many responses ….. at least from those willing to engage in the conversation. At best, this issue can cause confusion, at worst, it might contradict what new patients have been told by their physicians (….or not been told). I don’t believe it’s an exact science and can be challenging for a NET specialist let alone a doctor who is not familiar with the disease.
NANETS Guidance talks about the ‘…heterogeneous clinical presentations and varying degrees of aggressiveness‘ and ‘…there are many aspects to the treatment of neuroendocrine tumours that remain unclear and controversial‘. I’m sure the ‘benign vs malignant’ issue plays a part in these statements.
In another example, ENETS Guidance discusses (e.g.) Small Intestine Tumours (Si-NETs) stating that they ‘derive from serotonin-producing enterochromaffin cells. The biology of these tumors is different from other NENs of the digestive tract, characterized by a low proliferation rate [the vast majority are grade 1 (G1) and G2], they are often indolent’. However, they then go on to say that ‘Si-NETs are often discovered at an advanced disease stage – regional disease (36%) and distant metastasis (48%) are present‘. It follows that the term ‘indolent‘ does not mean they are not dangerous and can be ignored and written off as ‘benign’. This presents a huge challenge to physicians when deciding whether to cut or not to cut.
To fully understand this issue, I studied some basic (but very widely accepted) definitions of cancer. I also need to bring the ‘C’ word into the equation (Carcinoid), because the history of these tumours is frequently where a lot of the confusion lies. The use of the out of date term by both patients, patient advocates and doctors exacerbates the issue given that it decodes to ‘carcinoma like‘ which infers it is not a proper cancer. See more below.
Let’s look at these definitions provided by the National Cancer Institute. Please note I could have selected a number of organisations but in general, they all tend to agree with these definitions give or take a few words. These definitions help with understanding as there can be an associated ‘tumour’ vs ‘cancer’ debate too.
Cancer – Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues. There are more than 100 types of cancer which are usually named for the organs or tissues where the cancers form. However, they also may be described by the type of cell that formed them.
Author’s note: The last sentence is important for Neuroendocrine Tumour awareness (i.e. Neuroendocrine Tumour of the Pancreas rather than Pancreatic Cancer).
Carcinoma – Carcinomas are the most common grouping of cancer types. They are formed by epithelial cells, which are the cells that cover the inside and outside surfaces of the body. There are many types of epithelial cells, which often have a column-like shape when viewed under a microscope.
Author’s note: By definition, Carcinomas are malignant, i.e. they are without question malignant cancers. Poorly differentiated Neuroendocrine Neoplasms are deemed to be a ‘Neuroendocrine Carcinoma’ according to the most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of Neuroendocrine Tumours (2017) and ENETS 2016 Guidance. You will have heard of some of the types of Carcinoma such as ‘Adenocarcinoma’ (incidentally, the term ‘Adeno’ simply means ‘gland’). It follows that Grade 3 Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (NEC) are beyond the scope of this discussion.
Malignant – Cancerous. Malignant cells can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.
Benign – Not cancerous. Benign tumors may grow larger but do not spread to other parts of the body.
Author’s Note: This is a key definition because there are people out there who think that low grade NETs are not cancer.
Tumour (Tumor) – An abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumors may be benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous). Also called Neoplasm.
Author’s Note: Neoplasm is an interesting term as this is what is frequently used by ENETS and NANETS in their technical documentation, sometimes to cover all Neuroendocrine types of cancer (Tumor and Carcinoma). It follows that a malignant tumour is Cancer. The term “Malignant Neuroendocrine Tumour” is the same as saying “Neuroendocrine Cancer”
Neuroendocrine Tumours – Benign or Malignant?
Definitions out of the way, I have studied the ENETS, UKINETS and NANETS guidance both of which are based on internationally recognised classification schemes (i.e. the World Health Organisation (WHO)).
In older versions of the WHO classification schemes (1980 and 2000), the words ‘benign’ and ‘uncertain behaviour’ were used for Grades 1 and 2. However, the 2010 edition, the classification is fundamentally different (as is the recent 2017 publication). Firstly, it separated out grade and stage for the first time (stage would now be covered by internationally accepted staging systems such as TNM – Tumour, (Lymph) Nodes, Metastasis). Additionally, and this is key to the benign vs malignant discussion, the WHO 2010 classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential. Here’s a quote from the UKINETS 2011 Guidelines (Ramage, Caplin, Meyer, Grossman, et al).
Tumours should be classified according to the WHO 2010 classification (Bosman FT, Carneiro F, Hruban RH, et al. WHO Classification of Tumours of the Digestive System. Lyon: IARC, 2010). This classification is fundamentally different from the WHO 2000 classification scheme, as it no longer combines stage related information with the two-tiered system of well and poorly differentiated NETs. The WHO 2010 classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential.
The guidance in 2017 WHO reinforces this statement to include endocrine organs, including the pancreas and adrenal glands.
History lesson – Carcinoid tumours were first identified as a specific, distinct type of growth in the mid-1800’s, and the name “karzinoide” was first applied in 1907 by German pathlogist Siegfried Oberndorfer in Europe in an attempt to designate these tumors as midway between carcinomas (cancers) and adenomas (benign tumors).
The word ‘Carcinoid’ originates from the term ‘Carcinoma-like’. ‘CARCIN’ is a truncation of Carcinoma. ‘OID’ is a suffix used in medical parlance meaning ‘resembling’ or ‘like’. This is why many people think that Carcinoid is not a proper cancer.
The situation is made even more confusing by those who use the term “Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine Tumors” inferring that it is a separate disease from the widely accepted and correct term ‘Neuroendocrine Tumor’ or Neuroendocrine Neoplasm. A separate discussion on this subject can be found in this post here. I encourage you to stop using the term ‘Carcinoid’ which is just perpetuating the problem.
How are NENs Classified?
If you read any NET support website it will normally begin by stating that Neuroendocrine Tumours constitute a heterogeneous group of tumours. This means they are a wide-ranging group of different types of tumours. However, the latest WHO classification scheme uses the terms ‘Neuroendocrine Tumour’ for well differentiated Grade 1 (low-grade), Grade 2 (Intermediate Grade) and Grade 3 (High Grade) NET; and ‘Neuroendocrine Carcinoma’ (NEC) for poorly differentiated tumours which are by default grade 3 or high grade. They also use the term ‘Neoplasm’ to encompass all types of NET and NEC. So Grade 1 is a low-grade malignancy and so on (i.e any grade of NET is a malignant tumour). You may benefit from reading my blog article on Staging and Grading of NETs as this is also a poorly understood area.
Can some NETs be Benign?
By any accepted definition of cancer terms, a tumour can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). This is correct for any cancer type. For example, the word is used in the 2016 version of Inter Science Institute publication on Neuroendocrine Tumors, a document I frequently reference in my blog. For example, I’ve seen statements such as “These tumors are most commonly benign (90%)” in relation to Insulinoma (a type of Pancreatic NET or pNET). Ditto for Pheochromocytoma (an adrenal gland NET). Adrenal and Pituitary ‘adenomas’ are by definition benign (adenoma is the benign version of Adenocarcinoma). And I note that there is a ‘benign’ code option for every single NET listed in the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD) system.
The ‘BUT‘ is this – all WHO classification systems are based on the concept that NETs always have malignant potential. The WHO 2017 classification update confirmed this thinking by adding endocrine organs including the pancreas and adrenal glands.
Can Tumours be Malignant or become Malignant?
Using the definition above, if a tumour invades and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body, then it’s malignant (i.e Cancer). However, there’s a reason why the WHO declared in 2010 that all NETs have malignant potential (as amplified in WHO 2017). It may not happen or it may happen slowly over time but as Dr Richard Warner says, “they don’t all fulfill their malignant potential, but they all have that possible outcome”. Thus why ongoing surveillance is important after any diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Tumour of any grade or at any stage. Dr Lowell Anthony, a NET Specialist from the University of Kentucky explains this much better than I can – CLICK HEREto hear his two-minute video clip. This issue even caused confusion with doctors, some of whom still think a Stage 4 NET is still benign. Not only is this very insensitive to the patient concerned but it also goes against all the definitions of ‘benign’ and ‘malignant’ that exist in authoritative texts.
This was a difficult piece of research. I do believe there are scenarios where NETs will be benign and probably never cause the person any real harm (e.g. many are found on autopsies). I suspect this is the same for many cancers. However, based on the above text and the stories of people who have presented for a second time but with metastatic disease, use of the word ‘benign’ is probably best used with great care.
I would certainly (at least) raise an eyebrow if someone said to anyone with any NET tumour, “you don’t need any treatment or surveillance for a NET”; or “it has been cured and no further treatment or surveillance is required”. Particularly if they are not a NET specialist or a recognised NET Centre.