I recently wrote a blog entitled “Trust me, I’m a Doctor” which was a genuine attempt to say that we should try to work with our Doctors. However, I also covered the issues that Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) patients face in finding someone who understands their disease and how best to treat it; and that can on occasion lead to issues with doctor-patient relationships and communication. The blog then commented on a number of tips for better doctor-patient relationship and communication. These tips were provided by a Doctor via my friends in Cancer Knowledge Network.
In the blog above, there was an underlying theme indicating certain cancer patients might need to know more about their disease than would be considered normal and that can influence the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. I certainly believe this is the case with NETs and is indeed something evident on most forums. I’ve touched on this subject a few times including a much earlier blog entitled Passive patient or active advocate?As I said in this article, whilst I have a great medical team, I also like to be my own advocate and this means understanding what medical people tell me! I have no intention of becoming a passive patient anytime soon! I realise this is not for everyone but I know some patients have others functioning in this way on their behalf. That’s fine too!
I spotted another excellent discussion article on Cancer Knowledge Network and although the context is patient advocacy at committee level, I thought it applied nicely to many scenarios including the most simple one where a patient decides to learn about their disease in order to better represent themselves at meetings with their nurses, doctors and specialists.
The author, who is both a Doctor and a Patient, describes 5 myths about the usefulness of patients that can sometimes be present within medical circles . I actually believe the patient is the most underused person in healthcare and so I found myself nodding my head to much of what she had to say. Let me know if you were nodding too 🙂
When I was diagnosed, I wasn’t feeling ill. In hindsight, I now know some of the signs were there, I just put up with them. Neuroendocrine Cancer had laid a trap for me and I fell right into it. You see, Neuroendocrine Cancer can be very quiet and unobtrusive. It also plays the ‘long game’ and will sometimes take years before it’s finally discovered. It is very very very sneaky.
Not satisfied with loitering in your small intestine, appendix, lungs, stomach, pancreas and a host of other places, it wants to reach out to your liver, your lymph nodes, your bones, bung you up with fibrosis, and get into your heart where it can cause the most damage. It will also try to get into your head, metaphorically speaking – however, it will also try the physical route.
As it spreads, it can become noisier through growth but also by secreting excess amounts of hormonesand other substances. It knows that tumour growth and these excess hormones and substances will mimic routine illnesses such as IBS, diarrhea, stool changes including steatorrhoea, stomach cramps and bloating, asthma, facial flushing, menopause, weight loss, anaemia, fatigue, tachycardia (fast heart beat), pain, and nausea – a real witch’s brew of symptoms. These may manifest themselves as common endocrine conditions e.g. it can mess with your blood sugar and thyroid levels. These are a few examples, there can be many others. Neuroendocrine Cancer thinks this is great because it fools doctors into misdiagnosing you with something else which means it can continue to grow undetected and unfettered, spreading further inside you.
If nothing is done to stop its relentless growth, it will eventually kill.
However, sometimes an inquisitive doctor or nurse upsets its progress by thinking ‘outside the box’. Neuroendocrine Cancer hates when people are aware of its devious nature and hates when people know which tests can be used to find it and which treatments are best to attack it. Inquisitive, proactive and determined patients can also add to this effect and sometimes a bit of luck is involved.
It doesn’t give up easy and tries to work around your treatment. It knows your treatment will come with certain consequences and it will try to exploit this situation by keeping you guessing between cancer activity and these consequences. It really hates observant medical staff and patients, particularly those who understand Neuroendocrine Cancer.
Unfortunately for Neuroendocrine Cancer, there is now more knowledge about its devious activities and the latest statistics indicate it’s starting to be caught earlier. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to become complacent.
Neuroendocrine Cancer hates awareness and it will be extremely happy if you don’t share this post.
Over the last few months, I’ve seen quite a few posts entitled “Not all Cancer is pink”. I suspect it’s a reference to the ubiquitous publicity that many women’s cancer related advocates, bloggers and organisations attract.
Those who use this phrase are perhaps concerned there is an imbalance and inherent unfairness in the distribution of support and are frustrated that their own cancer does not fare as well publicly? I share that frustration, however, I take my hat off to the battalions of advocates, bloggers and organisations who work very hard for breast and the various gyneacological cancers whether they push pink or not (and for the record, they don’t all push or even agree with the ‘pink’ thing).
I’ve even seen this term used within my own community – ‘Not all cancer is pink, some are black and white’. This is clearly an attempt to tie in the well-known ‘pink’ to the not so well-known ‘black and white’. Notwithstanding the potential for upsetting hard-working women’s cancer organisations and the fact that those in the NET community who push the pink ‘insult’, do not have a corresponding ‘Not all cancer is blue’ article, I also think we might be missing a trick.
And here’s the trick which is my alternative view on where we should be focused – Not all Cancer is black and white and nothing in cancer is ever black and white. As I don’t want to indulge in‘Cancer Olympics’ (it can backfire), I’m clearly talking about the context of the phrase ‘black and white’ rather than the ribbon colours.
Let me explain my logic. There are two sides to most people’s experience or perception of cancer. Firstly, symptoms appear, a diagnosis is made, treatment is applied and if it works, the patient will hopefully go into remission after a period of time, normally 5 years. The other side is that sadly, some people may not survive the ordeal and that even applies to certain so-called ‘pink’ cancers (metastatic breast cancer for example). Clearly there are variations of my very simple binary explanation but these two outcomes are very common scenarios.
However, many cancers (including my own Neuroendocrine Cancer) are often silent, produce vague symptoms, are difficult to diagnose, treatment plans can be a challenge, most metastatic patients and many with other stages will never really be cured, and will need lifelong support (another challenge we need to focus on). They are extremely cunning and sneaky. Neuroendocrine Cancer has many ‘grey’ areas. Clearly there are also variations on this theme but with many scenarios and different outcomes.
Not all cancer is pink, that’s true. However, not all cancer is ‘black and white’ – some can be extremely ‘grey’. This is one of the reasons why I say “Every single day is NET Cancer Day“.
If we want more attention, let’s learn from other cancer awareness activities instead of attacking their colours. Lesson No 1 – they don’t use animals as icons because people won’t take them seriously.
Neuroendocrine Cancers can sometimes present with one or more vague symptoms which occasionally results in a lengthy diagnostic phase for some. Sure, there can be issues with doctor experience and knowledge that can add to the problem. However, some people do present with multiple vague and confusing symptoms and some people have comorbidities which have similar symptoms. Textbook diagnostics just don’t make sense, sometimes even when the doctor suspects Neuroendocrine Cancer i.e. classic symptoms of ‘something’ but with negative markers for NETs. Clearly those are extreme cases and just like other complex diseases, many diagnoses of Neuroendocrine Cancer can be extremely challenging. Even for an experienced doctor, it can be a difficult jigsaw!
Most types of Neuroendocrine Cancer can be accompanied by a ‘syndrome’ i.e. the tumours are ‘functional’ and this is normally (but not always) associated with metastatic disease. At this point it’s also worthwhile saying that some Neuroendocrine Cancers can be ‘silent’ (non-functional) for years before any symptoms show and it’s normally only when they metastasize, that these clinical syndromes come to life. Ironically, the manifestation of the disease with a syndrome can occasionally turn out to be a life saver albeit the cancer is normally incurable at this stage – but still treatable.
The most common type of Neuroendocrine Cancer can often present as a collection of symptoms known as Carcinoid Syndrome and the most common of these is flushing with approximately 84% frequency. Others symptoms include (but are not limited to) diarrhoea, heart palpitations, stomach cramps and general abdominal pain/discomfort, shortness of breath, wheezing. You can see the scope for confusion and misdiagnosis. You may find my blog on the ‘5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome’ useful.
When you look at these general Carcinoid Syndrome symptoms, flushing seems to be the one that stands out as a ‘cardinal sign’ whereas many others are vague and easily confused with common/regular illnesses. However, the flushing is reported to be different from most people’s perceptions of a ‘flush’. The Carcinoid flush is almost always ‘dry’. To quote my ‘amazing yellow book‘ (co-authored by Woltering, Vinik, O’Dorisio et al), “…. a good rule of thumb is if the flushing is wet (accompanied by sweating), it is due to a cause other than Carcinoid”. Dr James Yao, another well known NETs guru also raises this distinction by stating…. “The facial flushing of carcinoid syndrome is usually a dry flushing, and not associated with sweating like other kinds of flushing. The flushing is often a symptom that others notice before patients do. They may not feel it themselves.”
Additionally, from the same source, there appears to be at least two varieties of flushing in Carcinoid Syndrome related to two different anatomical regions of the primary tumour (again a useful guide from my amazing yellow book):
What to Look For in Flushing – Distinguishing Signs and Symptoms
There are two varieties of flushing in carcinoid syndrome:
1. Midgut: The flush usually is faint pink to red in color and involves the face and upper trunk as far as the nipple line. The flush is initially provoked by alcohol and food containing tyramine (e.g., blue cheese, chocolate, aged or cured sausage, red wine). With time, the flush may occur spontaneously and without provocation. It usually lasts only a few minutes and may occur many times per day. It generally does not leave permanent discoloration.
2. Foregut tumors: The flush often is more intense, of longer duration, and purplish in hue. It is frequently followed by telangiectasia and involves not only the upper trunk but may also affect the limbs. The limbs may become acrocyanotic, and the appearance of the nose resembles that of rhinophyma. The skin of the face often thickens, and assumes leonine facies resembling that seen in leprosy and acromegaly.
Another source for flush descriptions comes from a paid article written by well known NET Endocrinologist – Kjell Öberg.
Four different types of flushing have been described in the literature.
Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric – 7th Edition 2016.
The first type is the diffuse, erythematous flush, usually affecting the face, neck, and upper chest (i.e., normal flushing area). This flush is commonly of short duration, lasting from 1 to 5 minutes, and is related to early stages of malignant midgut NETs.
The second type is violaceous flush, which affects the same areas of the body and has roughly the same time course or sometimes lasts a little longer. These patients also may have facial telangiectasia. This flush is related to the later stages of malignant midgut NETs and is normally not felt by the patients because they have become accustomed to the flushing reaction.
The third type is prolonged flushing, lasting for hours up to several days. It sometimes involves the whole body and is associated with profuse lacrimation, swelling of the salivary glands, hypotension, and facial edema. These symptoms are usually associated with malignant bronchial carcinoids.
Finally, the fourth type of flushing reaction is bright red, patchy flushing, which is seen in patients with chronic atrophic gastritis and ECLomas (derived from enterochromaffin-like cells) of the gastric mucosa with evidence of increased histamine production.
Differential diagnoses for flushing?
The facial flushing associated with NETs should be distinguished from other causes of flushes. The carcinoid syndrome flush is provoked by spicy food, alcohol, and physical and psychological stress, and it is often worse in the morning. Patients with idiopathic flushes usually have a long history of flushing, starting rather early in life and sometimes with a family history without occurrence of a tumor. Menopausal flushes usually involve the whole body and might be related to release of calcitonin gene–related peptide (CGRP) with transient vasodilation, a so-called dry flush. Another type of menopausal symptom is the wet flush, which includes epinephrine-induced sweating. Proposed mediators of flushing in menopause are CGRP, histamine, prostaglandins, serotonin, lysyl-bradykinin, and substance P. Estrogen is known to have an impact on the production and release of different signaling substances such as noradrenaline and β-endorphin. Low estrogen levels cause lower β-endorphin activity, which in turn enhances the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which gives rise to high luteinizing hormone (LH)levels. Postmenopausal women in whom a true carcinoid syndrome is developing can tell the difference between the two types of flushes. Sometimes patients with medullary thyroid carcinoma have brief flushes provoked by alcohol. In patients with watery diarrhea, hypokalemia, achlorhydria syndrome (WDHA; vasoactive intestinal peptide [VIP]omas), a purple-red constant flushing of the whole body may develop. This flushing reaction is related to the vasodilator effects of VIP. Flushes seen in mastocytosis are related to release of histamine from mast cell granules. Mastocytosis is a rare disease of mast cell proliferation that occurs both cutaneously and systemically.
So it’s clear from our experts that the flushing symptom has many potential triggers and can be attributed to the secretion of excess hormones associated with Neuroendocrine Tumours. It’s also clear that the symptom is not just associated with carcinoid syndrome. Although many people focus on serotonin as the main culprit, there appears to be significant evidence to suggest that other hormones may be playing a bigger part with this symptom, e.g. histamine (particularly foregut), tachykinins (Substance P), bradykinins, and prostaglandins.
If you study the online forums, there are frequent questions about flushing, particularly from those looking for a diagnosis and are suspecting Carcinoid Syndrome due to a flushing symptom. However…… even flushing cannot always be attributed to a NET, particularly if it’s the only symptom being presented.
This is a very useful table taken from my amazing yellow book which gives the tests required to determine the potential source of a flushing (differential diagnosis). I strongly suspect this is not an exact science (…..is anything in medicine?) but it’s extremely useful. Personally I would have included Rosacea :-). The referenced article “>Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric – 7th Edition 2016 by Öberg, Grosssman et al, generally agrees with this list but adds WHDA Syndrome (a pNET called VIPoma), food, drugs, ethanol and idiopathic. It also generalises Neurologic disorders (see more below).
Öberg, Grosssman, et al list the following drugs that can cause flushes:
Calcium channel blockers
Öberg, Grosssman, et al list the following foods that can cause flushes:
Öberg, Grosssman, et al also list the following neurologic disorders that can cause flushes:
Spinal cord lesions
Clearly these lists are those that can cause a flush but not everyone will experience this. For example, when I was syndromic with flushing, I never had any issues with hot beverages.
My own experience with flushing brings back some memories and it emphasises something I say a lot – the patient has a big part to play in their own diagnosis. Please check out this 90 second video about how I did not play my part! I was experiencing a mild and innocuous flushing sensation for some months before I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer. Even though I knew it was weird and something I hadn’t experienced before, I totally ignored it. I failed to mention it at any of my routine GP appointments or my annual asthma clinic. I failed to mention it to my specialist who was investigating a GP/PCP diagnosis of Iron Deficiency Anemia/weight loss. After a CT scan, the specialist appeared to be scratching his head ….. at that point he knew I had cancer but he also knew it was unusual. I suddenly mentioned the flushing and ‘bingo’. It was the face of a man who had just found a missing piece of a jigsaw and he correctly predicted the output from my subsequent liver biopsy.
For the next few months, I was keeping my condition private at work but it was sometimes difficult to disguise the flushing. At least one person thought my blood pressure was going up! Fortunately, my flushing disappeared after treatment.
I’ll complete this post with an interesting summary from an online forum post in which I was participating. There was a general discussion about the severity of ‘syndrome symptoms’ including triggers and I was staggered to read that people were experiencing flushing whilst carrying out routine day-to-day tasks. I’m so happy I don’t flush when I eat one square of chocolate (that would be a complete disaster!). The one which caught my attention was the simple act of washing hair. Whilst I initially raised my eyebrows and laughed, it did make me think back to the last flush I experienced (and touch wood it was the last …..). Following my diagnosis, I commenced daily injections of Octreotide. These injections reduced the flushing but it didn’t eliminate it. However, after my ‘debulking’ surgery in Nov 2010, my flushing disappeared. However, I do remember this small flush coming out of nowhere whilst I was recovering in hospital after that surgery. I was cleaning my teeth and I do vividly remember this minor task taking some effort!
I haven’t had a flush since and if this symptom comes back, I’ll know I have a new problem to contend with.
The build up to NET Cancer Day has begun and I can hear hoofbeats becoming louder every day. Is it a horse, is it a zebra etc etc. However, is this aged equine medical adage still applicable as an awareness tool for Neuroendocrine Cancer or should we be looking for something which is more impactful, up to date, more compelling, more likely be taken seriously and attract new audiences?
For those unaware, the term ‘Zebra’ is a North American medical slang for arriving at an ‘exotic’ medical diagnosis when a more commonplace explanation is more likely. The original context of the term was to correctly indicate that the most obvious diagnosis of symptoms is normally correct – i.e. hoofbeats is almost always the sound of a horse.
“When you hear hoofbeats, think zebra” is clearly not practical and pretty dangerous to those who have the obvious diagnoses (i.e. the vast majority). It’s also likely to turn out to be a very expensive way to do business as common things are common (in fact Neuroendocrine Cancer is now much more common that it was 20 years ago…..).
I’m not suggesting those who are destined to be diagnosed with an ‘exotic’ diseases should be ignored for the ‘greater good’, I’m saying that hoofbeats are in actual fact normally the sound of horses in both equine and medical terms – thus why the saying was invented in the first place. By the way, Neuroendocrine Cancer has the fastest rising incidence of all cancers on the planet so it’s far from exotic. What I’m also saying is that perhaps we should stop ‘beating up’ and potentially insulting medical staff using a maladjusted version of the hoofbeat analogy in our PR. I’m afraid the use of cartoon zebras looking sanctimoniously down on cartoon doctors is perhaps not the way to win friends and influence the people we need to work with in helping diagnose quicker.
Moreover, we really need to stop dehumanising patients. I think most NET advocate organisations tend to agree with this view as they mostly do not have zebra icons in their own branding i.e. they get it, even though they might not admit it for fear of upsetting the zebra HQ. By the way, if you hear the sound of hoofbeats in Kenya, it’s likely to be a zebra, so should the Kenyan NET organisation ask their doctors to look for horses? Slightly flippant but necessary to make the point that our disease is international and yet certain organisations appear to be aloof by using it as an international slogan when it is just not relevant internationally.
The use of this skewed version of the phrase might be a great ‘rallying cry’ within the NET Cancer community and for some a ‘populist’ Facebook ‘like farming’ scheme but sharing quite ridiculous pictures of animals that will only be shared by patients is NOT real awareness. In fact, and in my opinion, the ancient, outdated and misleading zebra term is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways.
1. Context. Contextually, the zebra represents a term for a diagnosis (i.e. a disease) but the patients are not their diagnosis, they are not their disease – they are humans.
So when someone says “I am a zebra”, they are in effect saying “I am a disease”. If they say “Dear Zebras”, they are saying “Dear Diseases”. Or the cringeworthy “My fellow diseases”
2. Scope. The term is heavily associated with diagnostics i.e. it has a very narrow scope. It does not sit nicely with the increasingly important long-term maintenance of patients – crucial when you consider this is mostly a slow-growing and therefore highly prevalent disease.
3. Confusion. The term ‘Zebra’ is not exclusively used by the Neuroendocrine Cancer community, it can be, and is used by, other conditions which quite often leads to confusion.
4. Relevance. The term is inextricably linked to rare diseases and as we all now know, NETs are no longer rare. Anyone who says that the group of diseases called Neuroendocrine Tumors (or Neuroendocrine Neoplasms to use the correct scientific term) is rare, is clearly out of touch with the latest incidence and prevalence data (….or chooses to ignore for their own agenda).
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe we need a paradigm shift in the way we (the Neuroendocrine Cancer community) spread external awareness of this less common type of cancer. I think everyone agrees we need a lot more public awareness of Neuroendocrine Cancer and also that we need some high-profile ‘ambassadors’ (preferably themselves patients) in order to help promote our cause. Yes, money is useful too but in a ‘chicken and egg’ sense, we need a compelling case to attract the funds. We need new audiences outside the ‘bubble’ I think we appear to be trapped inside. The zebra posse sharing zebra pictures between each other is not efficient awareness.
Here’s my beef. If you speak to any primary or secondary care doctor, you’ll find they are very well aware of the conundrum when faced with a patient who presents with vague and odd symptoms and negative tests. Almost all will say they don’t need reminding that it might be an oddity, and that it is difficult to diagnose. They will definitely accept that some conditions are more difficult to diagnose than others and if you think about the fact that there are over 200 different types of cancer and literally thousands of conditions out there, you can see they have a really difficult job.
Let’s be realistic, very few people are going to be diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer at their very first visit to a doctor. The same could be said for many cancers and many other illnesses. Many conditions are difficult to diagnose and many are misdiagnosed for other things – yes this happens with NETs too. NETs are not as special in these areas as some people make out. Whilst we’re on that subject, please don’t quote patient surveys to me, they are also fundamentally flawed both in terms of numbers of participants and the source of the participants. It amazes me that the NET community uses this flawed (and outdated) information annually.
I also know that many people (including medical staff and patients) are both confused and incredulous at the NET communities failure to ditch this out of date and single issue awareness message. Some avoid the use of these animal gimmicks and then lapse their real beliefs on 10 Nov just to appear to fit in. However, that’s rather transparent and so people see right through it, like me they want these progressive organisations to stick to their principles.
To quote one famous NET Specialist “….zebras …. we’re beyond that now”
We need our awareness to cover the whole spectrum of being diagnosed and then living with Neuroendocrine Cancer. We share so many issues with many cancer patients in the challenges of living with a long-term condition. This is not special, not unique, and it certainly isn’t a rare occurrence. Key facts continually missed and continually ignored by the ‘zebra posse’ (perhaps intentionally), is that this disease of ours is no longer rare and diagnosis is improving, both of which are now well documented. The ‘zebra posse’ will ensure that quite ridiculous pictures of zebras, zebra patterned clothing and jewelry all take precedence over genuine patient concerns on Facebook forums, i.e. it is hindering proper support for NET patients – NET patients are suffering because of this infatuation.
As one well known NET patient said, “unfortunately the community has become too cute with the icon”.
He’s right, it is really holding us back. It’s a PR disaster.
I’m sure that earlier access to diagnostic testing (scanning in particular) will lead to earlier diagnosis, in fact access to better scans is cited in the lasts SEER NET report as a factor resulting in increased incidence rates. That’s a resource/process issue rather than just a training/knowledge one. We need to work with doctors, not shoot them down for not knowing every minute fact about medicine. NET Cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed at secondary care and we should be equally or even more focused at that level.
If your Doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything is a more practical and realistic phrase than the impossible and impractical one in current use by our community. Additionally, to suggest that NET Cancer always presents with years of vague symptoms and requires several visits to a physician before a proper diagnosis is simply not true and is a myth. To suggest that an international patient survey of 5000 accurately represents the experience of hundreds of thousands of NET patients out there is way off beam, particularly when the source of the survey patient cohort is taken from those affected most, those with the biggest issues. Big Facebook forums do not represent the average experience of a NET patient.
Finally, I think the patient has a big part to play in diagnosis. Thanks to the internet and the stellar rise of social media, many patients are now much more savvy and are presenting to doctors and specialists with lists of their symptoms and a diary. Some will even have already compiled a list of questions to ask and have their own suggestions about what might be wrong with them. I see undiagnosed patients every day on my social media very clued up, thanks the rise of the online world, and I guarantee you they are (indirectly) educating their first line medical staff when they reel off NET facts. Add in better diagnostic testing and greater access to it (including via primary care), then I think there are positive times ahead for the earlier diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer. You might say it’s a bit of a dark horse.
To summarise ….. The first word of this post is “Opinion” but it is a pretty strong opinion as you would have gathered from the flow of the text. Everyone does indeed have a story and you only tend to hear the bad stories on NET patient forums. Additionally, newspapers love a bad story – they never print “cancer patient quickly diagnosed and treated for cancer – the end”. It’s a bit like in NET world, where the worst cases will be the majority constituents of any forum, because they are looking for help and support. The biggest US forum has around 4000 people but there are over 200,000 people living with NETs in USA (i.e. not rare). There’s a similar quota in UK. I really believe the bad experiences you regularly see on NET forums are the extreme cases (the minority). Unfortunately, most NET patient surveys are taken from these patients so the statistics are totally skewed, presenting a false picture of reality. That’s not to say we ignore this section of the community but we owe them a much better campaigning tool than the now outdated, unfashionable and very inward looking animal analogy.
Let’s move into the 21st century and get on with that.
Thanks for reading
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Although initially considered rare tumours up until 10 years ago, the most recent data indicates the incidence of NETs has increased exponentially over the last 4 decades and they are as common as Myeloma, Testicular Cancer, and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In terms of prevalence, NETs represent the second most common gastrointestinal malignancy after colorectal cancer. Consequently, many experts are now claiming NETs are not rare (see below). A recent study published on 5 Dec 2018 reports that even if you isolate Small Intestine NETs in the USA population, the incident rate is 9/100,000. Contrast this against the US incident rate as at 2012 of 7/100,000 for all NETs. The rare threshold in Europe is 5/100,000 and below.
And on 7th January 2019, an internationally known NET Specialist described NETs as very common.
In fact, the graph of the SEER database figures for NETs in both 2004 and 2012 indicates the rate of incidence increase is faster than any other cancer on the planet, particularly attributed to lung, small intestine, and rectal NETs. The World Health Organisation’s revised classification of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms in 2010, abandoned the division between benign and malignant NET as all NETs have malignant potential and should be graded accordingly. The 2004 SEER data compiled did not take into account what might have been considered to be benign NETs.
However, the most recent USA study up to 2012 has confirmed the incidence beyond 2004 has continued to rise (and rise, and rise, and rise) and this is covered below in the section entitled “Meanwhile inUSA”. One of the principal authors of both database studies has now gone public and said NETs are no longer rare.
Incidence and Prevalence
Before I continue, it’s important to understand the difference between incidence and prevalence. In the crudest of terms, incidence is the number of new cases of a disease being diagnosed (normally aligned to a specific quota of the population per year, generally 100,000). Prevalence normally indicates an amount of people living at any one time with a disease. It’s also important to note that different nations or groups of nations classify ‘rare’ in different ways – not really helpful when looking at worldwide statistics.
So why the increase? I suspect the reasons include (but are not limited to), more awareness (population and medical staff), better detection techniques and probably more accurate reporting systems, at least in USA, Norway, Canada and now in the UK i.e. a mixture of underdiagnoses and misreporting. The Canadian study is important as it also noted the proportion of metastases at presentation decreased from 29% to 13%. This is the first study that suggests an increased incidence of NETs may be due to an increased (and earlier?) detection. This has the knock on effect of increasing prevalence as most NET Cancer patients will normally live for longer periods. Add to this the plethora of better treatments available today, you have a highly prevalent cancer. Most of that is good news.
However, their true incidence may be higher owing to the lack of diagnosis until after death. For example, in USA, a respected NET specialist stated that the autopsy find for (excuse the outdated terminology) ‘carcinoid‘ is 4 times the recorded diagnosis rate. In Australia, one study claimed that 0.05% of all autopsies found a Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma. A very interesting slideshow from a well respected NET expert claimed there are 200,000 undiagnosed NET patients in USA. Slide below: You may also wish to check out my article “The Invisible NET Patient Population” where this is explored further.
US SEER 2004 – The Trigger and Turning Point
In the largest study of its kind up to that point, well-known Neuroendocrine Cancer expert James C. Yao researched the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database. His team studied 35,825 cases of Neuroendocrine Cancers in the United States covering data between 1973 and 2004. The report concluded that in 2004 there were 5.25 new cases of NETs per 100,000 people, compared with 1.09 per 100,000 in 1973 . This is in contrast to the overall incidence of malignancies, which has remained relatively constant since 1992 (see the yellow line on the graph).The study also pointed out that due to increased survival durations over time, NETs are more prevalent than previously reported. If you analyse the NET data for 1994 (10 years before the end of the study period), you will see an incidence rate of approx 3.25/100,000. In 2004, the incidence rate had risen to 5.25/100,000. Although not an exact science, it does suggest the potential incidence rate at 2014 (10 years after the study period) might possibly have climbed well beyond 6/100,000 and even further if the same rate of increase displayed by the study had continued. This study also confirmed a prevalence of 103,000 NET patients as at 2004. As this is regarded as the most accurate NET statistic ever produced, it is interesting to note that was at a time when the prognostics for NET were not as good as they are today indicating there must be a very significant increase by 2017. Moreover, this was prior to the WHO 2010 reclassification of NETs so more diagnoses will be counted today that were not counted in 2004. See below to see the significance of this figure (see section ‘Do the math’).
The 2004 data was an astonishing set of statistics – particularly as they were based on 12 year old data. However, there is now new data up to 2012 that overtakes the above-mentioned groundbreaking study and confirmed the incidence is now even higher. See section entitled “Meanwhile inUSA …….”
Meanwhile in Norway ……
Data from the Norwegian Registry of Cancer showed a similar incidence of Neuroendocrine Cancers with a 72% increase between 2000 and 2004 compared with 1993–1997. Also in Norway, an article published in 2015 entitled “Epidemiology and classification of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms using current coding criteria” indicated a high crude incidence of GEP-NEN, at 5·83 per 100 000 inhabitants over the period 2003-2013 (adjusting to 7.64 for Europe in 2013 – see diagram below extracted from cited article 2a). It was also noted together with the statement “….a significant increasing trend over time”. [2a] Citation [2b]
Meanwhile in Canada …….
CNETs have highlighted an article published in the magazine ‘Cancer’, February 15, 2015, showing that the incidence of Neuroendocrine Tumours has markedly increased in Canada over the course of 15 years (1994-2009). The results showed that the incidence of Neuroendocrine Tumours has increased from 2.48 to 5.86 per 100,000 per year. 
Meanwhile in UK …….
The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) indicate the incidence of NETs has risen to almost 9/100,000 (i.e. not rare) using the latest International Classification of Diseases for Oncology (ICD-O) methodology version 3 – ICD-O-3. Even that figure is understated because it does not include Lung Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (i.e. NSCLC and LCNEC). As at 31 Mar 2016, the age-standardised incidence rate for NETs in England (excluding small and large cell neuroendocrine carcinomas, SCLC and LCNEC respectively) was 8.84, 8.37 in males and 9.30 in females – rising from 3.9 in 2001. These figures are from the NET Patient Foundation and were issued as a result of a NPF and PHE (NCRAS) partnership project which has been compiling statistics on the incidence, prevalence and survival of NET Patients in England using English cancer registry data. They also have an aim to also access the rest of UK cancer registry data to get UK wide figures.
A slide from the recent UKINETS 2017 conference indicating an agreement from UK and Ireland NET Specialists.
Meanwhile in New Zealand …….
Meanwhile in USA …….
The latest evidence of its rise is contained in the largest ever study ever conducted. It is based on data up to 2012 so it’s worth noting that this data is now 5 years old (3 years for the project prevalence figure), so even these figures may still be conservative. The document, which was published in 2017 can be found here: Click here. A short summary follows:
In this population-based study that included 64 971 patients with neuroendocrine tumors, age-adjusted incidence rates increased 6.4-fold between 1973 and 2012, mostly for early stage tumors. Survival for all neuroendocrine tumors has improved, especially for distant stage gastrointestinal and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.
Of the 64 971 cases of NETs, 34 233 (52.7%) were women. The age-adjusted incidence rate increased 6.4-fold from 1973 (1.09 per 100 000) to 2012 (6.98 per 100 000). This increase occurred across all sites, stages, and grades. In the SEER 18 registry grouping (2000-2012), the highest incidence rates were 1.49 per 100 000 in the lung, 3.56 per 100 000 in gastroenteropancreatic sites, and 0.84 per 100 000 in NETs with an unknown primary site. The estimated 20-year limited-duration prevalence of NETs in the United States on January 1, 2014, was 171 321
Conclusion: The incidence and prevalence of NETs have continued to rise in the United States, owing to the increased diagnosis of early-stage disease and possibly stage migration. The survival of patients with NETs has improved, and this improvement has been greater for those with distant gastrointestinal NETs and, in particular, distant pancreatic NETs.
Combine that with a revised annual incidence rate of 23,000 and the very well known fact that NETs is a highly prevalent disease, it must be mathematically impossible for the figure not to be above the USA rare threshold of 200,000 in 2017. As you can see from the graph below, the incidence rate for NETs continues to outstrip the incidence rate for all malignant neoplasms (another word for tumour). Amazingly, the report authors even state “…….. it is likely that we have underestimated their true incidence and prevalence”.
The NET Research Foundation published an amazing infographic which summarises the output of the SEER 2012 study (although it does omit the prevalence figure ‘as at’ date). See it below and you can read the accompanying text here.
Let’s do the Math
Neuroendocrine Cancer is not only the fastest growing cancer in incidence terms but as a group of cancers, given the mounting epidemiological evidence, it can no longer be rare as a grouping of cancers. Neuroendocrine disease IS NOT RARE.
For example, if you roughly extrapolate the US SEER data graph above to 2017 and recalculate the prevalence rate based on 23 000 per year from the 2014 figure of 171 321. Unfortunately, some people will have passed, but it’s well documented as a highly prevalent cancer and therefore more people live. The prevalence of neuroendocrine tumors in USA was higher than the combined estimated prevalence of esophageal cancer (n = 36,857), gastric adenocarcinoma (n = 79,843) and pancreatic adenocarcinoma (n = 49,620) in 2013. In fact, one of the conclusions of the 2012 SEER report is that we are living longer with NETs. This is in line with many other cancers due to improved diagnostic and treatment regimes. Cleary more work still needs doing.
The heading of this section is my name for those who have not yet been diagnosed with NETs but are walking around having been either misdiagnosed, diagnosed with another cancer in the same part of the anatomy, living and putting up with the symptoms whilst the tumours grow. To add to this part of the underdiagnoses of NETs is this most amazing piece of research published in 2018 – Pan-cancer molecular classes transcending tumor lineage across 32 cancer types, multiple data platforms, and over 10,000 cases. It was published in the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) journal ‘Clinical Cancer Research and authored by Chad Creighton et al. DOI: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-17-3378. This was a pan cancer piece of research which indicated that Neuroendocrine disease may be more prevalent than anyone had ever thought. There’s a summary article here which I suggest you read fully. The rather explosive extract is as follows:
Whilst reporting has been improved, it is most likely still not 100% accurate. Therefore, even the figures above may be understated due to an incorrect cause of death reporting and incorrect diagnosis/recording of the wrong cancers (e.g. pNETs recorded as Pancreatic Cancer, Lung NETs recorded as Lung Cancer, etc). This is certainly still happening in UK and I suspect in most other countries. Add to that the regular reports of Neuroendocrine Tumours being found during autopsies and you have the potential for an even further unrecorded increase had these been found prior to death. In fact, according to SEER 2012, the true incidence and prevalence is most likely underestimated. In fact here is a statement straight from the horse’s mouth:
The issue is also complicated by the method used in USA for naming a disease ‘rare’. Rather than use incidence rates, the USA uses the number of people living with the disease at any one time (i.e. essentially the prevalence). This is currently 200,000 as a threshold – anything below that is considered rare. It seems mathematically impossible for NETs to be less than 200,000 given the data provided above.
When I first started researching NETs back in 2010, the US figure (which varies from source to source) was around 125-150,000. Why are people quoting figures less than this in 2017 when the 2014 figure has now been confirmed above? There also seems to be a selective omission of the new US incidence rate of 7/100,000.
You will also see that Dana Farber is estimating more than 200,000 people are as yet undiagnosed. Even if that were 50% accurate, it would put the current prevalence figure in US over 300,000.
Let’s cut to the chase – NETs are not rare, they are just less common
Are we shouting loud enough about this? I don’t think so. ‘Rare’ is very frequently used within the NET community almost to the point of being a status symbol. Based on these figures, this looks like an outdated approach along with its associated icons. The evidence above is so compelling that saying the group of cancers officially called Neuroendocrine Neoplasms is rare is starting to sound like fake news.
“A neoplasm on the rise. More prevalent than you may think. Incidence increased dramatically during past 3 decades” (Novartis)
“it’s less rare than we used to think. It’s more malignant than we previously thought” (Dr Richard Warner)
“…..it is one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the U.S. There has been a 500-percent increase in the last 30 years” (Dr Edward Wolin)
“Estimated more than 200,000 undiagnosed cases in the US” (Dana Farber)
“I actually think NETs are not a rare cancer” (Dr James Yao)
“NETS will no longer be rare” (UKINETS 2017 one of the opening slides)
“NETs are no longer rare” (Dr Andrew Hendifar)
“…..when you think of prevalence, NETs are actually quite common” (Dr Jonathan Strosberg)
“One study showed that the number of people diagnosed has risen 50% over the last decade and unfortunately, I worry that is an underestimate” (Dr Eric Liu)
“Neuroendocrine Cancer – NETs are not rare, just less common. We need a new paradigm” (Ronny Allan since 2015)
In 2014, Chris and I walked 84 miles along Hadrian’s Wall on the English/Scottish border. It was a fantastic experience and we met some really interesting people on our 6 day journey. On the 4th night, I encountered a lady who was pretty rude. I wanted to say something but I was with Chris and other people were also present, so I kept quiet. I later discovered this lady was autistic and I was therefore relieved I hadn’t responded to her initial rudeness. However, It got me thinking about the number of times I had perhaps been too hasty to judge people in the past without thinking about what’s going on inside their heads and bodies.
Visible Illness can have awareness benefits
Conversely in 2018, I was absolutely humbled when I met a Parkinson’s disease patient. I had ‘noticed’ Matt prior to meeting him, mainly because he had difficulty walking. When he was talking to me I had to really concentrate because his head, arms and legs were constantly going into spasm. His speech was also affected. Despite his very clear VISIBLE illness, I can say he is a fantastic advocate for Parkinson’s. He told us that he has no issues with people staring or looking at him as he makes his way around and that is his key marketing point – himself. He uses the fact that people notice/look/stare as opportunities to get talking to them and he is a living breathing advert for Parkinson’s. I had no idea Parkinson’s had these effects, I thought it was just the shaking hand thing that you often see on TV programmes.
So things are sometimes not what they seem with VISIBLE illnesses just as they are with INVISIBLE.
NETs can be invisible before and after diagnosis
I know from reading and participating in Neuroendocrine Cancer (NET Cancer) forums that many patients with my own condition frequently encounter people who clearly do not understand much about the effects of NET Cancer on someone’s body (and mind) and day-to-day living which for many can be described as a struggle. I read one story about a lady who was accused by a co-worker of faking her cancer because she looked so well! How many of my NET Cancer patient readers have been told they look really well? This is something frequently said to me and I now respond with the customary “Yes, but you should see my insides“.
Not many NET Cancer patients are subjected to the rigours of chemotherapy and I for one am thankful for that. However, many NET cancer patients have had some ‘bad ass’ surgeries and will be treated for the remainder of their life with (at least) large anti tumour and hormone inhibiting injections and perhaps other side effect inducing drugs. There is no 5 year or indeed any remission for many NET Cancer patients. What is incurable has to be endured! Moreover, they will be tested at regular intervals to ensure remnant tumours are ‘at bay’ and that no new ones have appeared. So the potential for a new or re-diagnosis is there at every single meeting with their specialist. All of that comes with a price in terms of quality of life.
I’m not trying to compete with other cancers or chronic illnesses, I’m just saying that a NET Cancer patient who looks well, may not be well inside – body and mind! Nor am I asking for pity – I am, however, asking for understanding.
When I read about some of the issues others deal with, I suspect I’m one of the luckier patients. I’m in reasonable condition and put up with a number of minor irritants which I suspect are due to the consequences of my cancer treatment rather than from Carcinoid Syndrome. However, one thing that does scare me from time to time is stomach cramps. Hopefully I’m not tempting fate as they seem to be reduced this year. However, when I suffer these, it does worry me, not just because they can sometimes be very painful and debilitating, but I know that I must go to the toilet ASAP. Handy if I’m in the house, not so handy if I’m on a plane, down town or anywhere where toilets are not in abundance.
I try not to let this problem stop me leading as normal a lifestyle as possible and as I said previously, it doesn’t really happen that frequently. Long flights are one of the few times I take Loperamide (Imodium) and for long drives and trips down town, I’m simply reliant on toilet availability. Sometimes I find only the disabled toilet is available and when it’s urgent I have no qualms about using it. Some of them are locked and you have to go get a key and again I have no qualms about asking for access despite my outwardly healthy look – nobody has argued yet. If necessary (sufficiently urgent), I’ll even ask to use the staff toilets in shops etc. I do have a card in my wallet which I obtained from my friends in the NET Patient Foundation but I’ve not yet had to use it ‘in anger’.
Are you nodding your head at these issues? I also suspect quite a few of you will therefore enjoy reading an article which has given me the inspiration and motivation to update this blog post. It’s about a lady who has major abdominal issues through surgery and illness (inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)) and to me this sounds like a worse condition than many NET Cancer patients endure. She too looks outwardly healthy but this illness is clearly a major disability. I’d like to think this type of incident is not that common but her response to it was magnificent, well written and apparently it went viral. What great publicity that must have been for IBD.
Read the post here, it’s brilliant: CLICK HERE TO READ (p.s. ‘Loo’ is British slang for toilet)
Thanks for reading
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Opinion. In 2014, I experienced NET Cancer Day (10 Nov) on a major scale for the first time since its inception. Prior to that, it didn’t really do that much for me. Spookily I even woke up on 10 Nov 2010 after major surgery. Read about this here – I even woke up on November 10th after major surgery.
The build up to these events normally doesn’t start in earnest until around 3 months prior to 10 Nov. On or around this day, people meet up, patient conferences and support meetings are held, thousands of tweets and Facebook posts are published, people make and eat cakes, and money is raised. I suspect awareness of NETs benefits but these things can quickly be forgotten outside the rather small world of NET Cancer patients, specialists, supporters and advocates.
If ‘N’ is equal to the amount of awareness you can physically do, then ‘N + 1’ is the amount of awareness you need. You can never have enough awareness. For me, one day doesn’t cut it. Some cancers have a whole month but they tend to be the big most common ones.
I’m in awe of those advocate organisations who organise these annual events and the patients who gladly join in to help by giving up their time (including NET Cancer Day and all its affiliate organisations). There’s a lot of time and effort required. It’s rather easy for me as I sit in my chair doing my bit – but I am doing it every day. A big advantage I have is that we now live in a connected world and there is an almost unlimited reach to a broad spectrum of people ranging from politicians to the worried well looking for a diagnosis. They all have something in common though …. they’re all connected to the internet and looking for information, looking for a feed. Social media is really powerful but the message needs to be compelling to persuade someone to read my feed again and again. I guess when you are marketing something on a face to face basis, it’s a different ball game but the principles of persuading someone to ‘read your feed’ are the same.
Having analysed 10th November activity and the week leading up to it, I think it was pretty much like last year, i.e. the same old tired old clichés and icons, together with out of date and inaccurate information which patients and patient advocate organisations share between each other. I want new audiences and ones who will stick with NETs instead of just liking a tweet on November 10th. This is what the NET Community needs too. I’m afraid cartoon animals in the most ridiculous scenarios are not going to attract long term support from outside the community. This is not a criticism of any person working for or fund raising for a NET patient organisation, I know they work very hard. This is about the out of date and incoherent strategy.
Although I woke up on November 10th after my surgery in 2010, I only really woke up to NET Cancer Day (the event) in 2014 where I and others met and lobbied our respective Members of Parliament at a NET Patient Foundation sponsored event. I was also honoured to lobby side by side with my surgeon (Neil Pearce) who is also one of the Medical Trustees for the Foundation. I felt that activity made a real difference and I was so enthused by this event, I decided to step up my own campaigning activity using my blog to push and push for more recognition of our disease. Attracting the notice of politicians is a good awareness tactic as long as the foot remains on gas peddle. In regards interactions with politicians, as another example I’m always happy to see the annual state declarations of support in USA.
When I consider the PR campaigns of other cancer types, I admit to being a tad envious. For example in the UK, breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancers probably have more awareness ‘value’ in a single week, than NETs get in a single year. However, these are the ‘big 4’ cancers and as a consequence attract a lot of support (and therefore resources) and are backed by government public health campaigns (e.g. in the UK, the ‘be clear on cancer’ campaign covers most of these cancers). OK, they have a lot of resources but one thing I see across the board in these campaigns is the lack of icon adulation you see in NET awareness – rather they focus on firmly on PEOPLE and I believe that is part of their success.
When I suggest to ditch the animal analogies, people say to me “what icon would replace it”. I simply say “why you even need to replace it” as we’re talking about adopting a coherent strategy. By the way, name another successful cancer strategy using an animal as their ‘cover page’. Spoiler alert, there isn’t one.
Because NETs is a less common disease, the necessary ‘clout’ needs to be as wide as possible and this means international efforts to supplement national campaigns, particularly for awareness and recognition. But the strategy needs to be coherent, effective and up to date. Of course, we need to get patients on board because patient stories are vital, particularly (and accurately ….) in the national news and TV. Resources (people and cash) are always going to be an issue and some high-profile patients or ambassadors would be extremely useful but they tend not to want to get involved. Read my Human Anatomy blog to understand more about the effects of this issue.
I strongly believe we need new audiences – nationally and internationally. To be more attractive to the ‘outside’ and new audiences, we also need a convincing and compelling ‘line’. By ‘line’ I don’t just mean an icon or a phrase, I mean a whole ‘PR’ package. It’s very difficult for rare and less common cancers to get high-profile and continuous publicity (sometimes, to be rare or less common is to be ignored). Therefore, this ‘line’ needs to be something that captures people’s imaginations and persuades them to be associated with the cause. It also needs to avoid being too ‘introvert’ by using oblique, confusing, outdated, single issue icons conveyed by what are essentially memes and which are only liked and shared by patients. It also needs to be accurate.
New audiences means new thinking ….. different thinking. One of my methods is to increase the audience reach by forming relationships with non-NET organisations including physicians. Some of this is extremely hard work. For example, the 2016 WEGO Health Awards took a considerable amount of personal effort and time and ditto for 2017 and 2018. However, there’s a lot of new audiences out there now hearing about NETs that had never heard of the disease until I was able to use the platform of these awards. It’s worth it. Here’s a statement from the CEO of WEGO Health:
My animal free blog site will hit one million views next year and I’m a relative newbie. So perhaps there is another way?
When I set my blog up on 29 Apr 2014, I never imagined for one second it would be anything other than an obscure and niche site getting a couple of hits per day. I’m therefore really grateful to those who are supporting me including my most recent followers. It’s your support that inspires me to write the posts and then offer them up as awareness messages or simply words to help patients. Now, not a day goes by where I have not tweeted or posted something about Neuroendocrine Cancer. Although 10 Nov is approaching once again, for me……..