Over the years of my advocating, I’ve tried to explain Neuroendocrine Cancer to many people outside the community. Some ‘get it’ but many don’t. Most understand ‘Cancer’, they have real difficultly understanding ‘Neuroendocrine‘. Despite how hard I try, I can see that some of them just don’t get it!
One of the challenges of explaining Neuroendocrine Cancer is the sheer complexity and spectrum of types. It’s a heterogeneous grouping of cancers ranging from some quite indolent versions through to very aggressive versions similar to many dangerous adenocarcinomas. Unlike many of the more understood cancers, Neuroendocrine Cancer can literally appear anywhere in the body, adding to an already complex description, in addition to creating a disadvantage of awareness opportunities because of the use of incorrect cancer types, clearly many doctors and media organisations don’t ‘get it’ either!
Add in the symptoms caused by Neuroendocrine Tumours and their associated ‘Syndromes‘ and ‘Hormones‘, the external audience is now falling asleep or lost interest. Trying to explain why these diseases cannot be diagnosed earlier is also very complex. “How can it be so difficult” many of them ask.
If you have managed to keep their interest and get onto the subject of living with the disease, it gets even more mind-blowing. Non-stop surveillance, lifetime surveillance, permanent side effects of treatment. “No way” many of them remark. The problem is that many people have a really simple outlook on cancer; something goes wrong, you get diagnosed, you get treated, you either die or live. Simple isn’t it?
One group that normally ‘gets it’ is those who have currently got it, i.e. Neuroendocrine Cancer patients and their close families and supporters. They may not ‘get it’ before someone is diagnosed and they may still not ‘get it’ once someone is diagnosed, but they eventually will ‘get it’. I have many people who ‘get it’ in my private group and on my main campaign sites.
Despite the difficulties, I’ll continue talking to those who have not yet ‘got it’ hoping to make them understand the disease. I also intend to continue to help with the undiagnosed (some of these guys probably do ‘get it’ but just not yet formally ‘got it’). I also want to help those at and beyond diagnosis who despite having it, don’t yet quite ‘get it’.
No one gets it until they get it. It shouldn’t be that way.
……… here’s a list of 10 things I’m NOT thankful to Neuroendocrine Cancer for!
Thanks for growing inside me for years before making your vague announcement
Sorry too late, I’m metastatic and around 50% of patients will be at diagnosis (so I’m not alone!). It’s very SNEAKY!
No thanks for making a right mess inside my body!
I mean, I look really good, I look really well, but you should see my INSIDES
No thanks for generating fibrosis throughout my mesentery and retroperitoneum!
I really didn’t know what to make of this issue at diagnosis, although I did know the aorta was pretty important! Fortunately I had a surgeon who had operated on many NET patients and has seen this issue before. After my first surgery, he described it as a “dense fibrotic retroperitoneal reaction encircling his aorta and cava (inferior vena cava (IVC))”. My surgeon was known for difficult and extreme surgery, so as part of the removal of my primary, he also spent 3 hours dissecting out the retroperitoneal fibrosis surrounding these important blood vessels and managed 270 degree clearance. The remnant still shows on CT scans. Some of the removed tissue was tested and found to be benign, showing only florid inflammation and fibrosis (thankfully). That said, the abstract papers above has led me to believe that my retroperitoneal fibrosis is clinically significant. In fact I have spent the last 3 months worrying about some of it growing into reach of important vessels and only just been given the all clear (for now).
No thanks for screwing up some of my hormones
There are many hormones involved with Neuroendocrine Cancer which is unique in that different types can result in elevated levels of different hormones, often more than one is involved. Serotonin has caused fibrosisin my retroperitoneal area and is currently threatening important vessels. I don’t really need that right now!
No thanks for the ongoing symptoms and side effects
I was showing symptoms of a Neuroendocrine Cancer syndrome known as Carcinoid Syndrome (currently) such as flushing and diarrhea and fatigue was probably there too, but these were thought to be something else or ignored (by me). I don’t suffer too much nowadays other than side effects of the disease or the treatment I’ve had or receiving. However, I know from speaking to many patients the effects of the various syndromes associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer can be pretty debilitating and oppressive to quality of life.
These syndromes can be so strange and so weird, they can be very difficult for patients, nurses and doctors to treat. They can be a real ‘witch’s brew’.
Another pill for life. I have a left-sided thyroid lesion and my treatment also messes with my hormone levels.
No thanks for increasing my diabetes risk
No thanks for pushing me into pre-diabetes. My blood sugar is spiking, most likely due to treatment.
No thanks for making me retire early
I loved my job but not if it was going to kill me. I made my own decision based on how I could survive in a financial sense. Made easier as I was only 8 years from retirement but I guess I’m one of the lucky ones despite the fact I took a big hit on the income going into my bank account.
The truth is that many people still need to work whilst struggling with side effects of the cancer and its treatment. Getting some form of financial assistance from the government is not a done deal.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is a very expensive disease to treat.
This is fast becoming a big issue regardless of country and regardless of healthcare system in place. However, in privately funded healthcare, it can be exacerbated by the level of insurance cover. Read more about financial toxicity for cancer patients which is a growing problem worldwide.
……….. and no thanks to anyone who says it’s a “good cancer“
One of the key awareness messages for Neuroendocrine Cancer is the hormonal syndromes that can often accompany the diagnosis for many people. As it’s a difficult disease to diagnose, many people struggle with these syndromes for some time before formal diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer. Some continue to struggle after.
The cancer can often be uncannily quiet, but the tumours can be ‘functional’ and over-secrete certain hormones to add or introduce symptoms which mimic many other diseases or conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Menopause, Heart disease and Asthma. In addition to common symptoms of flushing and diarrhea, others include generally feeling weak, fatigued, pain, agitated, anxious, dizzy, nauseous, acid reflux, skin irritation, anaemic, lose weight, gain weight, low blood sugar, high blood sugar, heart palpitations, headaches, sweating, high blood pressure. Its main trick is to prevent you from being correctly diagnosed and it’s pretty good at it. For those looking for a diagnosis, it can be very frightening.
One or more of the NET syndromes can be a weird concoction of strange, powerful or terrifying ingredients, designed to make you very ill; and doctors will be confused.
Certain types of Neuroendocrine Cancer were once referred to by the out of date term of ‘Carcinoid‘ – now correctly referred to as a NET prefixed by its anatomical primary location. However, for the time being, the term Carcinoid Syndrome, associated with these types of NET persists; and is known to be capable of over secreting (amongst others) the vasoactive substance called serotonin. It is commonly thought that serotonin is the cause of the flushing, but this is only partially correct, the flushing also results from secretion of kallikrein, the enzyme that catalyzes a conversion to bradykinin, one of the most powerful vasodilators known.
Other components of the carcinoid syndrome are diarrhea, probably caused by the increased serotonin, which greatly increases peristalsis, leaving less time for fluid absorption. In the extreme it can cause a pellagra-like syndrome, probably due to the diversion of large amounts of tryptophan from synthesis of the vitamin B3 (Niacin), which is needed for NAD production (oxidized form of B3).
It also causes fibrotic lesions of the endocardium, particularly on the right side of the heart resulting in insufficiency of the tricuspid valve and, less frequently, the pulmonary valve and, uncommonly, bronchoconstriction. Other fibrosis spells include mesenteric and retroperitoneal desmoplasia which have the potential to dangerously obstruct important vessels and cause general discomfort at best.
Carcinoid Syndrome is one of the most powerful and dangerous ‘witch’s brews’.
The classic carcinoid syndrome includes flushing (80%), diarrhea (70%), abdominal pain (40%), valvular heart disease (40% to 45% but reduced to 20% since the introduction of somatostatin analogues), telangiectasia (25%), wheezing (15%), and pellagra-like skin lesions (5%).
Carcinoid syndrome, first described in 1954 by Thorson and co-workers, has the following features: malignant neuroendocrine tumour of the small intestine, normally with metastases to the liver, sometimes with valvular disease of the right side of the heart (pulmonary stenosis and tricuspid insufficiency without septal defects), peripheral vasomotor symptoms, bronchial constriction, and an unusual type of cyanosis. One year later, Dr. William Bean gave the following colorful description of carcinoid syndrome:
“This witch’s brew of unlikely signs and symptoms, intriguing to the most fastidious connoisseur of clinical esoterica—the skin underwent rapid and extreme changes resembling in clinical miniature the fecal phantasmagoria of the aurora borealis.”
Other witch’s brews include the group of NET syndromes associated with over-secretions of Insulin, Glucagon, Gastrin, Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP), Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP) and Somatostatin. Read more about these and other syndromes here.
One of the most scary witch’s brews is the group of symptoms associated with one of the most uncommon types of NET, the catecholamine and metanephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline) secreting tumours known as Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma. These tumours are likely to cause a barrage of symptoms such as High blood pressure, Heavy sweating, Headache, Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), Tremors, Paleness in the face (pallor) and Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
All of the above is a diagnostic nightmare for those who have the symptoms and remain undiagnosed– no fun for the doctors either – this why we need so much more awareness and education – it’s one of the key aims of all my social media sites. Another aim of my sites is to support those who are diagnosed as these symptoms can continue following diagnosis and treatment. Many NET patients need constant surveillance and follow-up, many for life.
This is a very spooky disease, it will slowly grow without you knowing, it will mess with your body and mind, and if left alone to plot its devious and destructive course, it will kill. Some are faster growing but they have the same traits – they just kill faster. Share this post and potentially save a life.
My chest infection is now settled, as too is the excitement and apprehension behind my first ever Ga68 PET – the outcome of that is still a work in progress. Earlier this year, my thyroid ‘lesion’ on watch and wait was given a ‘damping down’ with the prescription of a thyroid hormone supplement but I await a re-ignition of that small bush fire downstream.
Bubbling behind the scenes and clamoring for attention is the spiking of my blood glucose test results and I was very recently declared ‘at risk’ for diabetes One of my followers entitled a post in my group with “The hits keep coming” in reference to encountering yet another problem in the journey with Neuroendocrine Cancer. I now know how she feels, this issue is a bit of a ‘left fielder’. However, having analysed the situation and spoken to several doctors, I can now put pen to paper.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is not a household name (…… I’m working on that) but diabetes certainly is. The World Health Organisation reports that the number of adults living with diabetes has almost quadrupled since 1980 to 422 million adults. In USA, estimates from CDC stated around 10 million people diagnosed with diabetes with a further 84 million in pre-diabetes state (at risk). In UK around 3.7 million people have diabetes with about 4 times that amount ‘at risk’. It’s a growth industry (…….. but so is NETs – in the last 40 years, the incidence of NETs is rising at a faster rate than diabetes, a disease which some writers have described as an epidemic).
With those numbers, it follows that many NET patients will be diabetic before diagnosis, some will succumb to diabetes whether they have NETs or not, and some may have an increased risk of succumbing due to their treatment. Some may even be pushed into diabetes as a direct result of their NET type or treatment. It’s important to understand diabetes in order to understand why certain types of NET and certain treatments could have an involvement.
For understanding of this article, it’s worth noting the pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar. I have talked about the exocrine function in relationship to Neuroendocrine Cancer at length – check out this article on Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy. In this article, I now want to cover the issues with the endocrine function and blood sugar. First a short primer on diabetes – it is necessarily brief for the purposes of this article.
TypeS OF DIABETES
Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes are fairly well-known. There’s actually more than two types, but these are the most common. Type 2 is the most prevalent with around 90% of diabetes cases. When you’ve got Type 1 diabetes, you can’t make any insulin at all. If you’ve got Type 2 diabetes, the insulin you make either can’t work effectively, or you can’t produce enough of it. Additional types may come up in the subsequent discussion.
What is the problem?
What all types of diabetes have in common is that they cause people to have too much glucose (sugar) in their blood. But we all need some glucose. It’s what gives us our energy. We get glucose when our bodies break down the carbohydrates that we eat or drink. And that glucose is released into our blood. We also need a hormone called insulin. It’s made by our pancreas, and it’s insulin that allows the glucose in our blood to enter our cells and fuel our bodies.
If you don’t have diabetes, your pancreas senses when glucose has entered your bloodstream and releases the right amount of insulin, so the glucose can get into your cells. But if you have diabetes, this system doesn’t work properly. Diabetes is associated by being overweight but there isn’t a 100% correlation with that. However, when an individual becomes overweight, there is an increase in free fatty acids in the blood stream which may contribute to reduced insulin sensitivity in the tissues, leading to increased glucose levels in blood.
Symptoms and diagnosis of Diabetes
Different people develop different symptoms. In diabetes, because glucose can’t get into your cells, it begins to build up in your blood. And too much glucose in your blood causes a lot of different problems. To begin with it leads to diabetes symptoms, like having to wee a lot (particularly at night), being incredibly thirsty, and feeling very tired. You may also lose weight, get infections like thrush or suffer from blurred vision and slow healing wounds.
I see these symptoms mentioned very frequently and normally people are trying to associate them with NETs and/or the treatment for NETs.
Diabetes diagnosis is normally triggered diagnosed based on blood tests such as fasting Blood Glucose (snapshot) and/or Glycated Hemoglobin (A1C) or HbA1C.
Over a long period of time, high glucose levels in your blood can seriously damage your heart, your eyes, your feet and your kidneys. These are known as the complications of diabetes.
But with the right treatment and care, people can live a healthy life. And there’s much less risk that someone will experience these complications.
What are the direct connections with Diabetes and NETs?
It’s not surprising that diabetes is mostly associated with Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas but there are other areas of risk for other types of NETs including to those who are existing diabetics – see below.
The main types of surgery for Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas are Distal Pancreatectomy (tail), Sub-total pancreatectomy (central/tail), Classic Whipple (pancreaticoduodenectomy – head and/or neck of pancreas), Total pancreatectomy (remove the entire pancreas) or an Enucleation (scooping out the tumour with having to remove too much surrounding tissue). From the PERT article link above (exocrine function), you can see why some people need this treatment to offset issues of reduced production of pancreatic enzymes. The same issue can develop with a reduced endocrine function leading to the development of diabetes.
The different types of functional pancreatic NETs often called syndromes in their own right due to their secretory role. One might think that Insulinomas are connected to diabetes issues but this hormonal syndrome is actually associated with low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), although low blood sugar can turn out to be a complication of diabetes treatment.
A NET syndrome known as Glucagonoma (a type of functional pancreatic NET) is associated with high blood glucose levels. About 5-10% of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are Glucagonomas, tumors that produce an inappropriate abundance of the hormone glucagon. Glucagon balances the effects of insulin by regulating the amount of sugar in your blood. If you have too much glucagon, your cells don’t store sugar and instead sugar stays in your bloodstream. Glucagonoma therefore leads to diabetes-like symptoms (amongst other symptoms). In fact Glucagonoma is sometimes called the 4D syndrome – consists of diabetes, dermatitis, deep venous thrombosis (DVT), and depression.
Another functional pancreatic NET known as Somatostatinoma is prone to developing insulin resistance. Somatostatinomas produce excessive amounts of somatostatin which interferes with the insulin/glucagon function and could therefore lead to diabetes.
Diabetes caused by cancer or cancer treatment
Worth noting that this type of diabetes is sometimes known as ‘Pancreatogenic diabetes’ and this is actually classified by the American Diabetes Association and by the World Health Organization as type 3c diabetes mellitus (T3cDM) and refers to diabetes due to impairment in pancreatic endocrine function due to acute cancer and cancer treatment (and several other conditions). The texts tend to point to cancers (and other conditions) of the pancreas rather than system wide. Prevalence data on T3cDM are scarce because of insufficient research in this area and challenges with accurate diabetes classification in clinical practice. (Authors note: Slightly confusing as many text say that type 3 diabetes is proposed for insulin resistance in the brain (diabetes associated with Alzheimer’s disease). There’s another term for a complete removal of the entire pancreas – Pancreoprivic Diabetes
Other treatment risks
Somatostatin Analogues (e.g. Octreotide and Lanreotide) are common drugs used to control NET Syndromes and are also said to have an anti-tumor effect. They are known to inhibit several hormones including glucagon and insulin and consequently may interfere with blood glucose levels. The leaflets for both drugs clearly state this side effect with a warning that diabetics who have been prescribed the drug, should inform their doctors so that dosages can be adjusted if necessary. The side effects lists also indicates high and low blood glucose symptoms indicating it can cause both low and high blood glucose (hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia). For those who are pre-diabetic or close to pre-diabetic status, there is a possibility that the drug may push blood tests into diabetic ranges. Afinitor (Everolimus). The patient information for Afinitor (Everolimus) clearly states “Increased blood sugar and fat (cholesterol and triglycerides) levels in blood: Your health care provider should do blood tests to check your fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood before you start treatment with AFINITOR and during treatment with AFINITOR” Sutent (Sunitinib). The patient information for Sutent (Sinitinib) clearly states that low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is a potential side effect. It also advises that low blood sugar with SUTENT may be worse in patients who have diabetes and take anti-diabetic medicines. Your healthcare provider should check your blood sugar levels regularly during treatment with SUTENT and may need to adjust the dose of your anti-diabetic medicines.
In rare cases, certain NETs may produce too much Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a substance that causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol and other hormones. This is often associated with Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol increases our blood pressure and blood glucose levels with can lead to diabetes as a result of untreated Cushing’s syndrome.
I think it’s sensible for all NET patients, particularly those with involvement as per above and who are showing the signs of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, to be checked regularly for blood glucose and if necessary HbA1c. Many patient information leaflets for the common NET treatments also indicate this is necessary. Always tell your prescribing doctors if you are a diabetic or about any history of low or high blood glucose before treatment for NETs.
My brush with Diabetes (as at Jan 2019)
My blood glucose levels started to climb slightly in 2016 but HbA1c remained normal. However, an HbA1c test in early 2018 put me into pre-diabetic range (44 mmoL/moL). I explained some of the above article to my GP who is corresponding with a diabetes expert at secondary care – the expert suggested that I need to be monitored carefully as weight loss is not necessarily the best response. I have kept my NET team up to date.
At the time of updating, two separate and sequential HbA1c tests (3 month interval) came back normal at 36 mmoL/moL. I’m pragmatic enough to know that I do not need to lose weight as one of the aims of reducing my blood glucose and HbA1c levels (something emphasised by the above mentioned diabetes specialist).
I even got on my bike to do a little bit more exercise just in case!
At this point, I cannot yet say if this is the beginning of progressive Type II diabetes or if my medication is causing these spikes in my blood glucose and HbA1c. Judging by 2 x normal HbA1c, looks like the somatostatin analogue (Lanreotide in my case) may caused a spike to a pre-diabetes score. I will keep you posted.
Summary – if you are noticing these symptoms, get your blood sugar checked (with acknowledgement to Dr Pantalone from Cleveland Clinic)
1. You’re making more trips to the bathroom
Having to go to the bathroom more than normal, particularly at night, is a sign that your blood sugar might be out of whack.
Dr. Pantalone says one of his patients came in for a diagnosis after a family member noticed that he was using the bathroom during each commercial break when they watched TV.
2. You’re getting frequent urinary or yeast infections
When your blood sugar is high and your kidneys can’t filter it well enough, sugar ends up in the urine. More sugar in a warm, moist environment can cause urinary tract and yeast infections, especially in women.
3. You’re losing weight without trying
If you have diabetes, your body isn’t able to use glucose (sugar) as effectively for its energy. Instead, your body will start burning fat stores, and you may experience unexpected weight loss.
4. Your vision is getting worse
High sugar levels can distort the lenses in your eyes, worsening your vision. Changes in your eyeglass prescription or vision are sometimes a sign of diabetes.
5. You’re feeling fatigued or exhausted
Several underlying causes of fatigue may relate to diabetes/high sugar levels, including dehydration (from frequent urination, which can disrupt sleep) and kidney damage.
This feeling of exhaustion is often persistent and can interfere with your daily activities, says Dr Pantalone.
6. You’re noticing skin discoloration
Something that Dr. Pantalone often sees in patients before a diabetes diagnosis is dark skin in the neck folds and over the knuckles. Insulin resistance can cause this condition, known as acanthosis nigricans.
Neuroendocrine Cancer is one of a number of “difficult to diagnose” conditions. Many types of Neuroendocrine Cancer come with an associated syndrome and these syndromes can mimic everyday illnesses. In some cases, many people don’t feel ill while the tumours grow. Most types of this cancer are slow-growing but there are also aggressive versions. Although things appear to be improving in diagnostic terms, it can sometimes take years for someone to be finally diagnosed correctly and get treatment, albeit in some cases, too late for any hope of a curative scenario. It’s a very sneaky type of cancer and if left too long it can be life threatening – CLICK HERE to find out why.
The road to a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer is often not straight or easy to navigate. It’s not only a sneaky type of cancer but it’s also very complex. It’s a heterogeneous group of malignancies with a varied and confusing histology and nomenclature to match. As I said above, many people are asymptomatic for years whilst the tumor grows and some might say that it’s somewhat ‘lucky’ to have symptoms to help aid a diagnosis. Many find that a lack of knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer in primary care, doesn’t always produce results. Common misdiagnoses include (but not limited to), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other common digestive diseases, menopause, appendicitis, hypertension, gastritis, asthma. Neuroendocrine Cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed at secondary care if a referral for ‘something’ can be achieved.
……..cue internet searches (Dr Google)
I think the rise and the power of the internet and rise of social media applications is very much helping generate awareness and knowledge of Neuroendocrine Cancer and those looking for a diagnosis may find help in this way. I suspect this instant access to information has played its part in the diagnostic improvements I mentioned above. Take my own efforts for example, I’m a wee Scottish guy with a computer and I’m already accelerating towards a million blog views – there’s clearly a market for what I produce. In terms of those looking for a diagnosis, if only one gets an earlier diagnosis due to my site, I’ll be happy.
Unfortunately, the internet can often be a minefield and in many cases, can lead to quite unnecessary worry for those looking for a solution.
I’m contacted almost daily by the ‘undiagnosed’ who suspect they have Neuroendocrine Cancer, often because they appear to be displaying the symptoms of one of the associated syndromes. These are some of my most difficult questions. I’m always very wary of initially agreeing with their assumptions and logic, instead opting for straightforward detective work based on my knowledge of the different types of Neuroendocrine Cancer, knowledge of the best scans, tumour markers, hormone markers. And I always warn them that statistically, they are more likely to have a common condition than the less common Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Many have already had multiple doctor’s appointments and tests. If they have not yet had a scan, I encourage them to try to get one ‘by hook or by crook’. Despite what you read on patient forums and surveys, the vast majority of Neuroendocrine diagnoses will be triggered by a conventional imaging such as CT and/or MRI. If you can see it, you can detect it.
When I first chat with the ‘undiagnosed’, I find many of them are fairly knowledgeable about Neuroendocrine Cancer and other health conditions, again confirming the power of the internet and the savvy ‘internet patient’. This is fine if you look in the right places of course – for certain things there are more wrong places on the internet than right ones.
If I have time, I’m happy to chat with these people, some are very frustrated – in fact some are so frustrated that they just want a diagnosis of something even if that something is really bad. Some are not showing anything on any scan but in certain cases, it can be likened to finding a needle in a haystack.
What do you say to someone who is utterly convinced they have Neuroendocrine Cancer but CT/MRI/Octreoscan/Ga68 PET are all clear, Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are in range but they still say they have (say) diarrhea with its potential for literally thousands of differential diagnoses. It’s a tough gig.
My scan came back normal. That should be good news. But, if there is no tumor, how can I be suffering from all the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome? Is that diagnosis wrong? Are the urine and blood test results wrong? I’m awaiting a MRI scan to take another look to see if the doctor can find anything. I don’t know what they’ll find. I don’t want them to find anything. But I’m afraid of what will happen if they don’t.
I always let the undiagnosed know that Neuroendocrine Cancer patients are some of the most friendliest and helpful people you can meet, they will treat you as one of their own. There will be a number of diagnosed people online who have gone through what the undiagnosed are going through, so they will both sympathise and emphasise. But … this can often have the adverse effect of pushing them into believing they must have Neuroendocrine Cancer. This makes for interesting discussions given the number of people who automatically assume that ‘flushing’ or ‘diarrhea’ (as described by the undiagnosed) must be Neuroendocrine Cancer without any reference to the many differential diagnoses and the context of what that actually means in Neuroendocrine Cancer terms.
10 Questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those Diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer (and where to find a specialist)
I once wrote an article for DIAGNOSED NET Patients suggesting 10 Questions to ask their doctor. So I wanted to take a step back in context, using the knowledge I now have, and put myself in the shoes of someone who thinks they may have Neuroendocrine Cancer but is not yet diagnosed.
Key questions to ask your doctor/specialist for those trying to confirm or discount Neuroendocrine Cancer
Dear undiagnosed people. I totally understand your fear. There’s nothing worse than being ill and not knowing what illness you have. I’ve therefore compiled a list of 3 key questions for you to ask – think of it as a tick list of things to ask your doctor to do or check . I have linked several background articles for you to prepare your case. However, I cannot promise your doctor will agree or take any action, in fact some might be annoyed about the lack of trust. However, doing your homework really helps, including diaries and other evidence.
I also wouldn’t say that a negative to all the questions will mean you definitely do not have Neuroendocrine Cancer but at least these questions might provide your doctor and yourself with some food for thought, perhaps leading to the diagnosis of ‘something’. The questions below assume that routine blood tests have been done, including Full Blood Count, Liver, Renal, Bone, Glucose.
Questions for the UNDIAGNOSED to ask their treating physician
“I think I might have a type of cancer known as Neuroendocrine Cancer or Neuroendocrine Tumours (NET) because <<< insert your own story>>>. Would you please consider the following tests and checks:”
1. Chromogranin A (CgA) is a marker which is quite sensitive for Neuroendocrine Tumours, essentially measuring tumour bulk potentially indicating the presence of Neuroendocrine Tumours. There can be other reasons for an elevated CgA figure, including the patient’s use of proton pump inhibitors (PPI) (see the article for an alterative test where this is the case). Read more here – Neuroendocrine Cancer – Tumour and Hormone Marker tests.
3. Scans. Most NETs can be seen on a CT scan although liver metastasis can often show more clearly on an MRI. There are also nuclear scan options to confirm conventional imaging findings. Some NETs may be accessible via endoscopy and ultrasounds can also give hints for further investigation. In some cases, nuclear scans will find things that conventional imaging cannot because radionuclides can normally pick up oversecreting tumours. Read more in my article “If you can see it, you can detect it”.
You can hear two NET specialists talking about the issues surrounding the diagnostics here.
From other posts, you’ll be aware of the thyroid lesion (now 17x19mm) which I’ve been tracking since 2013. The surveillance has included routine thyroid blood tests, mainly TSH, T3 and 4. Due to trends in TSH and T4, it’s been suggested I’m borderline hypothyroidism. I’m out of range in TSH (elevated) but the T4 is currently at the lower end of the normal range. On 20 March 2018, following an Endocrine appointment, I was put on a trial dose of 50mcg of Levothyroxine to counter the downwards trend in results indicating hypothyroidism. Levothyroxine is essentially a thyroid hormone (thyroxine) replacement. One month after taking these drugs, my thyroid blood levels are now normal for the first time in 4 years (since there are records of test results – it might be longer).
The NET Connection?
To put things into context, hypothyroidism is an extremely common condition and the main treatment is administration of thyroid hormone replacement therapy (i.e. Lewvothyroxine). This is in the top 5 of the most commonly prescribed medication in USA and UK.
However, there are connections with NETs. Firstly there is one type of cancer known as Medullary Thyroid Cancer (MTC) and it also has a familial version known as Familial MTC or FMTC.
There are also connections between regular Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) and the thyroid. It can often be a site for metastasis, something I have not yet written off given it lights up on nuclear scanning – although my biopsy was inconclusive. You can see a summary of the connections and my own thyroid issue in more detail in my article “Troublesome Thyroids”. Please note the parathyroid glands are beyond the scope of this article.
Thyroid Function – the Lanreotide/Octreotide connection
Before I continue talking about hypothyroidism, here’s something not very well-known: Somatostatin analogues might cause a “slight decrease in Thyroid function”(a quote from the Lanreotide patient leaflet). The Octreotide patient leaflet also states “Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)” as a side effect. Many sources indicate that thyroid function should be monitored when on long-term use of somatostatin analogues. It’s also possible and totally feasible that many NET patients will have thyroid issues totally unrelated to their NETs. Remember, NET patients can get regular illnesses too!
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of thyroxine. This leads to an underactive thyroid. It seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, but over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. Both men and women can have an underactive thyroid, although it’s more common in women. In the UK, it affects 15 in every 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men. Children can also develop an underactive thyroid.
What causes Hypothyroidism?
Autoimmune thyroid disease sometimes called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
Radioactive iodine or surgery to correct hyperthyroidism or cancer
Over-treatment of hyperthyroidism with anti-thyroid drugs
A malfunction of the pituitary gland
What are the symptoms of Hypothyroidism?
The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary, depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. But in general, any problems you have tend to develop slowly, often over a number of years. At first, you may barely notice the symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and weight gain, or you may simply attribute them to getting older. But as your metabolism continues to slow, you may develop more-obvious signs and symptoms. Hypothyroidism signs. Below are major symptoms associated with hypothyroidism:
Weight gain or difficulty losing weight (despite reduced food intake)
Coarse, dry hair and dry skin
Sensitivity to cold
Muscle cramps and aches
Abnormal menstrual cycles
Slowed speech (severe cases)
Jaundice (severe cases)
Increase in tongue size (severe cases)
Check out this excellent short video from WebMD – click here or the picture below. It’s based on USA but most of it is relevant globally.
You don’t have to encounter every one of these symptoms to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Every patient’s experience with the disorder is different. While you may notice that your skin and hair have become dry and rough, another patient may be plagued more by fatigue and depression.
When hypothyroidism isn’t treated, signs and symptoms can gradually become more severe. Constant stimulation of your thyroid gland to release more hormones may lead to an enlarged thyroid (goiter). In addition, you may become more forgetful, your thought processes may slow, or you may feel depressed.
Now ….. some of these symptoms look very familiar to me and they also look very familiar to some of the comments I see on patient forums related to somatostatin analogues and some of the NET syndromes – that jigsaw thing again. I guess it’s possible that people are borderline hypothyroidism prior to taking somatostatin analogues and the drug pushes them out of range (similar to what it’s known to do with blood glucose levels and diabetes). I’m not suggesting a direct clinical link in all cases but what I am suggesting is that perhaps some of the answers might be found in checking Thyroid hormone levels.
What are the Thyroid Hormone tests for Hypothyroidism?
A high thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level with a low thyroxine (T4) level indicates hypothyroidism. Rarely, hypothyroidism can occur when both the TSH and T4 are low. A slightly raised TSH with a normal T4 is called subclinical, mild, or borderline hypothyroidism. Subclinical hypothyroidism can develop into clinical or overt hypothyroidism
Routine ‘Thyroid blood tests’ from your doctor will confirm whether or not you have a thyroid disorder. I now test for TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T4 every 6 months. Mostly in range but recently TSH is spiking out of range and T4 is consistently at the lower end of normal range.
Can hypothyroidism be treated?
Yes. A synthetic version of thyroxine taken daily as prescribed. e.g. Levothyroxine tablets
OK that’s Hypothyroidism – what is Hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism is a condition where the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone for the body’s needs. It is also known as an overactive thyroid or thyrotoxicosis. An overactive thyroid can affect anyone, but it’s about 10 times more common in women than men and it typically starts between 20 and 40 years of age.
Hyper – means “over -“
Hypo – means “under -“
The terms “hyperthyroid” and “thyrotoxic” are interchangeable
Graves’ disease – the most common cause
A toxic nodular goitre (a goitre is an enlarged thyroid gland)
A solitary toxic thyroid adenoma (an adenoma is a clump of cells)
Thyroiditis (infection or inflammation of the thyroid gland) which is temporary
A speeding up of mental and physical processes of the whole body, such as
weight loss, despite an increased appetite
palpitations / rapid pulse
sweating and heat intolerance
tiredness and weak muscles
nervousness, irritability and shakiness
mood swings or aggressive behaviour
looseness of the bowels
warm, moist hands
passing larger than usual amounts of urine
an enlarged thyroid gland
If the cause is Graves’ disease, you may also have ‘thyroid eye disease’. Smokers are up to eight times more likely to develop thyroid eye disease than non-smokers.
By a physical examination and blood tests
A low thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level with a high thyroxine (T4) level indicate hyperthyroidism
Surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland
Radioactive iodine to destroy most of the thyroid tissue
After 7 years of avoiding pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), I finally asked for some on a trial basis at the end of 2017. To be honest, for some time, I thought they were really only needed in the NET world for those with pancreatic issues (pNETs). I’ve always known I’ve had some digestive issues related to malabsorption. However, I’m not losing weight – this has been stable for some years (but see below). Plus my key vitamin levels (B12 and D) are in range. However, I had been struggling with a lot of bloating issues, thus the trial. You know me, I like to research and analyse such things! I’ve actually written about a lot of these issues in my Nutrition series ….. so this is now ‘Article Number 5’.
Crash Course.We eat food, but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food, it absorbs nutrients. Food has to be broken down from things like steak and broccoli into its nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other plant and animal compounds. Digestive enzymes, primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine, break down our food into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them.
Some of the common symptoms of NETs are gas, bloating, cramping and abdominal pain and the root cause of these issues can sometimes be as a result of insufficient ‘digestive’ enzymes. They are primarily produced in the pancreas (an exocrine function) and the small intestine but also in the saliva glands and the stomach. This post will focus on pancreas and to a certain extent, the small intestine. There are actually some key tell-tale signs of a pancreatic enzyme deficiency, such as steatorrhoea which is described as an excess of fat in faeces, the stool may float due to trapped air, the stool can be pale in colour, may be foul-smelling, and you may also notice droplets of oil or a ‘slick’ in the toilet pan. Steatorrhoea is mainly (but not always) due to malabsorption of fat from the diet and this can actually be caused or made worse by somatostatin analogues which are known to inhibit the supply of pancreatic enzymes. Of course if fat is not being absorbed, then the key nutrients your body needs to function properly might not be either. The signs from that might not be so noticeable but can be even more problematic over time. Please see Article 1.
Those who have had surgery, in particular, in GI tract/digestive system, are at risk of malabsorption; as are those prescribed somatostatin analogues (Lanreotide/Octreotide) as these drugs can inhibit digestive enzymes, causing or adding to the malabsorption effect. For those who need to read more, see Article 2.
One way to combat these issues when they are caused by pancreatic insufficiency is with Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) which can mimic the normal digestive process. However, this is not the whole story as there could be numerous reasons for these issues, perhaps even some which are unrelated to NETs. If you are in doubt about whether you suffer from malabsorption and/or any form of digestive enzyme insufficiency, you should consult your doctors.
Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy
Many NET patients succumb to malabsorption due to pancreatic insufficiency and are prescribed Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy, or PERT for short. There are various brands available (e.g. Creon®, Nutrizym®, Pancrease HL® or Pancrex®). Most are in capsule form in various doses.
How does PERT work? Most people experiencing the issues above are going to benefit from a multiple-enzyme replacement which tend to include the key ones such as:
lipase which break down fats (e.g from many different foods)
amylase which breaks down starchy carbohydrates (e.g. potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, cereals, fruits, fibre, etc).
The dose sizes tend to be based on the amount of lipase, i.e. a 25,000 strength would mean 25,000 units of lipase and (normally) a lesser amount of amylase and protease. The entire mix of enzymes may be given a name, e.g. ‘Pancreatin’ or ‘Pancrealipase’. You will be given a number of capsules to be used from your prescribing doctor.
The pancreatic enzyme capsule is swallowed along with food and digests food as they pass through the gut. If your capsules contain an enteric coat or enteric coated granules (delayed release), they should not be affected by stomach acid. The replacement enzymes will help to break down food allowing the nutrients to be absorbed beyond the stomach (i.e. in the small intestine). Do not be alarmed at the dose sizes, a healthy pancreas will release about 720,000 lipase units during every meal!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
When I first started taking the supplements, I thought of numerous questions, many of which I could not find definitive answers to! Different sites say different (and contradictory) things. Clearly, you should always consult your prescribing doctor and the medicine patient information leaflet. That said, I found the patient information leaflet which came with the capsules is just not detailed enough for an inquisitive patient such as myself!
I always like to refer to best practice which is why I’ve consulted one of the top NET Dietitians, Tara Whyand of Royal Free London. She agreed to an online Q&A session on 28 Feb 2018. This took place on my private Facebook group click here or search Facebook for this group “Neuroendocrine Cancer – Ronny Allan’s Group“. Join, answer some simple questions and then your application will be processed.
The output from the online with with Tara Whyand is below:
Thanks for attending the online event. Here is a tidy summary of the many comments. I hope this is also useful for those who were unable to attend.
Why would I need PERT and are there any tests that can be done to validate this?
“Somatostatin analogues, pancreatic surgery, pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis can cause exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). This means that the pancreas does not produce enough enzymes to break down food. It results in fatty loose stools called steatorrhoea.
Patients who have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) require PERT (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy) to break down food (fat, protein and carbohydrate). There are many brands of pancreatic enzymes, the most commonly used are Creon and Nutrizyme. Both have different dose levels to choose from.
The fecal elastase test was traditionally used to test the function of the pancreas, although it may not be that useful in NETs. This is because a NET team in Wales found that some NET patients who reported steatorrhoea had a false negative result.
Steatorrhoea may also be a result of bile acid malabsorption and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth which can co-exist and are common especially after surgery. They can both be tested for at a hospital.”
1a. Would the treatment be different for both EPI and bile acid malabsorption? If not how different?
“Yes BAM requires bile acid sequestrants rather than PERT”.
1b. would this be something you would take in general to help overall digestion and absorption of nutrients?
“No only if you have reasons for EPI to occur”.
PERT dosage. Is there a set dosage for all patients or does it depend on type of NET or surgery? And can I overdose on PERT?
“It depends on what you eat. PERT dose is normally tailored on fat content (the more fat you have, the more enzymes you need), but patients who have had a total pancreatectomy will have to have PERT for all food and drink (apart from water) as carbohydrate and protein needs to be broken down too.”
2a. “What about when taking medication such as Cholesteramine or pills in the morning and evening. Do I need to take it to absorb these?”
“see question 5”.
2b. I had a total pancreatectomy and was told I do not need PERT for fruit and veg?
“there’s carbs in all fruit and veg and often fat and protein too, so no different really.”
Some sources say to take the capsules at the beginning of a meal, some say it’s also at the end of a meal is also OK. How critical is this?
“You must always take the capsules at the beginning of the meal and if the meal goes on longer than ~30 minutes, or there are several courses, you will need to have another capsule/tablet/scoop of enzymes. If you don’t, food will pass by the pancreas undigested and ‘malabsorption occurs. This leads to fatty stools (steatorrhoea), fat soluble vitamin deficiency and weight loss. Unbroken down food can also feed bacteria and you can develop small intestinal bacterial overgrowth as a result.”
3a. so if my oncologist says to take four capsules per meal, then I should take all four at the same time?
“see question 11”
3b. if you have had a total gastrectomy (total removal of the stomach), is there a different procedure for taking PERT? I am on Creon and have heard that perhaps I need to open up the capsules as I can not break down the gelatin casing. Not sure if this is true or not.
“See question 11”
What is a meal? Is it multiple courses, or is there a strategy for each individual course? What about snacks? (i.e. a single biscuit with a cup of tea)
“The standard starting dose for snacks: 22-25,000 units lipase, titrating up when symptoms have not resolved. Most people end up taking 44,000-50,000 for snacks.
For main meals start on 44,000/50,000 and most people will need 66,000-100,000 units lipase/meal for the long term.”
4a. I have to eat multiple small meals a day (like every 3 hours, so 7 to 8 small meals). Is there a limit on the amount of Creon I can take in a day?
“see question 11”
4b. What is a snack?
“No official definition. Something with a little fat and maybe 50-200kcals.
Are there any problems taking PERT at the same time as other drugs? e.g. I like to take my vitamin supplements with food. And it’s recommended that some drugs be taken with food.
“PERT only breaks down food, but it is important to take your PERT to ensure food and drugs are absorbed. If you do not take you PERT with the meal, it is likely that food and drugs will rush through your bowel without being absorbed. There is no problem taking vitamins and minerals with food and PERT.
5a. I take a probiotic also, when is best time to take this, before, during or after food?
“Timing doesn’t matter”
I heard PERT is a porcine produce but I’m a vegan? Is there anything else for me?
“There are no other recommended products, and you should only have prescription PERT’s. This is for safety and reliability. Other off the shelf enzymes are unlikely to work.
Pigs are not slaughtered for PERT, they are slaughtered for meat and enzymes are a by-product if that makes anyone feel more comfortable with the idea.”
I heard PERT is a porcine produce but my religion does not allow me to eat such produces. Is there anything else for me?
“PERT are only sourced from a pigs pancreas but Jewish and Muslim patients have been granted approval to take the enzymes on medical grounds from their religious leaders because there is no alternative.”
Some doctors are prescribing PPIs along with PERT claiming that they help the PERT do the job. Do you have a view on this and are there any general diet tips to support the job of PERT without resorting to other drugs?
“Yes if you have had a whipples operation or you have acid reflux you must take an anti-acid (proton-pump inhibitor-PPI) drug to reduce the acid level. If left untreated it can cause ulcers, and when they bleed it can sometimes lead to a life threatening situation. PERT are gastro-resistant-they do not work in too high an acid environment. Sometimes a PPI / H2 blocker can decrease the acid level and allow the PERT to work better. There is no other reliable way of reducing stomach acid.
Note: Ronny Allan input that there is information published about the over-subscribing of PPI for long term use. Additionally that some NET specialists are suggesting a preference for H2 Blockers rather than PPI for NET Patients. H2 Receptor Blockers include Nizatidine (Axid), Famotidine (Pepcid, Pepcid AC), Cimetidine (Tagamet, Tagamet HB), Ranitidine (Zantac). The exceptions would be for PPI therapy necessary for Barrett’s Esophagus and Zollinger Ellison Syndrome (Gastrinoma). Read my article on PPIs by clicking here.
8a. I had a whipples two and a half years ago and have recently stopped taking omperazole as I didn’t seem to need them. Do you think I should still be taking something to reduce acid level anyway?
“yep think you should be on Ranitadine or a PPI long term.”
8b. Is it possible to suffer from excess acid without even knowing it? I also take probiotics, is it possible they could be minimising any excess acid? Also, I seem to be able to eat whatever I want without consequence but am worried now in case I am doing wrong and storing up trouble for myself.
“yes you can have silent reflux but after a total pancreatectomy you needs lots of adjustments and insulin dosing advice.”
9. How will I know the PERT is working for me? And are there any tests to validate this?
“You will know if your PERT is working well if your symptoms improve – i.e. you get normal (mid brown and formed) stools.
Patients taking enough PERT will not become fat soluble vitamin deficient or lose weight in the long term.
You could do a fecal elastase test (if stools are not liquid), but this is not a very reliable test especially for patients with NETs.
If symptoms do not resolve entirely, there may be a co-existing cause of malabsorption e.g. bile acid malabsorption or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.”
9a. With regards to Question 9, how would you know if you have bile acid malabsorption or SIBO? Can you be tested for those?
“If PERT doesn’t resolve things, SIBO testing is another thing to look at using a lactulose drink and hydrogen breath test. If the NET is in the terminal ileum, bile acid malabsorption (BAM) is likely. The test is a SeHCAT scan and treatment usually Questran or Colesevelam.
If I need to stop taking PERT, do I just stop or do I need to taper off consumption over time?
“No, just stop. But only do so if it has caused a side effect and report the reaction to the doctor and pharmaceutical company. If you don’t think they are working, speak with a specialist Dietitian and you may need a PPI or H2 blocker or change brand/dose.”
If someone has had a total gastrectomy, can they take Creon? If so, do they need to open up the pill to remove the gelatin to help the enzymes to work?
“They are to be taken as normally directed. You can open capsules but only into an acidic fruit juice (a pH of 4.5 or below) and swallow immediately. It could be argued that PERT will work most easily in patients having a gastrectomy as you cannot get too high a stomach acid level without stomach P-cells. By the way, shouldn’t be any gelatin in the prescribed PERT”
11a. Are there any problems with taking too much in a day? I have to have 7 to 8 meals (minimum). I am losing weight. Take with every snack and meal?
“You can overdose – for Creon this is 6000 units lipase per kg of body weight. If you are still losing weight, PERT is not working or something else is the cause of malabsorption”
SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTIONS AT THE END
12A. My steatorrhoea only occurs once/twice a month. Is PERT indicated if steatorrhoea is not chronic?
“Yes, probably need to take all month as steatorrhoea is only a sign of extreme malabsorption, small amounts of malabsorption aren’t noticeable visibly but will reflect in weight and blood vitamin levels.”
12B. I do not need Creon as I am a Lung NET; although I have had my gall bladder removed.
“May need PERT if on somatostatin analogues. Some people take a bile acid sequestrants after gall bladder removal. PERT won’t work for that.”
I’ve always known about issues such as steatorrhoea and vitamin/mineral deficiency. My weight is fine but very happy to trial PERT to see the differences. I made a mistake of starting the capsules on Dec 23rd just before Christmas – it made for an interesting week! Early days so far but I’m getting used to taking them (and remembering to take them ….). Still seeing signs of steatorrhoea but am tracking this against diet. Not seeing any change to stool frequency. I would appear to be belching more though! I will keep this post live as I learn more.
You may wish to see the output from an online chat I carried out, the link is above.
UPDATE 1st Feb 2019. After 1 year, I’m not sure if there has been any difference to signs of malabsorption with Creon, although the supplement did help with weight gain in the period Oct – Dec 2018 after a dose increase. I had lost weight earlier in 2018 due to a bad chest infection and was having trouble regaining it. Despite the success with the weight gain, that is no long an issue, so I commenced a 3 month trial of Nutrizym to see any change in intermittent but frequent steatorrhea, which potentially indicates a continuing malabsorption issue.
These are my top performing posts for 2017 – comprising one eighth of my entire hits for the year. My blog hits for 2017 almost reached a quarter of a million, double that of 2016 which was double that of 2015. A chunk of these figures can be attributed to most of these articles. Please share to maintain the momentum.
Top 6 posts for 2017 (Click on each article title to read)
If I had a pound for every time I’ve said “make sure you get good surveillance and follow up”, I’d have a lot of pounds! Most Neuroendocrine Tumours are slow-growing and they can be difficult to diagnose due to their sneaky nature. Some can be just as sneaky beyond diagnosis though. The best way to combat that is through regular surveillance or ‘follow-up’. There are actually guidelines and recommendations for follow-up on the main NET specialist societies such as ENETS, NANETS and UKINETS. There’s others including in USA, the NCCN also have a set (and no surprises that the different organisation guidelines can often differ due to the healthcare systems in place). For more detailed or the latest guidelines content, you may need a login or in one instance (ENETS) a membership subscription.
The type and frequency of surveillance will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to; NET type, primary location, stage and grade. Worth also noting that these are guidelines and physicians will often take many factors into account in deciding on the frequency and content of follow up surveillance.
Let me also tell you that there isn’t really total common ground on exactly what that should be, although to be fair there’s much more agreement than disagreement. There’s even occasional mentions of “not enough data” to be able to say what the surveillance should be in certain scenarios – it’s not an exact science. So surveillance can be anything from monthly to recommended intervals such as 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 3 years and I’ve even read something which said “no specific follow-up strategy has been recommended” (e.g. ENETS “curative resection of an Appendiceal NET less than 1cm by simple appendectomy“). Often a patient will need to advocate to get the right attention. Knowing what the guidelines are for your situation is a good start.
So what sort of surveillance might be needed?
I think the definition of surveillance is actually wider than the guidelines infer. In addition to the planned follow-up surveillance, I also think there are checks that might be described as ‘opportunistic’. A simple example … if a nurse visits you at home, he or she might ask how things are. Similarly if you visit a GP/PCP, this could be an opportunity to assess the issue you are having against your medical history. Again, if you call your NET specialist or NET Specialist Nurse, this could be another opportunity to assess a problem, albeit over the phone. The other surveillance I would like to see more ‘formalised’ would be the surveillance of the consequences of cancer and it’s treatment – this is a huge unmet need in many cancers. Examples include (but are not limited to) the issues of vitamin & mineral deficiencies and gastrointestinal malabsorption.
However, the documented and objective surveillance methods are really important and can be very similar to those which were used to diagnose you. These are…..
Scanning is very important because the locations of tumours should already be documented and can therefore be tracked, or in the case of an unknown primary, continue to look. Scans are looking for tumours or suspicious objects and any progression of known tumour sites. There are different scans for different purposes and even for different parts of the body and NET type. Check out my article “If you can see it – you can detect it“ – click here. The Ga68 PET scan is becoming more available – click here.
Tumour Markers and Hormone Levels
You will have baseline test results which will be compared at each planned surveillance opportunities. Whilst there are common tests available, some types of NETs may need particular tests, especially if you have one or more of the NET Syndromes producing one or more of the offending hormones. These tests may even be required on an ad hoc basis if symptoms worsen. I have a fairly comprehensive article on this subject – click here. It’s also possible that a new biopsy might be necessary (perhaps following a scan) and this may even lead to a new grading on the basis that the score might turn out be higher than the baseline grade.
NETs are a heterogeneous group of malignancies so I guess some people have additional tests alongside their main tumour markers and hormone levels. I have the routine blood levels alongside my markers, that’s pretty standard I think. I also get my thyroid levels checked due to a lesion currently under watch and wait. Read about his here. Due to surgery and malabsorption issues, I also get regular vitamin checks, in particular B12 and D. Read here to see why this is important. As someone who was initially diagnosed with ‘Carcinoid Syndrome’ alongside my NET, I normally get an annual Echocardiogram to check for Carcinoid Heart Disease – they had removed that earlier this year from my surveillance but it’s now back as a precaution due to the discovery of some fibrosis growth in my retroperitoneal area. You may also be monitored for ‘at risk’ or comorbidity checks such as the thyroid.
Listen to your body
I also have a personal theory that patients are doing surveillance on a daily basis. For example, I actually maintain a diary briefly listing things such as sleeping patterns, what I’ve eaten, bathroom activity, weight, and some other stuff including particular comorbidities that might or might not be related (if not, then it’s also useful for any resulting GP/PCP appointment). That sounds like a lot of work but actually only takes me one minute each day. I’m really looking for patterns. If I think there is a pattern or a connection, I take this data to any appointment or contact the NET Nurse for advice or even just a sounding board. I can’t beat up my medical team for not spotting something where my input would have been important. I already learned that lesson prior to diagnosis.
A lot of people don’t like living in a surveillance society. Me? I’m perfectly happy about it – it will keep me alive longer. And if ‘Big Brother’ is a NET specialist, even better!
Always ask what your follow-up regime will be – this cancer can be SNEAKY.
Thanks for reading
You may also enjoy my article “10 Questions to ask your Doctor” – click here.
There’s a lot of scary diseases in this world but some of them are particularly spooky. One such spooky disease is the lesser known type of cancer that infiltrated my body – Neuroendocrine Cancer (aka Neuroendocrine Tumors or NET for short). Not only is it scary and spooky, but it’s also cunning, devious, misleading, double-crossing, and it likes nothing better than to play tricks on you.
It will grow in your body without you knowing. It finds places to hide, mainly the small intestine, appendix, lungs, stomach, pancreas, rectum and a host of other places. It can be fiendishly small to avoid being seen. Once it’s established in the primary location (….or locations), it will try to break out via your blood and lymphatic systems. It wants to establish other bases in your mesentery, your liver, your lymph nodes, your bones and any other place it can get to.
It can often be uncannily quiet, not showing any symptoms. However, sometimes it wants to have fun by over-secreting certain hormones to add or introduce symptoms which mimic many other conditions such as IBS, asthma, abdominal upset, diarrhea, flushing. These are just more tricks up its sleeve. You will go to your doctor, perhaps many times, to report what looks like routine/regular symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s also really good at tricking your doctors. After several visits and despite your concerns, your doctors could become so frustrated that nothing serious is obvious, they might even start to think it’s all in your head. This is exactly what Neuroendocrine Cancer wants, it’s just getting started.
One particular type of NET has a wicked trick up its sleeve. This one will over-secrete a hormone called Serotonin which can often cause fibrosis in your abdominal area, potentially causing obstructions and damage to major organs and blood vessels. It’s not finished though, it will also try to introduce fibrosis to the right side of your heart causing more life threatening issues. In addition to common symptoms of flushing, this type and others will also make you feel weak, fatigued, pain, agitated, anxious, dizzy, nauseous, jaundiced, acid reflux, skin irritation, anemic, lose weight and give you heart palpitations. It’s a real Witch’s Brew of symptoms and living with it is often not easy. Its main trick is to prevent you from being correctly diagnosed and it’s pretty good at it.
However, it has a ‘finale’ trick. Neuroendocrine Cancer actually wants to kill you, and if it’s left to plough its relentless path throughout your body, that’s exactly what it will do, slowly but surely.
It’s not just slow and scary, it can also be deadly. Spread the word and help save a life.
If you are suspicious you have Neuroendocrine Cancer but not yet formally diagnosed, you may appreciate this article.
“Cured” – In cancer, this word can evoke a number of emotions. Interestingly, not all these emotions will be as positive as you might think. If you want to spark a heated debate on a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient forum, just mention that you’ve been cured.
I’ve been living with Neuroendocrine Cancer for 8 years so I must be cured, right? Unfortunately not as straightforward as this, and I’m guessing this is the case for many cancers. Doctors clearly need to be careful when saying the word “cured‘ even if there is a small likelihood that a cancer will recur. There’s plenty of ‘conservative’ and alternative terms that can be used, such as ‘stable’, ‘no evidence of disease (NED)’, ‘in remission’ or ‘complete response’. However, I don’t see the latter two much in Neuroendocrine disease circles.
So with all these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, what exactly is a cure?
Answering this question isn’t a simple case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because it depends on the way that the term ‘cancer’ is defined. It should actually be viewed as an umbrella term for a collection of hundreds of different diseases. They all share the fundamental characteristic of rogue cells growing out of control, but each type of cancer, and each person’s individual cancer, is unique and comes with its own set of challenges.
That’s why it’s very unlikely that there will be one single cure that can wipe out all cancers. That doesn’t mean individual cases of cancer can’t be cured. Many cancers in fact already can be. Scientists aren’t actually on the hunt for a ‘silver bullet’ against all cancers, Quite the opposite. The more scientists get to know each type of cancer inside and out, the greater the chance of finding new ways to tackle these diseases so that more people can survive. Thanks to a much deeper understanding of cell biology and genetics, there exist today a growing number of targeted therapies that have been designed at a molecular level to recognise particular features specific of cancer cells. Along with chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, these treatments—used singly and in combination—have led to a slow, but steady, increase in survival rates. You can definitely count Neuroendocrine Cancer in that category.
Cancer is seen today less as a disease of specific organs, and more as one of molecular mechanisms caused by the mutation of specific genes. The implication of this shift in thinking is that the best treatment for, say, colorectal cancer may turn out to be designed and approved for use against tumors in an entirely different part of the body, such as the breast. We’re certainly seeing that with certain targeted therapies and more recently with Immunotherapy.
Surely a cure is more possible if cancer is diagnosed earlier?
To a certain extent this is true for many types of cancer, not just for NETs. In fact the same scientists did say ….”We detect those attacks when they’re still early, before the cancers have widely spread, at a time when they can still be cured simply by surgery or perhaps surgery and adjuvant therapy, which always works better on smaller tumors.”.
What about Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs)? Clearly I’m not qualified to make such statements except to say that I am of the opinion that earlier diagnosis is better for any curative scenario. When you read NET guidelines (ENETS/NANETS etc), the word ‘cure’ and ‘curative’ is mentioned in relation to surgery. Bearing in mind that our most expert NET specialists are involved in the drafting of these guidelines, perhaps we should pause and think before dismissing these claims. Having checked ENETS publications, I can see it’s related to certain conditions and factors such as localisation within the organ, tumour size, good resection margins, and a suitable follow-up surveillance.
Clearly with advanced disease, the cancer becomes incurable but treatment for many being palliative to reduce tumor bulk and reduce any symptoms and/or syndrome effects. Despite this, the outlook for metastatic NETs at the lower grades is good. While we’re talking about palliative care, do not confuse this with end of life, that is only one end of the palliative spectrum. It can and is used at the earliest stage of cancer.
Immunotherapy will eventually cure cancer, right?
Immunotherapy will play a huge part in cancer treatment in the future, that we know. But to suggest that it’s a cure is probably overstating its current success. Neuroendocrine Cancer has not been forgotten – you can read more about Neuroendocrine Cancer and Immunotherapy here.
I heard the Oncolytic Virus at Uppsala is a cure for NETs?
There is currently no scientific evidence that the Oncolytic Virus (AdVince) can cure humans with Neuroendocrine Cancer. So far it has only been proven in destroying neuroendocrine tumours in mice. The Oncolytic Viruses developed in Uppsala are now being evaluated in phase I clinical trials for neuroendocrine cancer. If you’re not up to speed with this trial, read more here – Oncolytic Virus Uppsala
Isn’t prevention better than a cure?
This old adage is still relevant BUT latest thinking would indicate it is not applicable to all cancers. Scientists claim that 66% of cancer is simply a form of ‘bad luck’ and if the claim is accurate, it follows that many cancers are simply inevitable. The thinking suggests that random errors occurring during DNA replication in normal stem cells are a major contributing factor in cancer development confirming that “bad luck” explains a far greater number of cancers than do hereditary and environmental factors. This scientific thinking is a tad controversial so it’s worth remembering that even if, as this study suggests, most individual cancer mutations are due to random chance, the researchers also admit that the cancers they cause may still be preventable. It’s complex!
The newspapers are always talking about breakthroughs and cures for cancer?
Newspapers looking for a good headline will use words such as ‘cure’. Sadly, headlines are generally written by sub-editors who scan the article and look to find a ‘reader-oriented angle’ for the heading. They either can’t or don’t have time to understand what’s actually being said. Unfortunately this then leads to people sharing what is now a misleading article without a thought for the impact on those who are worried about the fact they have cancer and whether it can be cured or not. There’s also a lot of fake health news out there – check out my article series about the problems with the internet and ‘Miracle Cures’.
To cure, they must know the cause?
To a certain extent, that’s very accurate. Have you ever wondered what caused your NETs? I did ponder this question in an article here. The only known cause of NETs is currently the proportion of patients with heredity syndromes – see my article of Genetics and Neuroendocrine Cancer. Interestingly, the NET Research Foundation recently awarded funding to look at the causes of Small Intestine (SI) NETs (one of the most common types). A scientific collaboration between UCL, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UCSF Medical Centre and the UCL Cancer Institute / Royal Free Hospital London. The team’s approach has the potential to identify inherited, somatic (non-inherited) genetic, epigenetic and infectious causes of SI-NETs. The research is questioning whether SI-NETs are caused by DNA changes in later life or by aberrant genes inherited at birth; environmental influences or infectious agents – or is it a combination of all these factors? Very exciting. Read more here.
What would a cure mean to those living with NETs?
This is something that has crossed my mind, even though I don’t believe it will happen in my lifetime. I guess it would be good to get rid of the known remnant tumors left behind from my treatment (and any micrometastases currently not detectable). However, many NET patients are living with the consequences of cancer and its treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy, somatostatin analogues, radionuclide therapy, liver directed therapy, and others. Many of these effects would remain – let’s face it, a cure is not going to give me back bits of my small and large intestine, liver and an army of lymph nodes. So support for those living with NETs would need to remain despite a cure.
The emotional aspect of the word ‘cured’ seems to be an issue across many cancers and it’s certainly very controversial in NET circles. The world has still not cured the many cancers that exist. But over the next five to ten years the era of personalised medicine could see enormous progress in making cancer survivable. I think both doctors and patients need to take a pragmatic view on the ‘cured’ word and to end this article I wanted to share an interesting quote I found whilst researching.
Patient stories are key to any awareness campaign. Nothing like a human being standing up and letting you know about their experience. Many are positive examples of how they are overcoming their trials and tribulations, others tell stories of a struggle. They all have different styles, some are the ‘kick ass’ type stories, some are just thankful, some are reflective – all of them are perfectly acceptable. I normally like to place myself somewhere in the middle with phrases like “I’m still here“, although I can veer left and right when the mood takes me!
Because of my social media footprint, I get a lot of private messages from people across the globe. Many are from people who have no wish to go public and that’s fine. Many are from people who value my opinion and that’s humbling. On forums, you can get 50 answers (all well meaning ones), with me you normally only get one (even if it’s a “I don’t know”). Most are fairly easy to answer, just a link to something or asking for one of my articles they can’t seem to find. Some are a bit trickier but I get there in the end. Some are pretty worrying and really difficult to answer. And nearly all of them amplify something we already know ……. despite some tremendous medical advances, there’s still a lot of unmet needs for Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, in particular access to NET specialists, access to the best and latest proven treatments and follow-up support for those affected by their experience (physical and mental). I’m talking in a global sense including countries perceived to be advanced in medical terms.
Take Patient A for example. This patient has a classic well differentiated Small Intestinal NET (Si NET) with lymph node metastasis. That resulted in fairly complex abdominal surgery that many of us will have had (including myself). For the past year, this patient has struggled with no follow on support, no dietary advice and has been left alone. This patient told me he is actually receiving his follow on advice from my blog site. This patient is also struggling on the emotional side because people say he looks rather well and have commented that he must have been wrongly diagnosed but at least is now “cured“.
Patient ‘B’ is similar. This patient has had surgery (the surgeon got everything apparently ….) but has been declared non-syndromic on the basis there is no diarrhea. However, there is flushing, joint paint, general abdominal issues, weight loss, headaches, fatigue, dehydration and chronic constipation. It took this patient 6 months to find out about a local NET advocate organisation and 10 months to find out there was access to a dietitian.
Patient ‘C’ is worrying. In this example I was contacted and asked about surveillance intervals as it was noticed I was having regular scans. What I found was someone who had a metastatic midgut NET and not had any surveillance for 3 years (including tumour/hormone marker checks and Echocardiograms). This is despite an advanced healthcare system and oodles of availability. This patient is now seeing a NET specialist.
Patient ‘D’ had a horrendous experience. This patient was treated as a bowel cancer case when they had a low-grade classic Si NET …… surgery and then classic bowel adenocarcinoma chemo. Now, it might be that was the only treatment modality available in this patient’s country but it’s a worrying example of the extent of the unmet needs for NET patients in the country concerned.
Patient E is so shocking, I wrote an entire article about this case. Click hereto read it.
Patient F has a similar story to patient E. Click hereto read it.
I could go on with many other examples and I might expand this post downstream.
One thing is very clear to me, we need a new paradigm in international advocacy and we need to start focusing more on these support issues. As the number of people living with cancer rises, the requirement for post diagnostic support also rises. Even those who are ‘stable’ need support. One thing is for sure, the shock effect of what people tell me never wears off because I know there are more shocking stories still to hear.
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.
Somatostatin Analogues are the ‘workhorse’ treatments for those living with NETs, particularly where certain syndromes are involved. So not just for classic NETs with Carcinoid Syndrome but also for treating insulinoma, gastrinoma, glucagonoma and VIPoma (all types of pNETs) and others. They are most effective if the NETs express somatostatin receptors. They also have an anti-tumour effect but more of a slowing down of growth rather than a killing or reduction of tumour size – but there are always outliers where such effects are displayed.
Somatostatin is actually a naturally occurring hormone produced by the hypothalamus and some other tissues such as the pancreas and the gastrointestinal tract. However, it can only handle the normal release of hormones. When NET syndromes occur, the naturally occurring somatostatin is unable to cope. The word ‘analogue’ in the simplest of terms, means ‘manufactured’ and a somatostatin analogue is made to be able to cope with the excess secretion (in most cases).
Although there is hidden complexity, the concept of the drug is fairly simple. It can inhibit insulin, glucagon, serotonin, VIP, it can slow down bowel motility and increase absorption of fluid from the gut. It also has an inhibitory effect on growth hormone release from the pituitary gland (thus why it’s also used to treat a condition called Acromegaly). You can see why it’s a good treatment for those with NET syndromes, i.e. who suffer from the excess secretions of hormones from their NETs. Clearly there can be side effects as it also inhibits digestive enzymes which can contribute to, or exacerbate, gastro-intestinal malabsorption.
Please note somatostatin analogues are not chemo. There are two major types in use:
Octreotide – or its brand name Sandostatin. It is suffixed by LAR for the ‘long acting release’ version.
Lanreotide – brand name Somatuline (suffixed by ‘Depot’ in North America, ‘Autogel’ elsewhere)
So what’s the difference between the two?
A frequently asked question. Here’s a quick summary:
They are made by two different companies. Novartis manufactures Octreotide and Ipsen manufactures Lanreotide. Octreotide has been around for much longer.
The long-acting versions are made and absorbed very differently. Octreotide has a complex polymer and must be injected in the muscle to absorb properly. Lanreotide instead uses has a novel nanotube structure and is water based (click here to see a video of how this works). It is injected deep-subcutaneously and is therefore easier to absorb and is not greatly impacted if accidentally injected into muscle.
Their delivery systems are mainly via injections but are fundamentally different as you can see from the blog graphic which shows the differences between the long acting release versions. Octreotide long acting requires a pre-mix, whilst Lanreotide comes pre-filled.
The long-acting versions are 60, 90 and 120 mg for Lanreotide and 10, 20 and 30 mg for Octreotide.
Octreotide also has a daily version which is administered subcutaneously.
Octreotide has something called a ‘rescue shot’ which is essentially a top up to tackle breakthrough symptoms. It is a subcutaneous injection.
You can also ‘pump’ Octreotide using a switched on/off continuous infusion subcutaneously.
Other than for lab/trial use, to the best of my knowledge, there is no daily injection, rescue shot or ‘pump’ for Lanreotide that is indicated for patient use.
Whilst both have anti-tumour effects, there are differences in US FDA approval: Octreotide (Sandostatin) is approved for symptom control (not anti-tumor) whereas Lanreotide (Somatuline) is approved for tumour control. However, the US FDA recently added a supplemental approval for syndrome control on the basis that it is proven to reduce the need for short acting somatostatin analogues use – read more here. This supplementary approval followed the ELECT trial – results here.
Always refer to the patient information leaflet as it is not safe to assume that all healthcare professionals are familiar with the administration. Common issues include (but are not limited to): drug temperature requirements, injection site, pinching vs stretching skin, speed of injection.
Please note a new syringe for Lanreotide will be available in June 2019. Further information will be communicated to healthcare professionals in advance of this, to enable them to inform their patients, whom have been prescribed Lanreotide. In addition, the patient information leaflet included in the packet will have clear instructions for use. There will be a prominent yellow box located on the outer carton of the medicine, alerting healthcare professionals and patients that a new syringe is contained inside. Please note that the medicine is still the same and the formulation and storage conditions have not changed.
Here are some interesting videos showing and explaining their administration:
Administering a Somatuline Depot (Lanreotide) injection:
Administering a Sandostatin LAR (Octreotide) injection:
This link also provides guidance on the “new formulation” Octreotide. Click here.
My own experience only includes daily injections of Octreotide (Sep-Nov 2010) and Lanreotide (Dec 2010 onwards). I’ve also had continuous infusion of Octreotide in preparation for surgical or invasive procedures over the period 2010-2012 (i.e. crisis prevention). You can read about my Lanreotide experience by clicking here. If you are interested in what might be coming downstream, please see my blog entitled ‘Somatostatin Analogues and Delivery Systems in the Pipeline’.
Injection site granulomas (lumps)
The issue of ‘granulomas‘ or ‘injection site granulomas’ seems to figure in both drugs. Gluteal injection site granulomas are a very common finding on CT and plain radiographs. They occur as a result of subcutaneous (i.e. intra-lipomatous) rather than intramuscular injection of drugs, which cause localised fat necrosis, scar formation and dystrophic calcification. But no-one seems to know why they occur with somatostatin analogues.
Personally, I find that they are more conspicuous if the injection is done slightly too high which was my initial experience and they took months to fade. I opted to stand up for the first two injections and I attribute this decision for a slightly too high injection site. I now lie down which is actually recommended for the smaller and thinner patient. Although the lumps have reduced in size, I have not seen a new lump for some time indicating location might have been the cause. They sometimes show up on scans. This is not a new problem and has been highlighted for the last 10 years in academic papers. This particular paper is useful and the conclusion confirms this is not something that should worry patients too much. Read more here
Somatostatin Analogues and raised blood sugar levels
It is well documented that both Octreotide and Lanreotide can elevate blood glucose (sugar) levels. Read more in my article Diabetes – the NET Effect.
The word ‘crisis’ has a wide range of meanings and it’s well used in the media to catch the reader’s attention. Lately, the terms ‘political crisis’, financial ‘crisis’ and ‘constitutional crisis’ appear almost daily in media headlines. In a previous life, the term ‘crisis management’ was used daily in the work I was undertaking as I went from problem to problem, dampening or putting out fires (….. that’s a metaphor!). Thinking back, my adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and cortisol must have been very busy!
However, in the world of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), ‘crisis’ has a very significant meaning and its very mention will make ears prick up. The word ‘crisis’ is normally spoken or written using the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ given this is the type of NET with which it has been mostly associated. However, I’ve studied and researched and it would appear that some form of ‘crisis’ might apply to other types of NETs. Perhaps this is another knock-on effect caused by the historical use of the word ‘Carcinoid’ to incorrectly refer to all NETs. In terms of ‘crisis’, maybe there should be a more generic NETs wide term? Of course there should, once again ‘carcinoid’ is causing confusion.
What is (so called) ‘Carcinoid Crisis’?
In the simplest of terms, it is a dangerous change in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing (technical term – cardiopulmonary hemodynamic instability). On an operating table under anaesthetics or an invasive procedure such as liver embolization, this can actually be life threatening. Incidentally, this happens with many other types of conditions (hormones and peptides do exist in other illnesses). However, with a patient already oversecreting these hormones and peptides, it could be a life or death situation.
What is the difference between carcinoid crisis and carcinoid syndrome?
Carcinoid crisis is said to be a situation where nearly all of the possible symptoms of carcinoid syndrome come at the same time and in some severity. Carcinoid crisis is a serious and life-threatening complication of carcinoid syndrome, and is generally found in people who already have carcinoid syndrome. The crisis may occur suddenly, or it can be associated with stress, a reaction to treatment, but it is mainly as a result of the use of anaesthesia. There is a thin line between a very severe bout of carcinoid syndrome and carcinoid crisis but generally it can be characterized by an abrupt flushing of face and sometimes upper body, usually severe falls in blood pressure and even bronchospasm with wheezing can infrequently occur. The attack may look like a severe allergic reaction.
It is said by one very well-known NET expert to “not to be something which happens randomly to all patients, it is usually linked to a medical procedure of some sort when you are having anaesthesia”. Dr Eric Liu also said “Luckily it is relatively uncommon”.
Why does it happen to some NET Patients?
NETs can release a variety of ‘vasoactive peptides’ (hormones) in excess (e.g. serotonin, catecholamines, histamine). Under normal circumstances, these would just present as routine syndromes which may need to be controlled in most cases with somatostatin analogue treatment (Octreotide/Lanreotide).
Excess amounts of these vasoactive substances can cause both hypertension and hypotension (high and low blood pressure respectively). In extreme cases this can lead to what is known as a crisis situation.
How is the risk managed?
Most people are effectively managed on monthly injections of Octreotide/Lanreotide but some people still need ‘rescue shots’ (top ups) where they are experiencing breakthrough symptoms. When I was symptomatic (syndromic), I would regularly flush in stressful situations but that was definitely syndrome rather than crisis. Check out my video explaining how I felt. It’s worth reading something called the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome, probably useful to other types of NETs as I’m sure there is some overlap.
If you research this plus perhaps from your own experience, you will know there are different ideas and ‘protocols’. However, they all mostly involve some pre-procedure infusion of a somatostatin analogue (normally Octreotide) – although I’d love to hear from anyone who has had Lanreotide as an alternative. Some doctors or hospitals are known to have their own ‘protocols’ and I’ve uploaded the one from the ISI NET book page 215 (Wang, Boudreaux, O’Dorisio, Vinik, Woltering, et al). Click here. Please note this is an example rather than a recommendation as this is something the NOLA team have developed for their own centre.
In all the big procedures I’ve had done in my local NET Centre, I have always been admitted the day before to receive what they describe as an ‘Octreotide Soak’. The link below is an example of the UK standard for pre and peri-operative protection (please note your NET team may be working to a slightly different protocol based on their own version of best practice, just to emphasise that this is an example and not advice).
Patients are always asking about the risk and requirements for smaller procedures such as an Endoscopy. There does not seem to common guidance on this but Dr Woltering who is always forthcoming with advice suggests 200 micrograms of Octreotide before the procedure commences.
Dental visits involving anaesthetics can also be an issue and you can see Dr Woltering’s advice in my blog about the 5 Es of Carcinoid Syndrome. Additionally there is advice for users of ‘Epi Pens’. You also need to derisk those situations.
What about other types of NETs
The ISI Book Link above (herefor convenience), does state “regardless of tumor type, all NETs should be pre-treated with Octreotide for protection against crisis“. I know that NET patients other than those with ‘Carcinoid Tumours’ are also treated with somatostatin analogues, as they too can be subject to the effects of excess secretion of certain vasoactive peptides.
Why is the issue relative to Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma?
Pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas are catecholamine-producing neoplasms that can cause life-threatening hemodynamic instability, particularly intraoperatively, when the tumor is manipulated. In some ways their version of ‘crisis’ is more complex and dangerous than in the issues with carcinoid crisis above. There needs to be significant pre-operative preparation in addition to peri-operative measures, in fact with this type of tumour, post surgical treatment and monitoring is also required.
I recently read an article about a person with a Pheochromocytoma. The person had what was described as an ‘Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis‘ that appeared to be caused by her tumour type rather than the sort of incident that might occur in a standard surgery. Hypertension (high blood pressure) can be a symptom of Pheochromocytoma so you can see the problem with surgery and other procedures. An interesting issue with this type of NET is that after surgery, the patient is at risk for hypotension (low blood pressure) from venous dilation caused by the sudden withdrawal of catecholamines. Read more here.
I highly suspect there are many examples from the NET world beyond the ‘carcinoid’subtype of NETs and I’ve already given you one above. I’ll update this blog as I discover other examples. In the meantime, make sure you ask your medical team about ‘crisis protection’ if you are to undergo any surgical or invasive medical procedure. Minor procedures should also be assessed.
Do we need to rename the term Carcinoid Crisis to Neuroendocrine Crisis? Probably …… let’s give it a red card!
We’ve all heard the age-old question about the chicken and the egg? Scientists claimed to have ‘cracked’ the riddle of whether the chicken or the egg came first. The answer, they say, is the chicken. Researchers found that the formation of egg shells relies on a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries. Therefore, an egg can exist only if it has been inside a chicken. There you have it!
On a similar subject, I’m often confused when someone says they have been diagnosed with ‘Carcinoid Syndrome’and not one of associated ‘Neuroendocrine Tumours’. So which comes first? I guess it’s the way you look at it. In terms of presentation, the syndrome might look like it comes first, particularly in cases of metastatic/advanced disease or other complex scenarios. Alternatively, a tumour may be found in an asymptomatic patient, quite often incidentally. However, on the basis that the widely accepted definition of Neuroendocrine Tumours would indicate that a syndrome is secondary to tumour growth, then the tumour must be the chicken.
I sometimes wonder what patients are told by their physicians….. or perhaps by their insurance companies (more on the latter below). That said, I did see some anecdotal evidence about one person who was diagnosed with Carcinoid Syndrome despite the lack of any evidence of tumours or their markers. This might just be a case of providing a clinical diagnosis in order to justify somatostatin analogue treatment but it does seem unusual given that scientifically speaking, Carcinoid Syndrome can only be caused by a particular type of NET.
I have a little bit of experience with this confusion and it still annoys me today. Shortly after my diagnosis, I had to fill out an online form for my health insurance. The drop down menu did not have an entry for Neuroendocrine ‘anything’ but I spotted Carcinoid only to find it was actually Carcinoid Syndrome. By this stage I had passed the first level of NET knowledge and was therefore suspicious of the insurance company list. I called them and they said it was a recognised condition and I should not worry. Whilst that statement might be correct, I did tell them it was not a cancer per se but an accompanying syndrome caused by the cancer. I added that I was concerned about my eligibility for cancer cover treatment and didn’t want to put an incorrect statement on the online form. However, they persisted and assured me it would be fine on that selection. On the basis it was really the only option I could select, I selected and submitted. I did get my cover sorted. However, it’s now clear to me that their database was totally out of date. A similar thing happened when I was prescribed Octreotide and then Lanreotide, the only ‘treatment type’ they could find on their database was ‘chemotherapy‘ – again their system was out of date. I’m told by someone in the know, that individual insurance companies are not responsible for this list, they all get it from a central place – I’d love to pay that central place a visit!
I quickly thought about all the other NET Syndromes for their ‘chicken and egg’ status! Pancreatic NET (pNET) Syndromes must all be ‘chicken’ given the tumour definition and the secretion of the offending hormones that cause these other syndromes e.g. Insulin, Gastrin, Glucagon, Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP), Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP) and Somatostatin, etc.
All of that said, the exception might be hereditary syndromes e.g. MEN (yes it is a syndrome, not a tumor type). MEN syndromes are genetic conditions. This means that the cancer risk and other features of MEN can be passed from generation to generation in a family. A mutation (alteration) in the various MEN genes gives a person an increased risk of developing endocrine/neuroendocrine tumors and other symptoms of MEN. It’s also possible that the tumors will be discovered first. It’s complex as you will see in my article entitled “Genetics and Neuroendocrine Tumors”.
When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer at an incurable stage, certain words start to mean more. Take ‘palliative’ for example. Before I was diagnosed I had always associated the word ‘palliative’ with someone who had a terminal disease and this type of care was to make the final days/weeks as comfortable as possible. So it was a bit of a shock to find out in 2010 that my treatment was palliative in nature. However, I’m still not dead and I’m still receiving palliative care. Go figure! The answer is simple – the cancer story is changing. What was once feared as a death sentence is now an illness that many people survive. As survival rates increase, so too will the number of people living with the legacy of cancer and its treatment.
What is palliative care?
Some people with incurable cancer will continue to receive treatment to keep the cancer at bay and that treatment is by definition, palliative. In fact, palliative care can be given at any time during an illness. It’s not just for treatment of the cancer, it’s also to help with the effects of that treatment, i.e. the consequences of cancer. It also encompasses things such as emotional and other practical support.
In the most general terms and while it clearly can go into some detail and long lists, palliative care can be defined as follows:
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. Relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects is an important part of cancer care. This approach is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care. Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care.
I looked at a few sites and many of them confirm the above. However, there appears to be even more sites where it is still heavily associated and inextricably linked with end of life or hospice care where you may come into contact with the term palliative care specialist. Whilst it’s not wrong to make that association, more work needs to be done to cater for the growing numbers of ‘incurable but treatable’ who are not ‘terminal’ and still need this type of support, in some ways like you would with a chronic condition. I also sense a push in certain areas to emphasise the meaning of palliative care to include a much broader definition than is currently in most people’s minds. This needs much more publicity. I’m not saying that ‘palliative’ does not include ‘hospice care’ but I’m not intending to cover that aspect in this blog which is aimed as those with incurable but treatable cancers.
My palliative care experience
When I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) in 2010, I quickly accepted the fact that any treatment I would receive would not be curative. I also quickly accepted that if I didn’t have any treatment, I would probably die. The words used were ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’, more technical sounding but essentially meaning the same thing as palliative. Debulking means removing as much tumour as possible in order to increase the chance that perhaps other treatments can be of some help. Cytoreductive means the same thing but generally extends the ‘debulking’ activity to other modes of treatment (e.g. chemotherapy/radiotherapy).
NETs is one of a number of cancers for which ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’ therapies can in many cases confer some survival advantage. In fact if you read ENETS or NANETS guidance for advanced NETs, you will frequently see the statement that cytoreductive surgery should be considered if greater than 90% of metastatic tumour burden can be safely resected or ablated. NETs, particularly with distant metastases, can come with a ‘syndrome’ and some of the symptoms can be rather debilitating for many patients. These syndromes are a result of tumours secreting excess amounts of hormonesand the types vary from patient to patient and from NET type to NET type. It follows that if surgical debulking reduces the amount of tumours, then it should normally decrease the effects of the associated syndrome. In fact, one letter from a specialist did describe my surgery in symptom palliation terms. I can confirm this is about right as my hormone marker 5HIAA remained elevated after surgery to remove my primary and local tumours, but did not return to normal until after my liver surgery.
However, there are a number of other treatments that can be considered ‘palliative’ in a metastatic or advanced environment. Getting rid of tumours is always the optimum treatment for any cancer but just as surgical debulking can reduce the amount of cancer, other non-surgical modalities such as liver embolization or ablation can have the effect of reducing the symptoms of the cancer and therefore providing relief to the patient. Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) are another good example of palliative care. Although they might have an anti-tumour effect for some, they mostly work by reducing or inhibiting the secretion of excess hormones which contribute to the various NET syndromes. ‘Symptom control’ is as defined above, palliative care.
I’m already looking forward to my next palliative care appointment.
I’d never heard of Serotonin until I was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer in 2010. It is frequently discussed, often with contrasting views from the respondents. One common assumption/question is that it is responsible for many things that can go wrong with Neuroendocrine Cancer patients who have serotonin-producing tumours. “It’s the hormones” is an easy assumption to make or an easy answer to give in response to a complex set of circumstances. It’s difficult to get a definitive answer and the science behind the behaviour of our hormones isn’t really 100% tied down.
You may see serotonin referred to as a ‘neurotransmitter’, a ‘chemical’ and a ‘hormone’ – this is complex but it is my understanding that it can add context in respect the role/location of the serotonin, e.g. chemical and hormone are essentially synonymous and are endocrine related whereas neurotransmitter is concerned with the nervous system (the neuro in neuroendocrine) and the brain (more on this below). Consequently, I’ll keep this as basic as I can (author’s note on completion – it was not easy!).
Serotonin and NETs
One thing which is widely accepted and agreed…… Serotonin is definitely involved in Neuroendocrine Tumours, in particular, those resulting in carcinoid syndrome which can manifest as a number of symptoms including but not limited to flushing and diarrhea. Although serotonin is one of the main ‘hormones’ released in excess by certain NETs (mainly midgut), it is not thought to be the main culprit behind some of the symptoms produced by Carcinoid Syndrome. For example, flushing, the most common symptom (and a cardinal one) is thought to be caused by a number of hormones/peptides – too many to list but the main ones are histamine (particularly foregut), tachykinins (Substance P), bradykinins, prostaglandins …….. and I’m sure serotonin’s in there too! It does, however, appear to be massively guilty in causing carcinoid syndrome diarrhoea, desmoplasia, and carcinoid heart issues.
Where does Serotonin come from?
Serotonin’s technical name is 5-hydroxyltryptamine (5-HT). It is converted from 5-Hydrotryptophan (5-HTP) which is also known as oxitriptan. 5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and chemical precursor as well as a metabolic intermediate in the biosynthesis of serotonin (…..and melatonin) from tryptophan. Tryptophan is interesting as that brings in one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw – food! Tryptophan cannot be manufactured in the body, it must be brought in via diet. There is no serotonin in food, it is only manufactured in the body.
Tryptophan in food enters the body and serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process which combines tryptophan (essentially a protein) with tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor. I suspect other substances might be involved in that process. There are two forms of tryptophan hydroxylase – TPH1 and TPH2, which are encoded on two independent genes. TPH1 is linked to peripheral serotonin while TPH2 is related to brain serotonin.
While serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, tryptophan can, and once there, almost all of it is converted to serotonin. Unlike, peripheral setotonin where only a small percentage is used to generate serotonin. Just to emphasise that NET dietitians do not say to avoid foods containing tryptophan other than at the time of marker testing (see below andnutrition Blog 4). When you look at the role in brain serotonin, this might have an adverse effect.
The introduction of Somatostatin analogues (SSAs) such as Octreotide and Lanreotide, help reduce the secretion of “tumour-derived serotonin” by binding to its receptors on the outside of the cell. If you ever wondered why receptors are important, please check out my blog on this subject (click here).
I mentioned tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH) above and that is actually very interesting as this is how Telotristat Ethyl (XERMELO) is able to help with the symptoms of Carcinoid Syndrome diarrhea (not adequately controlled by SSAs) or where patients are unable to be treated by somatostatin analogues for whatever reason. It’s a potent inhibitor of TPH which will disrupt the manufacturing of tumour-derived serotonin. There is also evidence that it can help reduce the effects or halt the growth of the fibrosis leading to carcinoid heart disease. Slight digression but useful to aid/enhance understanding at this point. Read about Telotristat Ethyl here.
Serotonin and the Brain
There is constant discussion and assumption that serotonin-producing tumours are somehow causing depression, anxiety and rage. Not as simple as that, it’s way more complicated. Certain NETs can overproduce serotonin in the gut but the issues concerning depression and anxiety are normally associated with low levels of serotonin in the brain.
“Cancer anger” is a normal response to fear, despair and grief – a range of feelings which cancer brings into our lives. It can show as frustration, irritability, emotional withdrawal or aggression. You can feel it whether you have been diagnosed or you are a relative or friend. Cancer anger can happen at any stage of the illness, even years after treatment. I know that many people with cancer suffer from depression, anxiety and anger but they do not all have serotonin-producing tumours. What they do have is a life threatening and/or life changing condition which is bound to have an effect on mind as well as body. Hormones including Serotonin are natural substances found in the body and not just there to service NETs.
Serotonin is separately manufactured in the brain (~10%) and in the gastrointestinal tract (~90%). The serotonin in the brain must be manufactured in the brain, it cannot be directly increased or reduced external to the brain, i.e. it cannot be directly reinforced by gut serotonin (peripheral serotonin). It follows that ‘brain serotonin’ and ‘gut serotonin’ are held in separate stores, they are manufactured in those stores and remain in those stores – there is no cross-pollination. This is managed by something called the blood-brain-barrier (BBB). Therefore, excess serotonin from NETs does not infiltrate the brain. As low-level of ‘brain serotonin’ is often linked to depression, it also follows that it’s possible to have high levels of serotonin in the gut but low levels in the brain.
My simple way of thinking about such things as outlined above, is that low levels of tryptophan in the brain might be contributing to low levels of serotonin in the brain. To clarify that, I researched the reasons why there could be low serotonin in the brain. First, let’s dismiss any connection that the type of anti-depressant called Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is involved. It’s thought that SSRIs work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a messenger chemical that carries signals between nerve cells in the brain). We already discussed that it’s thought to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. After carrying a message, serotonin is usually reabsorbed by the nerve cells (known as “reuptake”). SSRIs work by blocking (“inhibiting”) reuptake, meaning more serotonin is available to pass further messages between nearby nerve cells. So tryptophan or peripheral serotonin are not really involved.
It would be too simplistic to say that depression and related mental health conditions are caused by low serotonin levels (in the brain), but a rise in serotonin levels (in the brain) can improve symptoms and make people more responsive to other types of treatment, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It’s also too simple to suggest that NET patients get depression and anxiety due to all the “hormones” these tumours produce. Of course hormones can be involved in depression and anxiety but hormones aren’t their just for NET patients. Cancer patients without hormone secreting tumours also get anxiety and depression so it’s possible that NET patients can get depression and anxiety in the same way.
It should also be noted that the precursor to serotonin, tryptophan, does pass through the BBB and it is therefore possible that tryptophan depletion can lead to less availability in the brain for the manufacture of brain serotonin. Tryptophan depletion can be caused by dietary restrictions (i.e. lack of tryptophan foods) and also by the effects of certain types of tumours as excess serotonin is made leading to less availability of tryptophan. Both could lead to low serotonin in the brain as less tryptophan gets there. It follows that foods containing tryptophan remain important in order to help maintain normal brain serotonin levels.
Measuring Serotonin levels
Measuring levels of serotonin is important in both diagnosis and management of certain NETs – although it’s probably sensible to test all potential NET patients during diagnosis when the type of tumour is not yet known. Testing for tumour markers will differ between countries and within countries but the most common standard for testing Serotonin appears to be 5-HIAA (5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid) either via a 24-hour urine test or via a plasma version (mainly used in USA but now creeping into UK). 5-HIAA is the output (metabolite) of 5-HT (Serotonin). Not to be confused with the less reliable ‘serum serotonin’ which is a different test.
Another frequently asked question about serotonin tests is whether they are testing the amount in the brain or the gut. The answer is …… they are testing the levels in the blood. Furthermore, if you are measuring serotonin as an indicator for Carcinoid Syndrome, it has to be remembered that the majority of serotonin is in the gut, so even if serotonin levels in the brain were being measured alongside the gut levels, I don’t believe it would influence the result in any significant way (but I have no science to back that up). It also has to be remembered that serum serotonin and 5HIAA are not absolute tests, they are not 100% sensitive, they are simply indicators of a potential problem. There are methods of measuring brain serotonin but it is very complex and beyond the purposes of this article. However, I would just add that it is the reuptake of Serotonin in the brain (plus some other stuff) that can cause depression, not the actual level or amount in the brain.
I intentionally did not mention the other common test (Chromogranin A) or other markers as they are measuring different things but you can read about in my Testing for Markers blog.
Serotonin Video with myself and Dr Mike Morse
I made a video in 2019 with Dr Mike Morse sponsored by Lexicon Pharmaceuticals, Inc. It’s all about Carcinoid Syndrome with a slant towards hormones, in particular Serotonin. Entitled “Likely Suspects: How Hormones May Lead to Carcinoid Syndrome – What People Living With Carcinoid Syndrome Need to Know”
You need to register to watch although some of you will already be registered and just need an email to login to see the this webcast. The one I’m featured in is the latest in a series on the subject and I’d like to break the record for views please! Please help me achieve this 💙 I would also love to get your feedback and sincerely hope you will find the time to listen in. Please also find the time to complete the survey at the end. Thanks
In a previous life, I used the term ‘smoke and mirrors’ quite a bit. I was used to dealing with many different types of people, some who wanted something, some who wanted to buy or sell something. Most of the time it was overt but the devil was usually in the detail. Sometimes there was an element of ‘covertness’ or a ‘hidden agenda’. It was always tricky working out the details of the hidden agenda and sometimes it was only known when it was too late. Some of you will already be seeing where I’m going with this line of thinking – if so, you worked out my hidden agenda!
‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is basically a term connected to the art of deception, a con trick, a way in through confusion and trickery (think magicians on TV!).
Whilst certain cancers can appear with precise symptoms and leave you under no illusion what you’re facing, others can be a bit more circumspect – Neuroendocrine Cancer can be one of those. It will fool you into thinking you’re not even ill and even when it puts its head above the parapet, this can come over as a routine illness and/or vague symptoms which will deceive both you and your physicians. Thus why awareness is really important. I won’t repeat my key messages but you can find them here in my blog entitled “Neuroendocrine Cancer can be silent – but it doesn’t mean we should be”– the more these posts and ones like it are shared, the quicker we can discover the hidden agenda.
I have another hidden agenda! I was inspired to write this post by my friend and blogger Shannon – she writes a blog called ‘A tale of two tumours’. I really like this blog because there are no hidden agendas, what you see is what you get and she has catchy titles. I also like Shannon because she has a great attitude despite the fact that she is probably still looking for the ‘hidden agenda’ or at least bits of it (then again perhaps we all are?).
Shannon has one of the uncommon variants of our disease, one of those tricky cases it would seem. Her issues started some time ago and she was eventually diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease (see my Syndrome blog). She has previous issues with pituitary, parathyroid and recently diagnosed with a Thymic NET. She believes there is a potential connection with MEN1 (see my blog Running in the Family) but this is currently dismissed by her physicians.
There is potentially a new problem outlined in her latest blog which inspired me to write this post. She has a very strange symptom in that she can smell smoke despite there not being any smoke and this happens in different locations. Her latest blog is her story about this symptom and what happened next. Excuse the language but I would be frustrated too! Read the blog ‘Where there is smoke …..’ by ‘clicking here’.
I wish Shannon well and hope she gets some answers – no more tumours please. You are a survivor!
Thanks for listening
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Since my diagnosis, I seem to have been in a perpetual learning phase! What not to do, what not to eat, what not to read! However, early on in my experience, I came across a list of ‘E’ words (5 of them) which is a handy reminder for Carcinoid Syndrome patients, particularly those whose symptoms are not under control. When I say “carcinoid syndrome” in this article, I only mean the syndrome that is caused by what was once called “Carcinoid Tumors”, i.e. mainly serotonin secreting types but include tumours which are well differentiated found in the small intestine, appendiceal, rectal, lung, and one or two other less common places. There are many variations of this list but this is my take! I suspect some of this also applies to other types of NETs and other NET Syndromes.
On analysis of this list, it struck me that I was aware of the issues and their potential effects and I’m certain there is science to substantiate the content. These E’s are apparently the most common ‘triggers’ for Carcinoid Syndrome. Clearly, they are not going to have the same effect on every patient e.g. I have the occasional drink of ‘Ethanol’ and I always enjoy it, I go for long exhausting walks as ‘Exercise’ and I always feel great after. I had dental treatment using ‘Epinephrine’ without any precautions before I was aware of the risks …….. nothing happened! Before I was treated, stressful meetings (‘Emotions’) at work would make me flush though! As for ‘Eating’ – well that’s another couple of blog’s worth! Worth noting that many people without carcinoid syndrome will have reactions to eating but there are specifics that might need some attention in someone with carcinoid syndrome and elevated 5HIAA levels.
The 5 Es are, however, not something to be totally ignored. In extreme scenarios, a severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome symptoms could be debilitating and life-threatening and I’m fairly certain the list was compiled with this in mind. Some people are more affected by Carcinoid Syndrome and this is not necessarily related to the extent or aggressiveness of their disease. Some people just react differently. An extremely severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome can also be known as a ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ which is very dangerous, mostly on the operating table due to the effects of anaesthetics – thus why many NET patients may be infused with somatostatin analogues (usually Octreotide) prior to, during, and for a period after surgery or other medical procedures. There’s a lot of excitement generated around the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ but it is very uncommon.
I’m not saying the 5 Es should be ignored but NETs are a complex disease and most things need to be read in the correct context. What works for some may not work for others. There can also be confusion surrounding the source of symptoms, i.e. are they syndrome or something else? This is why I believe NET patients need to answer some key questions when considering the risks associated with the 5 E’s:
Are you currently syndromic? If you are, then the 5 ‘E’ list is probably very good advice but interpreting the advice in the correct context remains important.
Are your syndrome related biochemistry results normal (e.g. 5HIAA)? Normal readings (in range) tend to mean the syndrome is under control and many people who were diagnosed with a syndrome may actually be non-syndromic following treatment.
Have you had treatment or are having treatment likely to produce side effects which might be confused with Carcinoid syndrome? For example, surgery can be the long term cause of diarrhea and other issues. Despite the role of somatostatin analogues, these could also be the root cause of certain reactions.
The vagaries of this disease will no doubt throw up some exceptions and additions. There will be patients who have no syndrome but have elevated biochemistry and vice versa. Additionally, there will be patients who have had surgery and/or are being treated with somatostatin analogues but will still be syndromic in varying degrees of severity.
The so-called ‘5 Es’ are as follows:
Epinephrine: This was a new piece of information for me and I only discovered this as a potential problem when I started monitoring some of the USA Facebook forums. This does not appear to be that well-known in UK.
Epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) is often used in dentistry mixed with a local anaesthetic. I won’t risk this, so I’ve instructed my Dentist to place a note on my record asking for epinephrine not be used (and clearly I’ll remind them each visit!). According to NET guru Dr Woltering, plain novocaine, carbocaine or plain marcaine are preferred. According to a dental source on my site (also a patient):
“4% Citanest Plain Dental (Prilocaine Hyrocholride Injection) is also safe and Epinephrine Free. It isn’t as profound of a numbness and may need reapplying during a procedure. It is the common alternative here in the USA.
4% Articaine without Epinephrine is also available and is known to work better on Mandibular Blocks. Again this is commonly used in the USA. It’s important to know what to ask for, not just ‘Epinephrine free’. Bring this up at your dental exam appointment, so that they will be sure to have it in stock. If you are unfamiliar with the office, schedule your appointment after they confirm that the proper local is in stock. Never use the term Novacaine as the generic term for dental anesthetic, this hasn’t been used in the USA for decades. Allergic reactions to Novacaine were too common. Lidocaine and Septocaine are the drug of choice. However, Lidocaine will always have Epinephrine. Where as, Septocaine (articaine) has versions with Ephedrine and without”.
Always check that your anaesthetist for any procedure you may be undergoing is aware of your carcinoid syndrome.
However, the danger is not just with dentistry work. Any anaesthesia is risky. Check out my post ‘carcinoid crisis’.
For those who have standby ‘Epi Pens’, I did read the following statement on the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation website: “ …….. one exception is the administration of epinephrine in the case of an allergic anaphylactic reaction (i.e. a bee sting), so it cannot be avoided in this case, just make sure that Octreotide (Sandostatin) is also available“. This advice is also extremely relevant to Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma patients who may be a high risk of “intraoperative hypertensive crisis”.
Eating: This is very individual. Certain foods or large meals can be difficult, particularly if you have had any gastrointestinal surgeries. I keep a personal diary trying to identify things that upset my system. I try to find some balance between what I know is good for me and also what I know I enjoy. For example, I found that very large meals do not agree with my ‘new plumbing’. If I eat a lot of sweets, I’ll also suffer …..so I just eat a little – check out my article Chocolate – The NET Effect.
Personally speaking, I’m fairly certain the vast majority of my issues are related to my treatment (past and present) rather than being provoked by Carcinoid Syndrome, i.e. if I rush to the toilet after a meal, it’s not syndrome, it’s a reaction of my compromised digestive system. So with this in mind, I try to reduce those things but additionally strike a balance between quality of life and excessive and rigid adherence to some of the guidance out there (see below) – as I said above, interpretation and context is important. My compromised system cannot deal with big meals so I ‘graze’ most of the day and then eat a small to medium-sized meal in the evening. I’ve been doing this since 2014 and reduced my visits by 300% without any special or expensive medication.
In my blog Nutrition Blog 4 – Food for Thought, I’ve linked to authoritative sources on potential diet triggers. I’m not suggesting you cut out all of the foods on these lists (you won’t last long!). Some can indulge in those foods and some cannot. For example, chocolate and caffeine (tea/coffee) are on the lists but I eat/drink those frequently (in moderation) and have no problem. It’s a case of testing things out. I like to describe my eating as ‘The Risk Management of my Quality of Life’. By the way, no-one is suggesting that a NET patient with carcinoid syndrome (and don’t forget this is only one syndrome of many with NETs) should stop eating foods high in the offending amines or are precursors to serotonin (e.g. tryptophan). They do not make tumours grow (a myth) but just make sure you adhere to the dietary restrictions for any 5HIAA test.
Emotions: Stressful situations can cause symptoms to flare up. While it is difficult to avoid all stress (work, home, commuting, etc), it is helpful if you can manage or reduce it. Like eating, this is a very individual area. From personal experience, I know stress can exacerbate carcinoid syndrome. Before I started my treatment, I was regularly flushing in meetings at work (….. think boxing matches!). After my treatment, stress was definitely a factor causing increased bowel motility. I’ve removed a lot of stress from my life and it helps. You may need to be ruthless in managing this aspect of your illness.
Exercise: Exercise is extremely important for overall health and well-being and I know quite a lot of NET Cancer patients who exercise regularly without issues. It can, however, trigger carcinoid syndrome if you overdo it – it is, however, like eating, a very individual thing. I take the view that ‘zero’ exercise might potentially be an even higher risk. Even a walk around the garden or gardening is exercise. When I was at work, I would walk to see people rather than phone them. Sometimes I walk to town rather than drive, it all adds up! I have evidence from my own exercising regime proving in my case that exercise can reduce the knock-on effects of some of the other E’s (emotions and eating) and/or the side effects of treatment – check out my blog entitled Exercise is Medicine. Those who are syndromic and/or have other conditions to manage are probably best to take medical advice on how much exercise they need to do.
Ethanol (alcohol, liquor):Many NET patients have difficulty tolerating wine, beer and spirits (hard liquor). I was never a big drinker so for me it was easy to go almost teetotal. I do have the occasional beer but very infrequently and normally on holiday – I personally don’t get any issues with the odd beer but again this is trial and error. I really enjoy my beer when I celebrate my ‘Cancerversaries‘. Also check out my blog Alcohol – the NET Effect
I’m sure there could be a 5 A’s to 5 Z’s list of things to avoid but as I said above, this needs to be balanced with what the actual risks for you are and if you’re like me, quality of life. If you read most Facebook closed group or forums, you will always find at least one person is affected by something which affects no-one else. Please note this article is just my own appreciation of these issues and I emphasise once again that everyone has different experiences. I do, however, think it’s important to consider any secondary illnesses, effects of surgery and biochemistry results (or indeed a combination of one or more of these factors). Everything in life involves some kind of risk management and if you are totally risk averse, then you are unlikely to have much of a life (or a diet!).
It’s not easy but my daily diary helps me assess trends and work out what things upset me more than others – I can then reduce or eliminate. You need to tailor your own advice perhaps with the help of a doctor and/or dietician versed in NET Cancer. I also have some related posts on the subject of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malabsorption and probiotics – check them out as the problems associated with these subjects could potentially look like a worsening of carcinoid syndrome and lead to unnecessary worry and unnecessary treatment.
For most, Carcinoid Syndrome can normally be controlled by the use of debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide). However, there is a new drug called ‘Teloristat Ethyl’ (XERMELO) which looks like it may provide supplementary treatment for patients whose carcinoid syndrome diarrhea is not adequately controlled by somatostatin analogues. It’s an expensive drug and comes with side effects so you need to be sure it’s your syndrome causing the problem before you commit to a prescription.
I once met some fellow cancer advocates and the conversation turned to what inspired us to ‘do what we do’. When it came to my turn as the only Neuroendocrine Cancer patient, I was already prepared to regurgitate my usual ‘spiel’. As sometimes happens, a listener queried me with the words “Neuroendocrine – what’s that?“. Another focused on ‘Neuro‘ enquiring whether my nervous system or my brain had somehow become cancerous. Deja vu – here we go again!
Two days later, I was speaking to one of my online friends who was having similar problems explaining this cancer to family and friends. Again ‘Neuro‘ was proving difficult with the assumption that it’s somehow related to the brain. Technically not far from the truth but context is really important given that most people look at cancer in anatomical terms. As we know this can often lead to incorrect headlines for famous cancer patients.
I’ve struggled since 2010 to explain this disease in layperson terms. It’s actually one of the reasons for my ‘study’ and my blog. It’s getting easier, particularly when answering questions. However, if Neuroendocrine Cancer knowledge was an iceberg, I’d still be at the tip! I did write a post entitled Horrible Hormones which supports an explanation. You might like to read it– perhaps helpful to aid your overall understanding of this post.
The other difficult aspect of explaining Neuroendocrine Cancer is the extent of the Anatomy and Physiology of the Neuroendocrine system which appears in numerous parts of the body. I’ve written about this before at a time when I was fed up with newspaper reports and on-line articles implying that Neuroendocrine Cancer didn’t exist – e.g. by frequently describing Neuroendocrine Tumours of the Pancreas as Pancreatic Cancer and Neuroendocrine Tumours of the Lung as Lung Cancer. During some of my own verbal discussions, mention of the small intestine was frequently met with “so you have Bowel Cancer“. NO I DON’T! Good time to refresh yourself with my article The Human Anatomy of NET Cancer. This thinking needs to be challenged at every opportunity including while explaining to family and friends.
I’ve therefore decided to attempt a short, generic but still sufficiently detailed explanation of the word ‘Neuroendocrine‘ in relation to my Cancer. I suspect by the end of this article, it will not be as short as I had wished. I do like a challenge 🙂 Here goes:
The neuroendocrine system is made up of a network of cells that are distributed throughout the body. The word neuroendocrine refers to 2 qualities of these cells: they have a similar structure to nerve cells (neurons) and produce hormones like endocrine cells. Neuroendocrine cells release hormones into the bloodstream in response to chemical signals from other cells or messages from the nervous system. Basically hormones travel in the bloodstream and makes things happen in another part of the body.
These neuroendocrine cells are scattered throughout the body performing different roles based on location, e.g. Neuroendocrine cells in the digestive system regulate intestinal movements and the release of digestive enzymes
When Neuroendocrine tumours develop in these cells, they can not only then spread to other locations but they can also secrete excess amounts of hormones and substances which can cause an adverse effect on the body’s natural rhythm. A collection of these symptoms is known as a syndrome. There are several different syndromes depending on the location and type of Neuroendocrine Tumour.
The presence of the syndrome nearly always indicates the tumours are functional. Sometimes tumours are non-functional (i.e. they do not overly secrete excess hormones or cause symptoms), these non-functional types can be even more difficult to diagnose.
Most Neuroendocrine Tumours are slow-growing and therefore offer good outlook if identified as early as possible and treated. Even for metastatic patients, the outlook is relatively good with the right treatment and surveillance. Some are more aggressive behaving like adenocarcinomas and need a different approach to treatment.
I found it very difficult to write a short and generic explanation of the word ‘Neuroendocrine‘ in relation to cancer – no wonder I seem to spend 10 minutes verbally explaining to people and…… no wonder they sometimes look at me with glazed eyes 🙂 However, this is my offer. This is as brief as I can make it to provide understanding. I’ve cut out more than I’ve left behind and feel like I’m short-changing you! However, it needs to be basic and it needs to be short.
Explanations which comprise lists of complex and unpronounceable words each with their own constraints and variable meanings leads to chaos and people switching off. I could have just referred to one of the excellent publications on the web but this isn’t really practical when in an impromptu conversation with wide-eyed listeners. That said, I believe the combination of this post and (if you see light-bulbs) the other 2 linked posts within, is a good way to answer the question if someone is willing to listen (and read a short reference). You may therefore need to follow-up the ‘verbal’ with the ‘written’.
To summarise, I intentionally made this explanation as generic as possible. Trying to explain every single type of Neuroendocrine Cancer will confuse and tire the best listener. If I was using this today, I would add my own additional comment about where my tumours were found and what treatment I’ve had – this I can do without a script! However, if you think this explanation is of use when verbally explaining Neuroendocrine in relation to your cancer, please feel free to share my blog post to aid understanding.
Neuroendocrine – what’s that? I didn’t have a clue …… until I was diagnosed with it!
There’s a constant debate regarding the validity of the term ‘Carcinoid‘. I’ve posted about this a few times and as far as I know, the debate has been raging for some years.
You may have noticed that ‘Carcinoid’ is often used as a standalone word and tends not to be suffixed with the word ‘Cancer’ or ‘Tumour’ – unlike Bowel Cancer, Breast Cancer, Prostrate Cancer, Lung Cancer, Brain Tumour, etc. Nobody goes around saying “Breast” or “Bowel” do they? But they happily say “Carcinoid”. Unfortunately, the term ‘Carcinoid’ has become entrenched in both pathology and clinical literature over the past 100 years. The main problem with the word Carcinoid is that it means different things to different people. Some use the term almost exclusively to designate serotonin-producing tumours that arise from the enterochromaffin cells that can result in carcinoid syndrome i.e. most commonly in the appendix, small intestine, stomach, lung, rectum and uncommonly in other places. Some use it to (incorrectly) refer to all Neuroendocrine Tumours. The most worrying connotation of the use of the word ‘Carcinoid’ is the belief that they all have benign clinical and biological behaviour. That is dangerous thinking and has the potential to kill people. Fortunately, NET specialists are starting to move away from using the word – check out the quote below:
The following history of ‘Carcinoid’ is well documented: Siegfried Oberndorfer (1876-1944) became the first to adequately characterise the nature of Carcinoid tumours and refer to them as “benign carcinomas.” During his tenure at the Pathological Institute of the University of Munich, Oberndorfer noted in 1907 that the lesions were distinct clinical entities and named them “karzinoide” (“carcinoma-like“), emphasizing in particular their benign features. However, In 1929 he amended his classification to include the possibility that these small tumours could be malignant and also metastasise. (Author’s note – a name change would have been handy at this point).
100 years later
NANETS, UKINETS and ENETS seem to defer to the WHO classification nomenclature and it is here another term is introduced – Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (NENs). NANETs state that “all of the entities under discussion are neoplastic, and neoplasm is therefore a more accurate term than tumor, which means only a mass“. These organisations tend to use the term Neoplasm as a catch-all for all Neuroendocrine disease and then the term ‘tumor’ and ‘carcinoma’ applies to well and poorly differentiated respectively. It’s worth noting that since 2010, the WHO 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. Neuroendocrine Carcinoma is malignant by defintion. All of this has been reinforced in the 2017 publication. The term ‘Carcinoid’ is conspicuously missing from these texts.
To put it simply – the term ‘carcinoid’ is no longer credible
Due to its historical meaning, Carcinoid does not adequately convey the potential for malignant behaviour that accompanies many of these neoplasms as described above. The term Carcinoid decodes to ‘Carcinoma like’. Contextually “Carcinoid Cancer” decodes to “carcinoma like cancer” which is, of course, totally misleading and its use simply perpetuates the claim by some that it is ‘not a proper cancer’. If we only needed one reason to ditch the word ‘Carcinoid’, this would be it.
I mentioned confusion above and this has led to a hybrid effect of naming the condition. For example, there is a tendency by some (including medical establishments and patient organisations) to use the term ‘Carcinoid’ and ‘Neuroendocrine Tumors’ interchangeably which is patently incorrect. Neither is it helpful that many patients and organisations continue to refer to this disease as “Carcinoid Neuroendocrine Tumor”, “Neuroendocrine Carcinoid Tumor”, “Neuroendocrine Carcinoid Cancer”, “Carcinoid/Neuroendocrine”, “CNET”; and many other variations along these lines. Many seemingly credible organisations will say “Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine Tumors” not realising it’s a contradiction in terms. Continued use of the term in any phrase or standalone context is not doing our case for recognition any good – it’s bad enough that some seem to cling to outdated and invalid diagnostic clichés and icons from the 1980s. All of it needs to go.
I know I’m not alone in this thinking given the decrease of its use in the NET world, including NET Specialists (see lead graphic) and NET Specialist organisations (some have changed their names). There’s an interesting article written by a NET specialist where the term ‘carcinoid’ is described as “unfortunate”, “misleading”, “outmoded”, “archaic”, “confusing” and “misnomer”. Exactly! In the recent SEER NET study, a NET specialist reaffirmed this thinking by stating that “the belief these tumors did not metastasize, did not reach any great size, and appeared harmless, has since been proven false”. Continued use of the term ‘Carcinoid’ has the potential to regress this thinking. We must not let this happen.
So what terms should we be using?
People and organisations will be out of date with modern Neuroendocrine Neoplasms nomenclature and some will still want to continue with their own nomenclature (….. and because of the confusion, some will fall into both categories not realising they’re out of date). Here’s a classic example of the problem we face – the American Cancer Society(ACS) does not even list Neuroendocrine Tumor as a cancer type. Instead you can find “Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors” and “Lung Carcinoid Tumor”. You’ll find Pancreatic NETs inside Pancreatic Cancer. Americans should harangue the ACS to get this right. I could go on with many similar observations on seemingly respectable sites. I intentionally used a US example as this country appears to be way behind in the changes to NET nomenclature, pretty surprising as they tend to be at the forefront of many other aspects in the world of NETs.
Personally, I think the acceptance of a common worldwide nomenclature should come from the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms. They are divided into a number of chapters including ‘Endocrine Organs’, Digestive System, Lung Tumours….. and no doubt some others. Frustrating, but medical people tend to look at things in anatomical terms. Nonetheless, the agreed classification nomenclature for the whole group of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms can be found with some research and access to clinical publications. The correct nomenclature should then be flowed down in regional groupings, e.g. ENETS representing Europe, NANETS representing North America, etc. As I understand it, ENETS and UKINETS are already essentially aligned with WHO and NANETS appears to be. From these organisations, the use of the correct terminology should then rub off on patients, patient advocate organisations and general cancer sites. However, the biggest challenge will be with hospitals/medical centres, cancer registries and insurance companies whose medical record processing is run using reference data (think drop down selections and database structures). Easier said than done but ‘change’ always has to start somewhere. Technically it has started (albeit late) as the big NET medical organisations are already starting to reduce the use of outmoded words such as ‘carcinoid’.
I once argued that the term ‘carcinoid’ needed to be retained as it represented a histopathological grouping of a particular type of NET comprising mostly appendiceal, stomach (gastric), rectal, small intestine and lung NETs. However, reading through the ENETS 2016 guidance in conjunction with the most up to date WHO classification publications, I’ve changed my mind after noticing they no longer use the word ‘Carcinoid’ in relation to a tumor type. Rather, they use the latest WHO terms above and then use the anatomy to distinguish the different types of NET (like we already do for Pancreatic NET or pNET).
Perhaps patients can lead the way here ………
Rather than say:
‘Carcinoid’ or ‘Carcinoid Tumor’….. why not say Neuroendocrine Tumor or NET (adding your primary location if required – see below);
‘Carcinoid Cancer; ….. why not say Neuroendocrine Cancer;
‘Lung Carcinoid’ ….. why not say Lung NET (adding typical or atypical if required);
‘Small intestine Carcinoid’, why not say Small Intestine NET (or ‘SiNET which is becoming popular); p.s. I’m not a fan of ‘small bowel’ due to the potential for confusion with the widely used term ‘bowel cancer’);
‘Gastric Carcinoid’, why not say Gastric NET (adding your type if required);
‘Rectal Carcinoid’, why not say Rectal NET;
‘Appendiceal Carcinoid’, why not say Appendiceal NET;
…. and so on. And you can add your stage and grade/differentiation for a richer picture.
You can listen to a very well known NET Specialist say something similar in this videohere.
Worth noting that even ENETS and NANETS cannot agree on tumor type terminology – the latter uses Small Bowel NETs (SBNETs) whereas ENETS uses Small Intestine NENs (SiNENs). I did say it’s easier said than done.
As I said above, the term ‘Carcinoid’ has become entrenched in both pathology and clinical literature over the past 100 years so it will still appear in many texts and need to be searchable online to support medical and advocacy business. However, these are technical issues and I don’t therefore believe people need to use the terms to make them searchable online. I tag all my posts with ‘Carcinoid’ even if I don’t mention the word in my text. I have started only using the term for context when it is required and am currently reviewing all of my posts to ensure that is still the case.
Hang on…what about Carcinoid Syndrome
When someone wants to know which syndrome you have, you can’t just state (say) “small intestine syndrome” or “midgut syndrome”. ‘NET Syndrome’ doesn’t work either as there are several NET syndromes. This has led to the situation where people try to drop the word ‘carcinoid’ and just say “the syndrome” which is even more confusing! I accept this one is a difficult challenge but I don’t believe it’s insurmountable, just needs some willpower and agreement. I could come up with other terms in about 5 minutes.
What about Carcinoid Heart Disease
Personally I don’t see why this cannot be renamed to ‘Neuroendocrine Heart Disease’ or its technical name – ‘Hedinger syndrome’.
What about Carcinoid Crisis
World renowned NET specialists already make statements that these issues can apply to all types of NET; and it’s well-known that a similar crisis situation already applies to other types e.g. Pheochromocytomas.I cannot see why something along the lines of ‘Neuroendocrine Crisis’ or ‘NET Crisis’ would not be acceptable.
We as patients are unlikely to be able to force changes on the medical and insurance communities but we can be a ‘force for change’ by setting the example of using a correct and more apt terminology to describe our disease.
Thanks for listening
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Until I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, I didn’t have a clue about hormones – it’s one of those things you just take for granted. However, hormones are vital to human health (male and female) and it’s only when things go wrong you suddenly appreciate how important they are ……..like a lot of other things in life I suppose! The presence of over-secreting hormones (often called peptides throughout) is useful to aid diagnosis albeit it often means the tumours have metastasized. It’s also a frequent indication that the person has an associated NET syndrome.
This is a really complex area and to understand the hormone problems associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer, you need to have a basic knowledge of the endocrine and neuroendocrine systems. I’ve no intention of explaining that (!) – other than the following high level summary:
Glands in the endocrine system use the bloodstream to monitor the body’s internal environment and to communicate with each other through substances called hormones, which are released into the bloodstream. Endocrine glands include; Pituitary, Hypothalmus, Thymus, Pineal, Testes, Ovaries Thyroid, Adrenal, Parathyroid, Pancreas.
A Hormone is a chemical that is made by specialist cells, usually within an endocrine gland, and it is released into the bloodstream to send a message to another part of the body. It is often referred to as a ‘chemical messenger’. In the human body, hormones are used for two types of communication. The first is for communication between two endocrine glands, where one gland releases a hormone which stimulates another target gland to change the levels of hormones that it is releasing. The second is between an endocrine gland and a target organ, for example when the pancreas releases insulin which causes muscle and fat cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. Hormones affect many physiological activities including growth, metabolism, appetite, puberty and fertility.
The Endocrine system. The complex interplay between the glands, hormones and other target organs is referred to as the endocrine system.
The Neuroendocrine System. The diffuse neuroendocrine system is made up of neuroendocrine cells scattered throughout the body. These cells receive neuronal input and, as a consequence of this input, release hormones to the blood. In this way they bring about an integration between the nervous system and the endocrine system (i.e. Neuroendocrine). A complex area but one example of what this means is the adrenal gland releasing adrenaline to the blood when the body prepares for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, ie, for vigorous and/or sudden action.
Hormones – the NET Effect
At least one or more hormones will be involved at various sites and even within certain syndromes, the dominant and offending hormone may differ between anatomical tumour sites. For example, NETs of the small intestine may overproduce serotonin and other hormones which can cause a characteristic collection of symptoms currently called carcinoid syndrome. The key symptoms are flushing,diarrhea and general abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fast heart rate and shortness of breath and wheezing. The main symptom for me was facial flushing and this was instrumental in my eventual diagnosis. The fact that I was syndromic at the point of diagnosis made it easier to discover, albeit the trigger for the investigation was a fairly innocuous event. Other types of NETs are also affected by the overproduction of hormones including Insulinomas, Gastrinomas, Glucagonomas, VIPomas, Somatostatinomas, and others. These can cause their own syndromes and are not part of carcinoid syndrome as some organisations incorrectly state. For more on NET syndromes – Read Here.
So are hormones horrible?
Absolutely not, they are essential to the normal function of the human body. For example if you didn’t have any of the hormone Serotonin in your system, you would become extremely ill. On the other hand, if your glands start secreting too much of certain hormones, your body could become dysfunctional and in some scenarios, this situation could become life threatening. So hormones are good as long as the balance is correct. NET patients with an oversecreting tumor may be classed as “functional”.
Functional tumors make extra amounts of hormones, such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon, that cause signs and symptoms.
Nonfunctional tumors do not make extra amounts of hormones. Signs and symptoms are caused by the tumor as it spreads and grows. Many NET patients are deemed to be “non-functioning” with normal hormone levels. It’s also accurate to say that many can move from one stage to the other.
Location Location Location
It’s accurate to say that the type and amount of hormone secretion differs between locations or sites of the functional tumor and this can also create different effects. The division of NETs into larger anatomical regions appears to differ depending on where you look but they all look something likes this:
Foregut NETs: In the respiratory tract, thymus, stomach, duodenum, and pancreas. This group mostly lack the enzyme aromatic amino decarboxylase that converts 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan – a precursor to serotonin) to serotonin (5-HT); such tumours tend to produce 5-HTP and histamine instead of serotonin.
The Pancreas is a particularly prominent endocrine organ and can produce a number of different syndromes each with their associated hormone oversecretion – although many can be non-functional (at least to begin with), (see below for more detail). It’s also possible to see predominantly serotonin secreting tumors in places such as the pancreas (although what you would call that type of NET is open for debate).
Lung NETs rarely produce serotonin, but may instead secrete histamine causing an ‘atypical’ carcinoid syndrome with generalized flushing, diarrhea, periorbital oedema, lacrimation and asthma. They may also produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) or corticotropin-releasing factor (CRP), resulting in an ectopic Cushing’s syndrome. Please note the respiratory tract and thymus are not really anatomically pure ‘Foregut’ – but in NETs, grouped there for convenience.
Gastric (Stomach) NETs. Gastrin is the main hormone but there can also be histamine producing an atypical carcinoid syndrome effect.
Midgut NETs: In the small intestine, appendix, and ascending colon. For example, serotonin secreting tumors tend to be associated with carcinoid syndrome which tends to be associated with midgut NETs and this is normally the case. Many texts will also tell you that a syndrome only occurs at a metastatic stage. Both are a good rule of thumb but both are technically incorrect. For example, ovarian NETs can have a form of carcinoid syndrome without liver metastasis (tends to be described as atypical carcinoid syndrome).
Hindgut NETs (transverse, descending colon and rectum) cannot convert tryptophan to serotonin and other metabolites and therefore rarely cause carcinoid syndrome even if they metastasise to the liver.
Less Common Locations – there are quite a few less common NET locations which may involve less common hormones – some are covered below including the key glands contributing to NETs.
Unknown Primary? – One clue to finding the primary might be by isolating an offending hormone causing symptoms.
The key NET hormones
I used the example of Serotoninabove because it is the most cited problem with NET Cancer although it does tend to be most prevalent in midgut tumors. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized from Tryptophan, one of the eight essential amino acids (defined as those that cannot be made in the body and therefore must be obtained from food or supplements). About 90% of serotonin produced in the body is found in the enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract where it is used mainly to regulate intestinal movements amongst other functions. The remainder is synthesized in the central nervous system where it mainly regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Please note there is no transfer of serotonin across the blood-brain barrier.
Alterations in tryptophan metabolism may account for many symptoms that accompany carcinoid syndrome. Serotonin in particular is the most likely cause of many features of carcinoid syndrome as it stimulates intestinal motility and secretion and inhibits intestinal absorption. Serotonin may also stimulate fibroblast growth and fibrogenesis and may thus account for peritoneal and valvular fibrosis encountered in such tumours; serotonin, however, it is said not to be associated with flushing. The diversion of tryptophan to serotonin may lead to tryptophan deficiency as it becomes unavailable for nicotinic acid synthesis, and is associated with reduced protein synthesis and hypoalbuminaemia; this may lead to the development of pellagra (skin rash, glossitis, stomatitis, confusion/dementia).
Serotonin is also thought to be responsible for ‘right sided’ heart disease (Carcinoid Heart Disease). It is thought that high levels of serotonin in the blood stream damages the heart, leading to lesions which cause fibrosis, particularly of the heart valves. This generally affects the right side of the heart when liver metastases are present. The left side of the heart is usually not affected because the lungs can break down serotonin. Right sided heart failure symptoms include swelling (edema) in the extremities and enlargement of the heart.
Whilst serotonin can be measured directly in the blood, it’s said to be more accurate to measure 5HIAA (the output of serotonin) via blood or urine, the latter is said to be the most accurate.
Tackykinins include Substance P, Neurokinin A, Neuropeptide K and others. They are active in the enterochromaffin cells of the GI tract but can also be found in lung, appendiceal and ovarian NETs, and also in Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Pheochromocytomas. They are thought to be involved in flushing and diarrhea in midgut NETs. The most common tachykinin is Substance P, which is a potent vasodilator (substances which open up blood vessels). Telangiectasias are collections of tiny blood vessels which can develop superficially on the faces of people who have had NETs for several years. They are most commonly found on the nose or upper lip and are purplish in color. They are thought to be due to chronic vasodilatation.
Histamine is a hormone that is chemically similar to the hormones serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. After being made, the hormone is stored in a number of cells (e.g., mast cells, basophils, enterochromaffin cells). Normally, there is a low level of histamine circulating in the body. However (and as we all know!), the release of histamine can be triggered by an event such as an insect bite. Histamine causes the inconvenient redness, swelling and itching associated with the bite. For those with severe allergies, the sudden and more generalized release of histamine can be fatal (e.g., anaphylactic shock). Mast cell histamine has an important role in the reaction of the immune system to the presence of a compound to which the body has developed an allergy. When released from mast cells in a reaction to a material to which the immune system is allergic, the hormone causes blood vessels to increase in diameter (e.g., vasodilation) and to become more permeable to the passage of fluid across the vessel wall. These effects are apparent as a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Other symptoms can include itching, burning and swelling in the skin, headaches, plugged sinuses, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Histamine can also be released into the lungs, where it causes the air passages to become constricted rather than dilated. This response occurs in an attempt to keep the offending allergenic particles from being inhaled. Unfortunately, this also makes breathing difficult. An example of such an effect of histamine occurs in asthma. Histamine has also been shown to function as a neurotransmitter (a chemical that facilitates the transmission of impulses from one neural cell to an adjacent neural cell).
In cases of an extreme allergic reaction, adrenaline is administered to eliminate histamine from the body. For minor allergic reactions, symptoms can sometimes be lessened by the use of antihistamines that block the binding of histamine to a receptor molecule. Histamine is thought to be involved with certain types and locations of NET, including Lung and foregut NETs where they can cause pulmonary obstruction, atypical flush and hormone syndromes.
Histamine, another amine produced by certain NETs (particularly foregut), may be associated with an atypical flushing and pruritus; increased histamine production may account for the increased frequency of duodenal ulcers observed in these tumours.
Kallikrein is a potent vasodilator and may account for the flushing and increased intestinal mobility.
Although prostaglandins are overproduced in midgut tumours, their role in the development of the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome is not well established but triggering peristalsis is mentioned in some texts.
Bradykinin acts as a blood vessel dilator. Dilation of blood vessels can lead to a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and a drop in blood pressure (hypotension). Dilation of blood vessels may also be partly responsible for the flushing associated with carcinoid syndrome.
Gastrin is a hormone that is produced by ‘G’ cells in the lining of the stomach and upper small intestine. During a meal, gastrin stimulates the stomach to release gastric acid. This allows the stomach to break down proteins swallowed as food and absorb certain vitamins. It also acts as a disinfectant and kills most of the bacteria that enter the stomach with food, minimising the risk of infection within the gut. Gastrin also stimulates growth of the stomach lining and increases the muscle contractions of the gut to aid digestion. Excess gastrin could indicate a NET known as a Gastric NET (stomach) or a pNET known as Gastrinoma (see pancreatic hormones below).
Calcitonin is a hormone that is produced in humans by the parafollicular cells (commonly known as C-cells) of the thyroid gland. Calcitonin is involved in helping to regulate levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood, opposing the action of parathyroid hormone. This means that it acts to reduce calcium levels in the blood. This hormone tends to involve Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Hyperparathyroidism in connection to those with Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia. Worth also pointing out the existence of Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP) which is a member of the calcitonin family of peptides and a potent vasodilator. Please note that hypothyroidism is often a side effect of NETs or treatment for NETs – please click here to read about the connection.
HPA AXIS – It’s important to note something called the HPA axis when discussing pituitary hormones as there is a natural and important connection and rhythm between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and the Adrenal glands. However, I’m only covering the pituitary and adrenal due to their strong connection with NETs.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It’s production is stimulated by receiving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the Hypothalamus. ATCH is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol (see below), levels of ATCH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ATCH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ATCH may be due to:
Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ATCH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ATCH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome). It is likely that a Cortisol test will also be ordered if Cushing’s is suspected.
A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ATCH is known as an ectopic ATCH. With NETs, this is normally a pNET, Lung/Bronchial/Pulmonary NET or Pheochromocytoma.
Adrenaline and Noradrenline
These are two separate but related hormones and neurotransmitters, known as the ‘Catecholamines’. They are produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands and in some neurons of the central nervous system. They are released into the bloodstream and serve as chemical mediators, and also convey the nerve impulses to various organs. Adrenaline has many different actions depending on the type of cells it is acting upon. However, the overall effect of adrenaline is to prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, i.e. for vigorous and/or sudden action. Key actions of adrenaline include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupil in the eye, redistributing blood to the muscles and altering the body’s metabolism, so as to maximise blood glucose levels (primarily for the brain). A closely related hormone, noradrenaline, is released mainly from the nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system (as well as in relatively small amounts from the adrenal medulla). There is a continuous low-level of activity of the sympathetic nervous system resulting in release of noradrenaline into the circulation, but adrenaline release is only increased at times of acute stress. These hormones are normally related to adrenal and extra adrenal NETs such as Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma. Like serotonin secreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured (amongst other tests) by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions). It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines. Worth noting that adrenaline is also known as Epinephrine (one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome).
This is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure. Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people who work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately. Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol oversecretion can be associated with Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma (ACC) which can sometimes be grouped within the NET family.
Other hormones related to ACC include:
Androgens (e.g. Testosterone) – increased facial and body hair, particularly females. Deepened voice in females.
Estrogen – early signs of puberty in children, enlarged breast tissue in males.
Aldosterone – weight gain, high blood pressure.
Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. For this reason, the disease is sometimes called chronic adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.
Parathyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted from four parathyroid glands, which are small glands in the neck, located behind the thyroid gland. Parathyroid hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, largely by increasing the levels when they are too low. A primary problem in the parathyroid glands, producing too much parathyroid hormone causes raised calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcaemia – primary hyperparathyroidism). You may also be offered an additional test called Parathyroid Hormone-Related Peptide (PTHrP). They would probably also measure Serum Calcium in combination with these type of tests. The parathyroid is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1
Pancreatic Hormones (Syndromes)
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors form in hormone-making cells of the pancreas. You may see these described as ‘Islet Cells’ or ‘Islets of Langerhans’ after the scientist who discovered them. Pancreatic NETs may also be functional or non-functional:
Functional tumors make extra amounts of hormones, such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon, that cause signs and symptoms.
Nonfunctional tumors do not make extra amounts of hormones. Signs and symptoms are caused by the tumor as it spreads and grows.
There are different kinds of functional pancreatic NETs. Pancreatic NETs make different kinds of hormones such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon. Functional pancreatic NETs include the following:
Gastrinoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone that causes the stomach to release an acid that helps digest food. Both gastrin and stomach acid are increased by gastrinomas. When increased stomach acid, stomach ulcers, and diarrhea are caused by a tumor that makes gastrin, it is called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. A gastrinoma usually forms in the head of the pancreas and sometimes forms in the small intestine. Most gastrinomas are malignant (cancer).
Insulinoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. It moves glucose into the cells, where it can be used by the body for energy. Insulinomas are usually slow-growing tumors that rarely spread. An insulinoma forms in the head, body, or tail of the pancreas. Insulinomas are usually benign (not cancer).
Glucagonoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that increases the amount of glucose in the blood. It causes the liver to break down glycogen. Too much glucagon causes hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). A glucagonoma usually forms in the tail of the pancreas. Most glucagonomas are malignant (cancer).
Pancreatic Polypeptide (PPoma). A pancreatic polypeptide is a polypeptide hormone secreted by the pancreatic polypeptide (PP) cells of the islets of Langerhans in the endocrine portion of the pancreas. Its release is triggered in humans by protein-rich meals, fasting, exercise, and acute hypoglycemia and is inhibited by somatostatin and intravenous glucose. The exact biological role of pancreatic polypeptide remains uncertain. Excess PP could indicate a pNET known as PPoma.
Other types of tumors: There are other rare types of functional pancreatic NETs that make hormones, including hormones that control the balance of sugar, salt, and water in the body. These tumors include:
VIPomas, which make vasoactive intestinal peptide. VIPoma may also be called Verner-Morrison syndrome, pancreatic cholera syndrome, or the WDHA syndrome (Watery Diarrhea, Hypokalemia (low potassium)and Achlorhydria).
Somatostatinomas, which make somatostatin. Somatostatin is a hormone produced by many tissues in the body, principally in the nervous and digestive systems. It regulates a wide variety of physiological functions and inhibits the secretion of other hormones, the activity of the gastrointestinal tract and the rapid reproduction of normal and tumour cells. Somatostatin may also act as a neurotransmitter in the nervous system.
Having certain syndromes can increase the risk of pancreatic NETs.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome is a risk factor for pancreatic NETs.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic NETs
Signs or symptoms can be caused by the growth of the tumor and/or by hormones the tumor makes or by other conditions. Some tumors may not cause signs or symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of these problems.
Signs and symptoms of a non-functional pancreatic NET
A non-functional pancreatic NET may grow for a long time without causing signs or symptoms. It may grow large or spread to other parts of the body before it causes signs or symptoms, such as:
A lump in the abdomen.
Pain in the abdomen or back.
Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.
Signs and symptoms of a functional pancreatic NET
The signs and symptoms of a functional pancreatic NET depend on the type of hormone being made.
Too much gastrin may cause:
Stomach ulcers that keep coming back.
Pain in the abdomen, which may spread to the back. The pain may come and go and it may go away after taking an antacid.
The flow of stomach contents back into the esophagus (gastroesophageal reflux).
Too much insulin may cause:
Low blood sugar. This can cause blurred vision, headache, and feeling lightheaded, tired, weak, shaky, nervous, irritable, sweaty, confused, or hungry.
Too much glucagon may cause:
Skin rash on the face, stomach, or legs.
High blood sugar. This can cause headaches, frequent urination, dry skin and mouth, or feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, or weak.
Blood clots. Blood clots in the lung can cause shortness of breath, cough, or pain in the chest. Blood clots in the arm or leg can cause pain, swelling, warmth, or redness of the arm or leg.
Weight loss for no known reason.
Sore tongue or sores at the corners of the mouth.
Too much vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) may cause:
Very large amounts of watery diarrhea.
Dehydration. This can cause feeling thirsty, making less urine, dry skin and mouth, headaches, dizziness, or feeling tired.
Low potassium level in the blood. This can cause muscle weakness, aching, or cramps, numbness and tingling, frequent urination, fast heartbeat, and feeling confused or thirsty.
Cramps or pain in the abdomen.
Weight loss for no known reason.
Too much somatostatin may cause:
High blood sugar. This can cause headaches, frequent urination, dry skin and mouth, or feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, or weak.
Steatorrhea (very foul-smelling stool that floats).
Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.
Weight loss for no known reason.
Too much pancreatic polypeptide may cause:
an enlarged liver.
Clearly the presenting symptoms will give doctors a clue to the oversecreting hormone (see list above). Excessive secretions or high levels of hormones and other substances can be measured in a number of ways. For example:
Well known tests for the most common types of NET include 5-Hydroxyindoleacetic Acid (5-HIAA) 24 hour urine test which is also measured by a blood draw. Note: -tumor markers can be measured simultaneously e.g. Chromogranin A (CgA) blood test and/or Pancreastatin as there can very often be a correlation between tumour mass and tumour secreting activity. CgA / Pancreastatin is a blood test which measures a protein found in many NET tumour cells. These marker tests are normally associated with tumour mass rather than tumour functionality.
By measuring the level of 5-HIAA in the urine or blood, healthcare providers can calculate the amount of serotonin in the body (5-HIAA is a by-product of serotonin). 5-HIAA test is the most common biochemical test for carcinoid syndrome or the degree of how ‘functional’ tumours are. If you’ve understood the text above, you can now see why there are dietary and drug restrictions in place prior to the test.
Pancreatic Hormone testing. There are other tests for other hormones and there is a common test which measured the main hormones seen in NETs. It may be called different things in different countries, but in UK, it’s known as a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile‘.
Scratching the surface here so for a comprehensive list of marker tests for NETs, have aread here.
Treatment for Over-secreting Hormones
Of course, reducing tumour bulk through surgery and other treatment modalities, should technically reduce over-secretion (I suspect that doesn’t work for all). Other treatments may have the dual effect of reducing tumour burden and the effects of hormone oversecretions.
One of the key treatment breakthroughs for many NET cancer patients, is the use of ‘Somatostatin Analogues’ mainly branded as Octreotide (Sandostatin) or Lanreotide (Somatuline). People tend to associate these drugs with serotonin related secretions and tumours but they are in actual fact useful for many others including the pancreatic NETs listed above. Patients will normally be prescribed these drugs if they are displaying these symptoms but some people may be more avid to the drug than others and this may influence future use and dosages. This is another complex area but I’ll try to describe the importance here in basic terms. Somatostatin is a naturally occurring protein in the human body. It is an inhibitor of various hormones secreted from the endocrine system (some of which were listed above) and it binds with high affinity to the five somatostatin receptors found on secretory endocrine cells. NETs have membranes covered with receptors for somatostatin. However, the naturally occurring Somatostatin has limited clinical use due to its short half-life (<3 min). Therefore, specific somatostatin analogues (synthetic versions) have been developed that bind to tumours and block hormone release. Thus why Octreotide and Lanreotide do a good job of slowing down hormone production, including many of the gut hormones controlling emptying of the stomach and bowel. It also slows down the release of hormones made by the pancreas, including insulin and digestive enzymes – so there can be side effects including fat malabsorption.
The recent introduction of Telotristat Ethyl(XERMELO) is interesting as that inhibits a precursor to serotonin and reduces diarrhea in those patients where it is not adequately controlled by somatostatin analogues.
Other than the effects of curative or cytoreductive surgery, some NETs may have very specialist drugs for inhibiting the less common hormone types. This is not an exhaustive list.
Worth also noting that oversecreting hormones can contribute to a phenomenon (currently) known as Carcinoid Crisis – read more here. For catacholamine secreting tumors (Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma), this may be known as Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis
Sorry about the long article – it’s complex and you should always consult your specialist about issues involving hormones, testing for hormones and treating any low or high scores.