One of the very first words I heard at diagnosis was the word “Mesentery“. In the news today is the announcement that is now might just be a new organ following accepted findings from research conducted in the University of Limerick Ireland. I always knew it was something which held the small and large intestines in place within the abdomen so like many others, I just thought it was some kind of membrane type structure and I also knew there was some kind of interaction with the peritoneum, another word which I was to become familiar with.
This is an important area for NET patients as many will have mesenteric involvement in their disease. I’ve read reports of a primary mesenteric tumour although it’s mainly a site for secondary disease (metastasis). It’s no surprise when you consider the geography – the small and large intestines are inextricably linked to this new organ. There is pancreatic involvement too. The mesentery contains many lymph nodes (the main place for metastasis for small intestinal NETs and other types) and has important blood vessels adding complexity to surgery. It’s also a place where there’s likely to be fibrotic reactions (desmoplasia) from the excess release of serotonin which can also complicate surgery.
When I check my own records, I can see statements such as “mesenteric disease”, “bulky mesenteric nodes”, “further nodal disease situated on the superior mesenteric artery and vein” and “dense retroperitoneal reaction encircling his aorta and cava from just below the level of the superior mesenteric artery”. When I also look at the post surgical reports, I can see that I had something called a “mesenteric root dissection” which needed a “superior mesenteric vein reconstruction”.
So there you have it, the anatomic description that had been laid down over 100 years of anatomy was incorrect. This organ is far from fragmented and complex. It is simply one continuous structure. According to the article I read, medical students started being taught that the mesentery is a distinct organ and the world’s best-known series of medical textbooks, Gray’s Anatomy, has even been updated to include the new definition. Finally, so what you might be thinking? Here’s a quote from the person who led the work:
“The next step is the function,”Coffey explained.“If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science … the basis for a whole new area of science.”
If there’s a word which is synonymous with cancer, it’s chemotherapy. It’s what most people have in their mind when they are talking to a cancer patient…… ‘have you had chemotherapy‘ or ‘when do you start chemotherapy‘.
I was nonchalantly asked by a friend some time ago ‘how did you get on with chemotherapy’ – he was surprised to hear I hadn’t had it despite my widespread disease. Cue – lengthy explanation! I wasn’t annoyed by the question, I just think people automatically assume every cancer patient has to undergo some form of systemic chemotherapy. If you read any newspaper article about cancer, they do nothing to dispel that myth, as many articles contain a story about a cancer patient with no hair.
Sure, chemotherapy is not the nicest treatment to receive and it does have pretty awful side effects for most. I watched my daughter-in-law go through 3 or 4 months of this treatment where she was literally confined to a combination of her bedroom and her bathroom. And it did shock me to see her without hair. I would never want anyone to go through that and it really brings it home when it happens to a close member of your family.
Despite its bad press in regards toxicity and it’s awful side effects, chemotherapy is widely used in many cancers. Statistics show that it does work for many patients (….. my daughter-in-law is still here looking after two of my four grandsons and my son still has a wife ♥). However, I suspect it has a limited future as more efficient and less toxic drugs and delivery systems come online downstream. Immunotherapy is often touted as a replacement for chemotherapy but this may be a while yet. So for now, millions of cancer patients worldwide will continue to be prescribed chemotherapy as part of their treatment regime.
However, for some cancers, chemotherapy is not particularly effective. Neuroendocrine Cancer (NETs) is one such cancer. In general, NETs do not show a high degree of sensitivity to chemotherapy. For example, it’s often inadequate for the treatment of well-differentiated tumours with a low proliferation index but can be more effective in particular anatomical locations. The one exception is for high grade tumours (known as Neuroendocrine Carcinoma if poorly differentiated) where chemotherapy is much more likely to feature. I’m not saying that the lower grades will never receive chemotherapy – that door is always left open for those with progressive cancer who perhaps have run out of treatment options. Putting Grade 3 to one side, I’ve heard people say that NETs is the ‘good‘ cancer or the ‘good looking’ cancer often citing the chemotherapy thing as some justification. That is of course a stupid thing to say. I accept that not everyone will lose their hair and not every chemo will cause hair loss.
Here’s the rub. Many other treatments come with pretty challenging side effects. Moreover, the side effects and the consequences of these other treatments can last for some time, and for many, a lifetime. For example with NETs:
Surgery can be pretty extensive, in some cases radical and life changing. Many cancer patients receive surgery for NETs which is still the only real ‘curative’ treatment, although for most, it’s cytoreductive or palliative in nature. If you lose bits of your small intestine, large intestine, liver, spleen, cecum and appendix, gallbladder, stomach, rectum, lungs, pancreas, thyroid, parathyroids, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, thymus gland, ovaries, oesophagus (…….I could go on), this comes with various side effects which can present some quality of life issues. There can be huge consequences of having this treatment.
Other ‘consequences’ of cancer surgery include (but are not limited to), pulmonary emboli (blood clots), lymphedema, short bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal malabsorption, diabetes.
Somatostatin Analogues do a great job but they do add to some of the effects of surgery (mainly malabsorption).
Even the so-called ‘silver bullet’ treatment Peptide Receptor Radio Nuclide Therapy (PRRT) can have pretty severe side effects and presents some risk to kidneys and bone marrow as a long term consequence.
I’ve not had chemotherapy and I would rather avoid it if I can. However, as I’ve hinted above, there are other harsh (….perhaps harsher?) treatments out there. Moreover, whilst hair normally grows back, your small intestines, lungs and pancreas won’t. Many people will have to live for the rest of their life with the consequences of their cancer and its treatment.
It sometimes appears that every other cancer article involves someone undergoing chemotherapy. I just wish someone would write an article about my lack of terminal ileum and ascending colon, the malabsorption issues as a consequence of that, my missing mesenteric lymph nodes, my retroperitoneal fibrosis, not forgetting to mention my diseased liver, my left axillary lymph nodes (and the mild lymphedema I now have after their removal), my left supraclavicular lymph nodes, my suspect thyroid lesion and my hypothyroidism which may be due to that, my small lung nodule and my pulmonary emboli which after nearly 6 years of daily injections means my abdomen looks and feels like I’ve done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. However, it just wouldn’t be a good picture nor would it be as powerful as one of a person with no hair. Just saying!
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.
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.