From dying to living, to hell and back


I once wrote a post about patient stories, in particular the ones I receive in my private messages.  The headline was “The shock effect never wears off“.  But none have been more shocking than the one I received early in 2019.  (edit: After posting this article, I heard of a few similar cases).

This is a story about someone who is a private person but felt the need to reach out to me about their diagnostic experience. This person wanted to talk about it, but in private and I was happy to listen.  I was so moved by this story, I persuaded this person to let me tell it here whilst retaining their anonymity.  Hence referral going forward as ‘Patient E’. I just felt that someone somewhere might learn something very important.

The Story of ‘Patient E’

In December 2018, Patient E was told ‘Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer’ and had 10 months to live. Chemo was to be attempted in January in an effort to extend life but in the meantime was told to spend Christmas for the last time with the family, a spouse and 3 young children.   On 2nd January, Patient E was then told (with apologies) it was actually a ‘Neuroendocrine Tumour with a pancreatic primary’.  The only good thing about this story so far, is that they told the children nothing over Christmas. “Why worry happy little people” was the bit of the story which brought out my tears.

Initially I was quite angry this could happen to anyone but I was then calmed by Patient E who now had fresh hope and optimism, perhaps realising that there were possibilities for many more years with the family.

The Story of ‘Patient F’

In March of 2017 I was having bad indigestion and since I already had two cardiac stents went to a local hospital to make sure I wasn’t having cardiac issues. They found a mass on the pancreas and metastasis to the liver. I saw a surgeon a couple of days later and he told me it was inoperable, adding that I should pretty much get my affairs in order. A biopsy was then carried out confirming it was neuroendocrine and we were thrilled. I then received a call a couple of days later, saying they had it wrong, it was not neuroendocrine and they wanted to start chemo ASAP! I then received a further call a few days later, saying they were not sure and needed to do more tests. We then went a different hospital where two different surgeons said that it was inoperable. One oncologist said she did not know; and another thought it might be a combination of the two. At this point. they sent my slides to a NET specialist hospital for their opinion, coincidentally we had already scheduled an appointment there. When we walked into this appointment, the NET Specialist greeted us with a big smile and hug, saying that that both she and the surgeon had reviewed my slides; and that it was definitely neuroendocrine – they could operate. Two weeks later the surgeon removed the mass from my pancreas and my spleen. He said that it was probably there for years and looked like it was ready to burst. I was unbelievably lucky.

So why do these things happen?  Apart from the serious communications lapse by the hospitals, this is another example of the problems we as a community face with the anatomical approach many doctors take with cancer, with some even describing a pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumour as a type of Pancreatic Cancer (this happens with other parts of the anatomy too).

Patients E and F are not alone, I once wrote a story about rock star Wilko Johnson (of Dr Feelgood fame) who was given a very similar prognosis.  However, Wilko was in the later stages of his life and decided instead of undergoing gruelling chemotherapy, he would forego any treatment and tour with his band in the final 12 months of his life and …….. make an album with Roger Daltrey of The Who. It wasn’t until someone enquired why he wasn’t dead after 12 months, that they re-checked and changed the diagnosis to Neuroendocrine Tumour with a pancreatic primary.  Read the whole story here.

I wonder how many other times this has happened.

Neuroendocrine Tumours with a pancreatic primary (pNET) is a totally different cancer to Pancreatic Cancer.  With Pancreatic Cancer, most people die, quite the opposite with pNETs where most people live.  Read more about the main differences here.

I’m grateful to Patients E and F for contacting me to let me know that my blog and my other support sites have been helpful in the transition from despair to hope since finding out the correct diagnosis. I do hope Patients E and F will keep me updated.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Pancreatic Cancer vs Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas

pancreatic vs neuroendocrine

I campaign hard for Neuroendocrine Cancer awareness including continually pointing out that a Neuroendocrine Cancer with a pancreatic primary is NOT Pancreatic Cancer as is often quoted in the press.  The two main reasons I take up these campaigns are as follows:

1.  They are totally different cancers despite an anatomical relationship.  Although they share some similar presentation, they have different signs, different treatments and vastly different prognostic outcomes.  What that means is that anyone who is looking for useful information on either needs to be very careful on interpretation, they could end up with very bad advice and in some situations, become more concerned than they should be (particularly with the prognostics).  See more below. 

2.  These two different cancer types have different awareness organisations, patient support groups and patient leaders/advocates. In most cases, vastly different awareness messages. Both of these organisations and advocates need all the help they can get, they need all the resources and funding they can get. 

Both Pancreatic Cancer and Neuroendocrine Cancer are diseases that need maximum publicity, both types of cancer have their own unique situations, thus why the awareness messages can be so vastly different.  It’s really important, therefore, that publicity surrounding famous patients be attributed to the correct cancer type in order that the advocate organisations and supporters can gain maximum benefit to forward their causes.  Unfortunately, thanks to doctors and media, this very often doesn’t work out in favour of Neuroendocrine Cancer due to the Human Anatomy of Neuroendocrine Cancer (this problem actually goes beyond the pancreas).

Where the press and doctors regularly get it wrong

Two famous people in particular, one in 2011 and the other this year, are regularly reported in the press as having died of Pancreatic Cancer.

Steve Jobs.  One of the most famous technical innovators of his time and creator of the most valuable company in the world. He had a Neuroendocrine Cancer with a pancreatic primary.  Read his story here.

steve-jobs-55-to-2011

Aretha Franklin. One of the most famous soul singers of her time.  She had a Neuroendocrine Cancer with a pancreatic primary. Read her story here.

rip-Aretha-Franklin-1

To summarise, Neuroendocrine Cancer is not a “type” of another cancer.

What are the differences? 

For me, one of the two main differences are the cell type. When people talk about Pancreatic Cancer, they really mean something known as “Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma”.  It starts in the exocrine cells, which produce enzymes to support digestion.  Neuroendocrine Tumors start in the endocrine cells which produce hormones.

For me, the other big difference is prognostics.  Unfortunately, it is statistically proven that most people with Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma will die, whereas most people with Neuroendocrine Tumors with a pancreatic primary will live.

For a more detailed comparison, see this excellent article from NET Research Foundation.

iStock-536892277-768x891
diagram courtesy of NET Research Foundation

Pancreatic Cancer – Why I support their campaigns

Personally speaking, as a healthcare advocate online, I do support many cancer awareness campaigns, I think this is important to get similar help coming the other way (this frequently works for me).  However, I very much suspect, other than Neuroendocrine Cancer, my biggest support area online is for Pancreatic Cancer and other “less survivable” cancers.  I’m drawn by their excellent campaigns where they focus on key messages of prognostics for what is essentially a silent disease (in many ways the same issue with Neuroendocrine Cancer) and they make these more compelling by focusing on people rather than gimmicks. The prognostics can be upsetting reading as they are quite shocking figures which have not changed much in the past 40 years, a key sign that more must be done for this awful disease.   I frequently share this symptom graphic below because it might save a life and I ask that you do too.

pan can symptoms

Often though, the patients with a Neuroendocrine Cancer (pancreatic primary) are drawn to getting support from Pancreatic Cancer organisations. I suspect this is a combination of their own perceptions, their doctor’s language in describing their cancer type, and even something as simple as it was the first place they found help and support and they stick with that organisation.   You may also be interested in my article “I wish I had another cancer” – click here.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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

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