Neuroendocrine Cancer – the diarrhea jigsaw

NETCancer Diarrhea Jigsaw

Diarrhea can be a symptom of many conditions but it is particularly key in Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) Syndromes and types, in particular, Carcinoid Syndrome but also in those associated with various other NET types such as VIPoma, PPoma, Gastrinoma, Somatostatinoma, Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma.

Secondly, it can be a key consequence (side effect) of the treatment for Neuroendocrine Tumours and Carcinomas, in particular following surgery where various bits of the gastrointestinal tract are excised to remove and/or debulk tumour load.

There are other reasons that might be causing or contributing, including (but not limited to) endocrine problems such as hyperthryoidism, mastocytosis or Addison’s disease (which may be secondary illnesses in those with NETs).  It’s also possible that ‘non-sydromic’ issues such as stress and diet are contributing. It could be caused by other things such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Yes, believe it or not, NET Patients can get normal diarrhea causing diseases too!

Define Diarrhea

I want to give a general definition of diarrhea as there are many variants out there. In general, they all tend to agree that diarrhea is having more frequent, loose and watery stools. Three or more stools per day seems to be the generally accepted threshold, although some sites don’t put a figure on it.  It’s not pleasant and just about everyone on the planet will suffer it at some point in their life, perhaps with repeated episodes. Normally it’s related to some kind of bug, or something you’ve eaten and will only last a few days before it settles (acute diarrhea). Diarrhea lasting more than a couple of weeks is considered chronic and some people will require medical care to treat it.  It can also be caused by anxiety, a food allergy/intolerance or as a side effect of medicine. Pharmacists and GPs will be seeing many patients with this common ailment every single day of business.

Diarrhea induced by a Syndrome

When you consider the explanation above, it’s not really surprising that diarrhea related symptoms can delay a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer (and most likely other cancers too, e.g. pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer). For example, diarrhea is the second most common symptom of Carcinoid Syndrome (Flushing is actually the most common) and is caused mainly by the oversecretion of the hormone Serotonin from the tumours. Please note diarrhea in other types of syndromes or NETs may be caused by other hormones, for example it may also be caused by excess calcitonin in the case of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma or VIP in the case of a functional pNET known as VIPoma. I’ve heard stories of people being told they have IBS or something similar for years before they received what is now a late diagnosis and at an advanced cancer stage. This is only one of the reasons why NETs is not an easy condition to diagnose, although it is possible that some people actually had IBS and it was masking the NET. Even after treatment to remove or reduce tumours, many people will remain syndromic and need assistance and treatment to combat diarrhea induced by a NET syndrome (see below).

Diarrhea as a Consequence (Side effect) of Treatment for Neuroendocrine Cancer and Other Conditions

All cancer treatments can have consequences and Neuroendocrine Cancer is definitely no exception here. For example, if they chop out several feet of small intestine, a chunk of your large intestine, chunks (or all) of your stomach or your pancreas, your gallbladder and bits of your liver, this is going to have an effect on the efficiency of your ‘waste disposal system’. One effect is that it will now work faster! Another is that the less effective ‘plumbing’ may not be as efficient as it was before.  There are also knock-on effects which may create additional issues with the digestive system including but not limited to; Malabsorption and SIBO.  I recommend you read my posts on Malabsorption and SIBO.

Surgery can often be the root cause of diarrhea.  A shorter gut for example, means shorter transit times presenting as increased frequency of bowel movements.  Another example is the lack of terminal ileum can induce Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption) in degrees of severity based on size of resection. Lack of a gallbladder (common with NETs) can also complicate.  Bile Acids are produced in the liver and have major roles in the absorption of lipids in the small intestine. Following a terminal ileum resection which includes a right hemicolectomy, there is a risk that excess Bile Acids will leak into the large intestine (colon) via the anastomosis (the new joint between small and large intestines).  This leakage can lead to increased motility, shortening the colonic transit time, and so producing watery diarrhea (or exacerbating an existing condition). Although this condition can be treated using bile acid sequestrants (i.e.  Questran), it can be difficult to pinpoint it as the cause.

Surgery of the pancreas can also produce effects such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which can lead to a malabsorption condition known as steatorrhea which may be confused with diarrhea (although some texts call it a type of diarrhea).   It isn’t really diarrhea but it may look like it given the presentation of the faeces and patients may suffer both diarrhea and steatorrhea concurrently.  Patients will recognise it in their stools which may be floating, foul-smelling, greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Treatment options will mainly include the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy or PERT for short (Creon etc).

Many non-surgical treatments can also cause diarrhea, including but not limited to; somatostatin analogues (see below), chemotherapy, biological targeted therapy (e.g. Everolimus, Sunitinib), radiotherapy.

Somatostatin analogues are an interesting one as they are designed to inhibit secretion of particular hormones and peptides by binding to the receptors found on Neuroendocrine tumour cells. This has the knock-on effect of inhibiting digestive/pancreatic enzymes which are necessary to break down the fat in our foods leading to Malabsorption of important nutrients.  This may worsen the steatorrhea in pancreatic NET patients but also lead to steatorrhea in others with non-pancreatic locations who have been prescribed these drugs.

Other conditions may actually be the cause of the diarrhea or the treatment for those conditions.  For example, it is possible that people actually do have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  Treatment therapy for common conditions may also be contributing, for example the use of Proton Pump Inhibitors for acid reflux.

 

Treatment for Syndrome Induced Diarrhea 

Like many other NET patients, I’m on a 28 day injection of somatostatin analogues (in my case Lanreotide).  Both Octreotide and Lanreotide are designed to reduce the effects of NET syndromes and therefore can often make a difference to syndrome induced diarrhea. These drugs also have anti-tumour effect and so even if you are not syndromic or they do not halt or adequately control syndrome induced diarrhea, they are still a valuable contribution to NET treatment.

Some syndromic patients find they still have diarrhea despite somatostatin analogues and they end up having ‘rescue shots’ or pumps for relief (both of these methods tend to be Octreotide based).  (Hopefully they are not getting confused between diarrhea caused by the non-syndrome effects – see above).  Some have more frequent injections of the long acting versions of somatostatin analogues which has the effect of increasing the dosage.  There’s a new drug available for those whose carcinoid syndrome induced diarrhea is not adequately controlled or perhaps they are unable to have somatostatin analogues as a treatment. Telotristat Ethyl works by inhibiting tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH), a chemical reactor involved in the manufacture of serotonin, which is the main cause of syndrome induced diarrhea.  It was approved by the US FDA in February 2017, EU areas in September 2017, and is on the way to being approved elsewhere.  Read about this drug here.

telotristat-etiprate-clinical-trial-serotonin-as-a-key-driver-of-carcinoid-syndrome

Sorting out the symptoms – post diagnosis

I like to describe this as the Neuroendocrine Cancer jigsaw. It’s a really difficult one and sometimes you cannot find a piece, or the pieces won’t fit. However, metaphorically speaking, the missing piece might be a NET specialist presentation, a comment, statement or view from another patient, a link to an article from a reputable source, or even something you do to improve your lot – there might even be trial and error involved. It might even be this blog post!

How do you work out whether diarrhea is caused by a hormone producing tumour or by the side effects of treatments? There’s no easy answer to this as both might be contributing. One crude but logical way is to just accept that if you have normal hormone markers, for example 5HIAA (there could be more for other tumour/syndrome types), and you’re not really  experiencing any of the other classic symptoms, then your syndrome might be under control due to your treatment (e.g. debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues, or another drug). My Oncologist labels me as ‘non-syndromic’ – something which I agree with. I’m 99.999999% sure my issues are as a result of the treatment I’ve had and am receiving.

This disease is so individual and there are many factors involved including the type of syndrome/NET, patient comorbidities and secondary illnesses, consequences of the surgery or treatments performed, side effects of drugs – all of which is intermingled with suspicion and coincidence – it’s that jigsaw again!  I always like to look in more detail to understand why certain things might be better than others, I always challenge the ‘status quo’ looking to find a better ‘normal’.  I really do think there are different strategies for syndrome induced diarrhea and that which is a result of treatment or a side effect of treatment.  There’s also different prices, with inhibitors costing thousands, whilst classic anti-diarrhea treatments are just a few pennies.  Adjustments to diets are free!

When I was discharged from hospital after the removal of my small intestinal primary, I was in the toilet A LOT (I was actually in the toilet a lot before I was discharged – check out my primary surgery blogs here) .  My surgeon did say it would take months to get back to ‘normal’ – he was right and it did eventually settle – although my new ‘toilet normal’ was soft and loose and several times daily.  My previously elevated CgA and 5HIAA were eventually back to normal and my flushing had disappeared.  I didn’t have too many issues with diarrhea before diagnosis.  Deduction:  my issues are most likely not syndrome induced.

I read that many people find basic ‘Loperamide’ (Imodium) helps and I tend to agree with that if you are non syndromic and just need that little bit of help.  I decided long time ago I would not become ‘hooked’ and only really take it for two purposes:  1) if I have a bad patch and 2) if I’m going on a long journey (i.e. on a plane perhaps).  I estimate I’ve used 4 packets in as many years.  Loperamide decreases the activity which causes intestinal motility (peristalsis). This has the effect of increasing the time material stays in the intestine therefore allowing more water to be absorbed from the fecal matter.  Ideal for those with a shorter bowel due to surgery and advice from a medical professional is always advisable.  To reduce the risk of malabsorption induced diarrhea and steatorrhoea, both of which can lead to loss of valuable nutrients, the use of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) might need to be introduced as required by your NET specialist.

Have a look at Enterade – the results from trials look good.

enterade

Clearly, I cannot offer any professional medical advice on coping with diarrhea, I can only discuss my own situation and what I found worked for me. Don’t forget, like many diseases, what works for one, might not work for another. However, I did tackle my problems following the advice of an experienced dietitian who specialises in NET Cancer. That said, I was ‘sleep walking’ for over 2 years thinking my issues were just part of the way things were after my treatment.  I was wrong about that!

As for my own strategy,  here’s things that helped me:

  • made some changes to diet (they were not huge changes),
  • included supplementation where necessary,
  • reduced stress as far as is practical to do,
  • exercise,
  • maintained a diary to help with monitoring progress or setbacks,
  • hydration is also important (….still working on that one).
  • started taking PERT (Creon) on 23 Dec 2017 (changed to Nutrizym Feb 2019) but looks reasonably positive so far.

With no fancy and expensive drugs, I’ve gone from 6-8 visits to 1-2 visits (as a daily average, it’s actually 1.5).  This didn’t happen overnight though, it took a lot of time and patience.  All of this doesn’t mean to say I don’t have issues from time to time …… because I do!


In summary, I think it’s important that people be sure what is actually causing their diarrhea after diagnosis so that the right advice and the optimum treatment can be given.

Listen to Dr Wolin talking about this particular jigsaw puzzle – click here

Also see a nice article that come out of NANETS 2017 – click here

Of course, some people sometimes have the opposite effect but that’s in another blog here – Constipation

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!

Ronny Allan is an award winning patient leader and advocate for Neuroendocrine Cancer.

 

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Patient power – use it!

patient doctor team
Team Effort

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 🙂

You can read the article by CLICKING HERE

Thanks for reading

Ronny Allan

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – Incurable vs. Terminal

Incurable is not untreatable

OPINION. When I was being officially told I had an advanced and incurable cancer, I did what most people seem to do on films/TV ….. I asked “how long do I have“.  The Oncologist said ” … perhaps just months“.  That must have been quite a shock because for a few moments after that, I heard nothing – my brain was clearly still trying to process those words – I wasn’t even feeling unwell! The really important bit I missed was him go on to say “…but with the right treatment, you should be able to live for a lot longer”.  Fortunately, my wife Chris heard it all and I was refocused.  “OK Doc – let’s go” I said.  Always take someone with you to take notes at important meetings with Oncologists!

I continue to see quite a few posts and articles about death and dying and I noticed some patients were using the word ‘terminal‘ to describe Neuroendocrine Cancer, despite in some cases, having been diagnosed some years ago. This label is not just confined to use within Facebook forums, I’ve also seen this on wider social media including twitter, blogs and newspaper items. For some, this appears to be the prognosis given to them by their doctors. I find this surprising. However, I’m much less surprised to see many comments on forums from people who had been told the worst by their doctors but were still alive and kicking WAY beyond those worst case prognostic statements.

Definitions are important so what does ‘terminal cancer’ actually mean? 

I’m conscious there are legal ramifications with the definitions (wills, life insurance, disability etc) and that these may differ on an international/federal basis.  I therefore intentionally confined my searching to a couple of ‘big hitter’ and ‘authoritative’ sites:

Cancer Research UK defines terminal as “When cancer is described as terminal it means that it cannot be cured and is likely to cause death within a limited period of time. The amount of time is difficult to predict but it could be weeks to several months”.

The American Cancer Society defines terminal as “an irreversible condition (it cannot be cured) that in the near future will result in death or a state of permanent unconsciousness from which you are unlikely to recover. In most states, a terminal illness is legally defined as one in which the patient will die shortly whether or not medical treatment is given.”

Can terminal as defined above be applied to Neuroendocrine Cancer? 

I’m sure it can, e.g. with very advanced and very aggressive disease and for any grade when taking into account the condition of the patient and other factors (secondary illnesses/comorbidities, refusal of treatment etc). Clearly, that is a terrible situation.  I’m also conscious that some people do eventually die because of this disease or its consequences and that is also terrible.

How long is a piece of string?

I think with most Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, “how long do I have” can be a tough question to answer. Thinking back to my own situation, although it was an obvious question to ask my Oncologist, I can see it might have caught him unawares.  I suspect he was erring on the side of caution as I don’t believe he had formulated my treatment plan ….. i.e. my case had not yet been looked at by a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), a bit like a ‘Tumor Board’.  I had already been confirmed Grade 2 (via liver biopsy) and my CT scans were indicating widespread disease.  I was yet to have an Octreotide scan and the conventional biochemical markers (CgA and 5HIAA).  I suspect, faced with my question, he went for the worst case, based on the statistics he had access to at the time. What I now know is that, in the year of my diagnosis, the median survival was 33 months in patients with advanced Grade 1/Grade 2 NETs with distant metastasis.  These statistics are certainly better today but my Oncologist was probably on the right track.  However, at no time did he use the word ‘terminal’.

The Cancer story is changing

What I also found during my research is that as more and more people in the UK are now living with cancer (all cancer) rather than dying from it, there is a new class of patients emerging – Macmillan UK call this “treatable but not curable” and I believe this is very relevant to Neuroendocrine Cancer.  I touched on this in an awareness blog entitled “Living with Neuroendocrine Cancer – it takes guts“.  You will find some data in this blog about a major increase in the amount of people with cancer who eventually die of something else (…… basically it has doubled). For many, Cancer is no longer a death sentence.  I do accept that it can be difficult to live with certain cancers and this is also covered in my “it takes guts” blog linked above.

Survivorship and Hope

You can find numerous examples of long-term survivors of advanced Neuroendocrine Tumours on the ‘airwaves’, many with a relatively good quality of life (QoL).  I don’t normally pay much attention to prognostic data, I take my lead from the huge number of patients living a long time with Neuroendocrine Cancer.  However, I was particularly interested to read a set of USA statistics from NOLA (Boudreaux, Woltering et al) which said “Our survival of stage IV midgut NET patients that we performed surgical debulking on was published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons in 2014. It showed our 5, 10 and 20-year survival rates were 87%, 77% & 41% respectively. It’s also worth noting the comparison with the 2004 SEER database analysis which listed the 5 & 10 year SEER survival at 54% and 30% respectively”.  Clearly, the NOLA figures are guidelines (and only for midgut) but they do seem to reflect my previous statement about seeking out positives rather than dwelling on the negatives.  The SEER 2012 figures are much better than the 2004 versions stating “Survival for all NETs has improved over time, especially for distant-stage gastrointestinal NETs and pancreatic NETs in particular, reflecting improvement in therapies.

Exciting times ahead

On the subject of therapy improvement, there has been a plethora of new treatments coming online and more entering and progressing through the approvals pipeline.  Check out my article entitled Exciting Times Ahead Also listen to a NET Expert along the same lines.  PRRT is making a real difference.

Summary

Following my diagnosis in 2010, I went on to receive really good treatment and it continues to this day with Lanreotide backed up by a rigorous surveillance regime (and this is backed up by my own advocacy!).  However, I have totally accepted the fact that I have metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer and that it cannot be cured.  By the way, I intentionally used ‘metastatic‘ rather than Stage IV.  Mention of Stage IV can set off alarm bells and send the wrong message to the recipient. I don’t believe Stage IV has the same ‘red flag’ meaning for well-differentiated NETs as it does with more aggressive cancers of the same stage. Given what I know now, I would certainly challenge any doctor who told me I had a ‘terminal disease’ and at the same time told me I had a slow-growing well differentiated Neuroendocrine Cancer.

I now live with this disease (….and it’s consequences) and do not feel like I’m dying of it.  Moreover, I most certainly do not see myself as a ‘terminal’ cancer patient, particularly as I’ve now been living with it since 2010. 

I like to focus on how I can live better with it.

Whilst we’re on this subject, please note Palliative Care is not just end of life / hospice care.  That’s another misunderstanding bordering on mythical status. Read more here.

being_there_front
Graphic courtesy of Ellie McDowell

 

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook.  Like my page for even more news.  I’m also building up this site here: Ronny Allan

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Innovation at Royal Free – Lung Biopsy and Radio Frequency Ablation Service

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Image with permission from Dr Sam Hare (www.lungdiagnosis.com)

A team of radiologists and respiratory consultants who introduced a new and more efficient lung biopsy method at Barnet Hospital London, has been named the winner of the NHS Innovation Challenge Prize in the ‘cancer care’ category.  Barnet Hospital is run by the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust which is well known for its Neuroendocrine Cancer Centre of Excellence.

Not happy with this, they’ve now gone on to introduce a new service combining this innovative biopsy system with Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA) of tumours in the same procedure.

Combined Biopsy with Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA)

This new service has significant advantages for those who have localised tumours less than 3cm and can’t for whatever reason have surgery.  I’ve checked with Dr Hare and he confirms this includes Neuroendocrine Tumours of the Lung. There are a number of advantages for having this procedure:

1. Biopsy and RFA at same time to prevent patient having to have 2 procedures.  Those who meet this criteria with an existing biopsy can go straight to RFA.

2. It’s a low risk, minimally invasive procedure.

3. As its under mild sedation rather than General Anaesthetic (GA)  – patients go home later the same day – makes recovery time so much quicker.

4. RFAs can be repeated as many times as you want if tumour ever grows.

5. Lungs are preserved.

It’s also worth noting that RFA as a standalone treatment can be used on lung metastases. You can read more about this new service here.

Award winning ambulatory lung biopsy service

The team’s innovative ambulatory lung biopsy service enables the vast majority of patients to be discharged just 30 minutes after their biopsy. Dr Hare is a pioneer in UK lung biopsy technique and has improved patient experience using a shorter, less painful biopsy process with a higher diagnostic accuracy and less time spent in hospital. Dr Hare specialises in image-guided lung biopsy techniques having gained expertise in the procedure working in North America.  Dr Hare’s innovative use of a Heimlich Valve Chest Drain (HVCD) allows more successful biopsy of small lung nodules which can potentially lead to earlier cancer diagnosis.

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Heimlich Valve Chest Drain (HVCD) (permission from Dr Hare (www.lungdiagnosis.com)

I spoke to Dr Hare via twitter and he confirmed this novel service is for any tumour in the lung (primary or metastasis) and he indicated they were “finding more and more are coming back as Neuroendocrine Tumours”.

You can read more about Dr Hare and his work here (www.lungdiagnosis) and this video explains it in excellent detail including the difference between conventional methods and this new ‘award winning’ way!  Read more about the award on the Royal Free site here.

Congratulations to Dr Hare and the rest of the team for winning this award!

Thanks for reading

Ronny Allan

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Neuroendocrine Neoplasms – Grade and Stage (incorporating WHO 2017 changes)

Grades of Neuroendocrine Tumour WHO 2017 15 Dec 2017

One of the most discussed and sometimes confusing subjects on forums is the staging and grading of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (NENs). Mixing them up is a common error and so it’s important to understand the difference despite the apparent complexity. If I was to make a list of questions for my specialist/Oncologist at diagnosis, it would include “What is the stage, grade and differentiation of my cancer”.  To enable me to synchronise with the documented guidance, I’m going to use the following WHO 2017 approved terms in this post:

  • Neuroendocrine Neoplasm (NEN) – all types of Neuroendocrine tumour of whatever grade (please note Neoplasm is another word for tumour)
  • Neuroendocrine Tumour (NET) – all well-differentiated tumours (an explanation of differentiation will be provided below)
  • Neuroendocrine Carcinoma (NEC) – all poorly differentiated tumours

NEN Breakdown

Stage vs Grade

In the most basic of terms, stage is the spread or extent of cancer and grade is the aggressiveness of cancer. They are totally different things and an understanding of both is important as they are critical to predict outcome (to a certain extent) and guide therapy. There is no correlation between the two, you can have the lowest grade with the highest stage (actually very common with NETs).

As patients, we deal with many medical specialists during diagnosis and subsequent treatment.  However, we rarely meet the pathologist who plays a critical role in the outcome. Precise diagnosis is what drives patient decisions and treatment. If the pathology is wrong, everything that follows could be incorrect as well.  It’s a very important area.

Why is differentiation important?

To fully understand grading, you also need to understand the concept of ‘differentiation’.  In the most basic of terms, ‘differentiation’ refers to the extent to which the cancerous cells resemble their non-cancerous counterparts.  This is an important point for NETs because many low-grade tumour cells can look very similar to normal cells. The differentiation of a NET has an impact on both prognostics and treatment regimes.

NENs fall into one of three grades based on their differentiation and their proliferative rate. The proliferative rate is measured mainly using two methods known as Miotic Count and Ki-67 index, the latter seems to be more frequently used (but see below for Lung NETs). The Ki-67 index can usually be determined, even in cases of small biopsies but Mitotic rate counting requires a moderate amount of tumour tissue (at least 50 HPFs or 10 mm) and may not be feasible for small biopsies.  The Miotic Count method may be preferred or used in addition to Ki-67 for certain Lung NET scenarios as it is said to be more helpful in distinguishing atypical from typical NET (what some might ‘old fashionably’ and incorrectly refer to as Lung Carcinoid tumours), and for small and large cell lung Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (NEC).

Some of you may have heard the term ‘moderately differentiated’ which tended to align with an intermediate grade or Grade 2. However, please note that the term moderately differentiated as a classification was phased out in 2010 by WHO reducing from 3 differentiation levels to 2.  Grade 2 is also defined as well differentiated but based on different proliferative rate (see table). High grade was normally referred to as Neuroendocrine Carcinoma indicating it is a faster growing and more aggressive cancer. However, see below for an important change to high grade classification.

Grading – Key WHO 2017 Changes

WHO Classifications of Cancer are published in something known in medical world as “The Blue Book”.  For NETs, the 2017 version comprises only the “WHO Classification of Tumours of Endocrine Organs”.  Technically this would preclude the digestive system and lung NETs but I’m told on good authority from world leading pathologists and from listening to lectures at ENETS 2018, that the classification in the leading picture is to be used for all NENs. Worth also noting that the latest ENETS Guidelines are already using the new grading terms.  Many sites remain out of date so be careful where you look.

The 2017 World Health Organisation (WHO) classification sub-divided Grade 3 into two new entities: a well differentiated high-grade NET and a poorly differentiated high-grade NEC.  There may also be a cut-off point in proliferative rate (i.e. Ki-67) between NET and NEC in relation to potential treatment strategies (55% is mentioned for pNETs but I’m currently investigating).

The Grade 1 to 2 Ki-67 cut-off is changed from 2 to < 3 for clarification purposes.  There was some discussion as to whether it should be <5 but this was not accepted.

Well differentiated High Grade NETs are now recognised.  These are known as a NET rather than a NEC.  Both Grade 3 (NET) and Grade 3 (NEC) have the same biopsy marker cut-offs as per the leading slide but it is thought that a threshold reading of 55% could have some influence on the treatment regime. For example, a well differentiated tumour with a Ki67 of less than 55% might benefit from the same treatment given to Grade 1 or 2 patients, whereas a well differentiated tumour with a Ki67 of more than 55% might benefit from the same treatment given to poorly differentiated NEC. Only a guideline and I suspect this is like many things in NENs, very individual, relies on many factors, so your specialist will drive this accordingly.  You may see these 2 grades listed as Grade 3a for NET and Grade 3b for NEC.

Previously, Pheochromocytoma did not have an official grading regime, i.e. they were just benign or malignant.  Now they are using the same grading system as above.  I’m assuming this is the same for Paraganglioma and I will confirm in due course.  This is an excellent change and a continuation from the WHO 2010 classification where there was great emphasis away from a benign/malignant classification to formal grade levels on the basis that all NETs have malignant potential.

It also introduced a change to the naming of mixed cell tumours from Mixed AdenoNeuroendocrine Carcinoma (MANEC) to Mixed Neuroendocrine Non-Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (MiNEN).  A full explanation of this MiNEN will follow but I would suggest the use of the term ‘Neoplasm’ has been chosen rather than ‘Carcinoma’ is because these neoplasms can be well or poorly differentiated.

It’s not possible at this time to acquire copies of the official output but I will keep this blog live.

The source material for the 2017 version of this article.

From leading Pathologist Dr Anthony Gill  – Remember this is based on Endocrine Organs only but it will eventually apply to all.   I am awaiting access to free documentation to update this article further – only ones I can currently find are not free!

Misc Grading Issues

The proliferative rate can be diverse in NENs, so sampling issues can limit the accuracy of grading. More substantial samples of tumour are therefore preferable for grading thus why the Ki-67 index is preferred for biopsies where large amounts of tissue may not be available. The distinction of low-grade from intermediate grade can be challenging when using small samples. A couple of interesting observations about NET grading which I spotted during my research and ‘forum watching’.  You can have multiple primary tumours and these might have different Ki-67 scores.  Additionally, on larger tumours, Ki-67 scores can be different on different parts of the tumour.  And something I know from my own experience, secondary tumours can have different Ki-67 scores than primary – even a different grade.  In my own case, my liver secondary tumours were graded higher than my primary which according to my surgeon is in keeping with a clone of the disease having become more aggressive over time.  Royal Free Hospital NET Centre indicates a person’s grade should be taken from the highest biopsy grade taken. This is a fairly complex area but a recent study published by the US National Institute of Health and many anecdotal comments made by NET specialists indicates that is a fairly common scenario.

Staging (spread)

Staging is the extent or spread of disease.  Most types of cancer have 4 stages, numbered from 1 to 4 indicating a rising spread as the number is bigger. Often doctors write the stage down in Roman numerals, perhaps this is to stop any confusion between standard numbers used for Grades? So you may see stages written as I, II, III and IV.  In addition to this standard method, there is also an agreed model known as TNM (Primary Tumour, Regional Node, Distant Metastasis) which is essentially a more detailed staging definition when combined with the Stage 1-4 model.  Please note with TNM models, there could be different stage descriptions depending on the location of the primary tumour and similarly different TNM models for different tumour locations.

WHO 2017 changes

WHO 2017 has recommended enhancements to the TNM system mainly the use of additional suffixes indicating the extent of lymph node involvement. Details to follow when I can free access.

The following example shows the stage descriptions for a NET of the small intestine (the others are similar but worded accordingly for that part of the anatomy):

Stage I tumour is less than 1 cm in size and has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Stage II tumour is greater than 1 cm in size and has started to spread beyond the original location, but has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Stage III is any size tumour that has spread to nearby areas of the body and also to at least one lymph node.

Stage IV is any size tumour that has spread to one or more lymph nodes and has also spread to other, more distant areas of the body (such as the liver).

It’s also worth pointing out that Stage IV does not necessarily mean a cancer is more dangerous than other cancers of lesser stages.  This is an important point for NETs where Stage 4 can be matched up with a low-grade tumour i.e. Stage 4 for lower grade NETs is very often not the ‘red flag’ it is for other more aggressive cancers.  For example, doctors may surgically remove a Stage IV NET, while surgery might not help a patient with a cancer of a higher grade at such a late stage.

Notes:

  • Sometimes doctors use the letters to further divide the number categories – for example, stage 2A or stage 3B.  This is normally to clarify or provide more detail of the primary tumour size/invasion in conjunction with the TNM model.
  • You may also see something called Stage 0 which is for ‘Carcinoma in situ’. It means that there is a group of abnormal cells in an area of the body. However, the number of abnormal cells is too small to form a tumour and may, therefore, be currently classed as benign.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) system does not appear to recognise Stage 0 for NETs.

The most generic model for TNM staging is below but please note this could be adjusted for particular types of NET.

Primary Tumor (T)
TX: Primary tumor cannot be evaluated
T0: No evidence of primary tumour
Tis: in situ (abnormal cells are present but have not spread to neighbouring tissue; although not cancer, in situ may become cancer and is sometimes called preinvasive cancer)

T1, T2, T3 and T4 is a measure of the size of, and/or invasion/penetration by, the primary tumour and the wording varies between different NET sites. e.g. for a small intestinal NET:

T1 tumour invades mucosa or submucosa and size <=1 cm

T2 tumour invades muscularis propria or size >1 cm

T3 tumour invades subserosa

T4 tumour invades the visceral peritoneum (serosa)/other organs

For any T add (m) for multiple tumours

Regional Lymph Nodes (N)
NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be evaluated
N0: No regional lymph node involvement
N1: regional lymph node metastasis

Distant Metastasis (M)
MX: Distant metastasis cannot be evaluated
M0: No distant metastasis
M1: Distant metastasis is present

You may occasionally see TNM staging be prefixed by lower case letters.  The most commonly used prefix is ‘p’ simply meaning the grading has been confirmed by pathology.  e.g. pT4 N1 M1

Specialists can combine the Stage to create a TNM – for example:

This slide will be updated when I get access to WHO 2017 or updated AJCC pubication.

Summary

A complex area and I hope I have condensed it sufficiently for you to understand enough for your purposes.  Despite looking very scientific, it is not an exact science. There are many variables as there always are with Neuroendocrine disease.  NENs can be very challenging for a pathologist even an experienced one who may not have encountered NENs before.  However, it is an extremely important part of initial diagnosis and also when needed during surveillance.  It is a vital tool used by Multidisciplinary Teams (MDT) in treatment plans and for prognostic purposes.  If you need to learn further, I recommend this document:

If you are interested in this subject and have one hour to spare, there is a great video here from LACNETS worth watching.

Finally – always make sure you get your pathology results at diagnosis and following any subsequent sampling.

You may benefit from reading these associated posts:

Benign vs Malignant

Incurable vs Terminal

Carcinoid vs Neuroendocrine

10 Questions for your doctor

Looking for a needle in a haystack

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. Help me build up my new site here – click here and ‘Like’

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – not as rare as you think

Background

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.

strosberg not rare
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 in USA”. 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.

dana-farber-200000

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 [1]. 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 (spoiler alert – it actually came out as 7/100,000 see below under ‘Meanwhile in USA’). 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 if extrapolated to the current time. 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 in USA …….” 

incidence
SEER study 2004 – NETs

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 [2]. 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]
extrapolation europe

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. [3] [4]

simron singh nets not rare

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. SCLC 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.

That means a new NET diagnosis every 2 hours. You can see a summary of the report   NEW:  Public Health England release new incidence data for Neuroendocrine Cancer

A slide from the recent UKINETS 2017 conference indicating an agreement from UK and Ireland NET Specialists.

IMG_20171204_214918
as presented at UKINETS 2017

Meanwhile in New Zealand …….

as presented by Unicorn Foundation NZ on 11 Mar 2017

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”.

not rare yao netrf

incidence 2012 jama
NET Cancer diagnoses continues to outstrip all other cancer diagnoses

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.

dasari-infographic-2
Graphic from the NET Research Foundation – https://netrf.org/study-shows-rising-rates-of-net-incidence-prevalence-and-survival/

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.

Dr Kunz has done the math
hendifar not rare
Dr Hendifar has done the math
not rare yao netrf
Dr Yao has done the math

simron singh nets not rare
Dr Singh has done the math

strosberg not rare
Dr Strosberg has done the math

The Invisible NET Patient Population

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. D.  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:

We expected that about 1 percent of

Go figure

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:

SEER 2012 Underestimated
more math

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.

Eric Liu Not Rare

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)

You may also wish to check out my article “The Invisible NET Patient Population” where this is explored further.

I may be stable (..ish) but I still need support and surveillance


cancer-patient-support

With incurable but treatable cancers such as metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, ‘Stable‘ is normally not the end of the matter, for many there is still a long road ahead and that road may not be straight or flat. The long road may be considered an advantage by some given that with very aggressive cancers, incurable can frequently mean terminal.  The surveillance must continue in case of a recurrence.

It’s important to understand that ‘Stable‘ simply means the disease is “under control” with tests and scans showing the cancer hasn’t changed over time.

One of the disadvantages of ‘incurable but treatable‘ is that Quality of Life (QoL) can in many cases be compromised due to the consequences of cancer and /or treatment. However, if specialist treatment, surveillance and support are all in place, things can gradually be adjusted to a new and hopefully tolerable ‘normal’. 

I also believe patient expectations need to be managed although improvements are still possible.  In my own experience, however, this does not happen overnight. Patients must be willing to accept a new normal or status quo on the basis that things are never likely to be the same again. Many patients with chronic conditions will have minor irritants and Neuroendocrine Cancer patients are no exception in this regard. 

HOWEVER …….. The specialist view of ‘stable’ will be looking at tumour and hormone makers.  The patient is likely to have a much wider view of ‘stable’ and it will include ‘quality of life’ markers. 

So ….what is stable for me?

Looking at my medical documents, I was not really considered ‘stable’ by specialists until 2 years after diagnosis. The measure of that is in scans and markers.  Nothing has grown since 2012 although I have a thyroid lesion being tracked on watch and wait.  My key NET markers have been solidly in range since 2012.  Today, my on-going monthly treatments are well organised, I’m in touch with my specialists and undergo several surveillance checks beforehand every 6 months currently. I get regular/normal illnesses and those are logged in my diary to look for any clues or associations with anything else. In between consultations, I can call in for urgent help if need be. Irregularities of concern to my ‘stability’ are checked, referred to other specialists if necessary and treated.  I feel well, I look well (but you should see my insides ….). I think I’m on top of things.

I think the UK (for example) is very well serviced with district NET Centres across the country each with specialists in Neuroendocrine Cancer and most include a dedicated NET Specialist Nurse – some areas are better served than others. In my opinion, NET Nurses can prove invaluable in on-going care scenarios. In fact, I was very pleased to see a NET Nurse attending and taking a greater role in my most recent MDT meetings.  I’m fairly certain other countries have similar setups.  Some countries may not be so fortunate and are struggling to get the right resources – I can see this on one or two ‘corporate’ Facebook and Twitter sites. Specialist NET Nurses are an extremely valuable commodity – they do brilliant work and we probably need more!  The same could be said for NET Specialist Dietitians who are key to providing quality of life improvements. In fact, I was delighted to see this recommendation at ENETS 2018 in Barcelona. 

recommend dietitians
More dietitians for NETs?

OK … I may be stable (ish) but I still need support!

However ……. my stability does NOT mean I’m complacent.  For minor issues, it’s always useful to talk to a medical professional, even on the telephone. I think of my GP (PCP) as a ‘virtual’ member of my Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) and I copy them into any important correspondence between myself and my Oncologist.  They are normally copied in coming the other way (if not I make sure they are). This is starting to return dividends. Whilst my GP is positioned to deal with most of my ‘irritants’, I still believe specialist assistance is required for many NET Cancer problems or any problem where there is potentially an overlap or risk of a connection. Being your own advocate is useful in these scenarios.  Patient-doctor communication is vital and I find it best to drive this myself. I’m lucky to have direct ‘as and when’ contact a specialist NET Nurse.  All NET patients should have the same.

The best advocate for you is YOU (or someone very close to you)

Although I still need constant surveillance, being stable allows me to focus on QoL and in particular trying to improve on my ‘normal’.  Whilst we are on that subject, did you hear the one about the constipated NET patient?  This article contains a summary of my attempts to gain a decent quality of life.

Although I read patient forums, I don’t necessarily rely on them a lot for my own issues. On sporadic one-off forum questions (…..and not forgetting that hundreds of symptom questions are related to ‘the gut’), the discussions can end up with many different and confusing answers. Plus there are so many patients who are at varying stages of their disease, use different types of healthcare systems, have had different treatments and have different types of NET, have other issues going on, it can end up as a tangled mess as people try to compare apples with pears.  To help with this issue, I created my own private Facebook group and I try to emphasise these issues through moderation. 

I will not compare myself to strangers on the internet
remember all patients are different

I like to do my own research as I want to be in control of my own QoL.  One of the most troublesome QoL issues for patients is diet and the digestive system generally (i.e. managing the gut). For many NET patients, particularly those who have had surgery and/or persisting syndrome, diet and nutrition is a  huge challenge as it can very often mimic other problems which can present with a wide range of ‘syndrome like’ symptoms such as fatigue, weight issues and even anxiety. More somatostatin analogues and other drugs might just be the wrong response in certain scenarios. I feel there is a huge gap in the follow-up treatment for people who suffer this as a consequence of their cancer. For example, and to the best of my knowledge, there is only a few dedicated and practicing Neuroendocrine specialist dietician in the whole of the UK (…..I’m willing to be corrected here). Some of you might be thinking that any dietician should be able to help? Although you would be correct to a certain extent, I personally do not believe this is the best or optimum solution. There are very specific issues with NET Cancer patients that are bespoke and complex to the point that conventional cancer diet practices may not fully apply. It’s not just about what you eat………..

NET Cancer patients need specialist dietary advice covering the whole spectrum from diet itself to the use of supplements where required, post-surgical advice, managing the long-term side effects of treatment, combatting and treating malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies caused by the complexities of their cancer or the consequences of their treatment. Personally, I think more resources and research in this area would be useful.

This gap is one of the reasons why I asked Tara Whyand (a dietician with specialist Neuroendocrine Cancer knowledge) to help me co-author a series of blogs to focus in on a few key areas.  I didn’t want to say what someone should or should not do, I wanted to say why this is an area to watch.  The ‘why‘ is important as it helps you in your efforts to distinguish the effects of a syndrome or a co-morbidity from the effects of your treatment (if applicable).  I find this knowledge helps me to think ‘outside the box’ rather than just accepting ‘it’s the syndrome.  I personally feel I’ve been able to harness this knowledge to improve my QoL.

Article 1 – Vitamin and Mineral Challenges

Article 2 – Malabsorption

Article 3 – Gut Health

Article 4 – Food for Thought

Article 5 – Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) (includes a Q & A session with Tara Whyand)

The following blogs may complement this nutrition series:

The Diarrhea Jigsaw

The Constipated NET patient

Serotonin

I now take food with my pills

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. Help me build up my new site here – click here and ‘Like’

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Sign up for my twitter newsletter

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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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The C Word

CEFwr-HW8AAB04X‘The C Word’ or ‘The Big C’ – the subject which must not be discussed.  Or is this now an out of date phrase?  I read a useful article a month ago where the author debated where we might be if, 50 years ago, we were as open about cancer as we are now (there, I said the word).  Nowadays you cannot turn a page in a newspaper without seeing a story of sadness, inspiration or medical science progress. Certainly the latter has played a huge part in reducing cancer mortality rates and sending more people into remission.

We now have much better tools to discover and treat cancer. Moreover, because we are increasingly open about cancer, there is more awareness. According to Cancer Research UK, as we all live longer, more than one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. Personally I find that a staggering statistic. We definitely need to talk about cancer!

We now live in a more open and some would argue less stoic society where more people are prepared to talk about their serious illnesses. Together with government and other organisations’ health campaigns, backed up by the rise of social media, the ‘C Word’ is not just ‘big’, it’s fantastically huge! Consequently, more people know and understand the disease and more is known about the science of the disease.  This is not only creating better diagnostic tools and treatments, but has introduced a raft of preventative measures and messages resulting in increased awareness amongst the general public.  Bloggers do their part too 🙂 – particularly with the rare and less common cancers which sadly don’t make the headlines enough.

If you look at the statistics for Neuroendocrine Cancer, there is both an increased incidence (rate of occurrence of new cases) and increased prevalence (living with the disease). The increased incidence is most likely due to better diagnostic tools but some credit must be given to better awareness (medical staff and the public). Increased prevalence is most likely due to a combination of better treatments, mostly good prognostic outcomes and people are generally living longer.

I’d like to focus in on awareness as that is the aim of my blog. I was diagnosed in 2010 but I didn’t really come out of the ‘cancer closet’ until 2014 and this resulted in a number of lifestyle changes plus the creation of this blog. I have plastered what some would call personal and private information all over the internet in the name of awareness. Some people might have raised eyebrows about some things I published. However, I genuinely believe that the only way to draw attention to the issues faced by Neuroendocrine Cancer patients is to tell the story of Neuroendocrine patients in factual, educational and no holds barred ways. I also like to put a positive spin on everything and where appropriate, a smattering of humour. I do this not just because I think of myself as a positive and humorous person but because I think there is still a lot to be positive about and humour is medicine as far as I’m concerned 🙂

Back to ‘The C Word’.  If you want to be inspired, if you want to feel positive, if you want to combine these two things with humour, then please watch ‘The C Word’ – the portrayal of the late Lisa Lynch broadcast on BBC last week.  This true story was brilliantly put together to display the range of emotions and problems coming out of any cancer diagnosis; shock, anger, acceptance, etc. Moreover, it also covers all the practical issues such as time of work for the patient and the next of kin, holiday insurance, to the effects on close family.

Lisa Lynch took up blogging after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. When you read her bio “I’m a cancer bitch but not cancer’s bitch” – you just know you’re dealing with someone positive. There are few TV programmes that I’ve watched in total silence but this was one of them.  For me it brought back memories of my own experience of going through diagnosis and treatment. The issues of time off, holiday insurance, effects on family and friends, trying to establish a new normal, all resonated.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear (or two).

I guarantee you many women will have checked their breasts for lumps during and after watching that programme and as a result, many will have gone to see a Doctor.  Awareness saves lives.

Watch the programme here (click) (UK only sorry).   This programme is only available on BBC iPlayer until 28 May 15

You can explore her blog here (click)

thanks for listening.

Ronny

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – early diagnosis, not early misdiagnosis?

The papers and social media seem to be full of awareness and early diagnosis articles this month.  This coincided with world NET Cancer Day on 10 Nov and world Pancreatic Cancer day on 13 Nov.  Social media was, therefore, buzzing with messages from organisations supporting and advocating for both of these cancer types.  These issues also made it to the conventional media outlets of newspapers, radio and television.  Last week I watched a clip from the UK national news, where 7-year survivor of Pancreatic Cancer Ali Stunt was telling the nation about the top 3 symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer and I was struck by the similarities with NET Cancer. However what really caught my ear was Ali saying how important it was for individuals to think whether the symptoms they were experiencing were unusual for them.  Great advice and a reminder that the patient has a duty to help in their own diagnosis.   Ali also said to insist on seeing a doctor again if you felt something was still not right after the first visit.  Again, excellent advice on the basis it appears to have saved her life.   Click here for Ali’s interview

One other major story which caught my attention was the statement from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) that they intend to update their guideline document “Suspected cancer: recognition and management of suspected cancer in children, young people and adults”.  The statement followed news of research which indicated up to 10,000 people in England could be dying each year due to late diagnoses. This research cited the reasons why cancer diagnoses may be missed and these included the fact that over 200 different types of cancer exist, each with different symptoms, and that patients present at their GP with symptoms which are non-specific.  Does that sound familiar to NET Cancer patients?

I found the NICE statement very interesting because in the 4 years I’ve been studying NET Cancer, I’ve never heard of these guidelines so thought I’d take a look.  No surprises that NET Cancer (or more specifically, Neuroendocrine Tumours or Carcinoid) was not mentioned as a condition.  I searched the entire 405-page document using the search terms ‘Neuroendocrine’, ‘Carcinoid’ and ‘flushing’ and only turned up a single reference to ‘Neuroendocrine’ within the children’s cancer section under Neuroblastoma.

The guidelines are constructed to look at cancer in terms of anatomy so I, therefore, looked at the most common place for a NET cancer – the small intestine.  Good time to refresh my view on this by reading blog post The Anatomy of NET Cancer. I was happy to find a section on cancers of the small intestine which it defines as “a rare cancer of the duodenum, jejunum or ileum, with different histological subtypes. Most GPs will not diagnose a case during their career. The rarity of this cancer means there are no relevant studies of its clinical features. It may have symptoms similar to those of stomach or colorectal cancers. The main method of diagnosis is by biopsy, which is performed in secondary care.”   That got me thinking that the target area for NET Cancer awareness campaigns in the UK might need to be focussed more on secondary rather than primary care?  Food for thought?

I then found a non-anatomy based section further on entitled “Recommendations for specific symptoms and signs” which then cross references to the potential cancers involved.   I was hoping to find something in there so I searched on the most common symptom of Carcinoid Syndrome (in most cases indicating an advanced carcinoid tumour) but there was no sign of the most common symptom of the most common type of NET Cancer.

It’s fantastic that NICE is updating its guidelines to provide the latest clinical and best practice advice to GPs.  I also read that they are encouraging GPs to refer more people to secondary care as another way of tackling the late diagnosis issue (particularly important for NET Cancer patients when you consider the NICE guidelines above) – see BBC News article 

It’s right that the more prevalent and more aggressive cancers be included as a priority in the NICE guidelines but NET Cancer is a notoriously misdiagnosed condition and people do die of this disease.  Additionally, many people have to live with a reduced quality of life due to the symptoms and side effects and this comes at great cost to health providers.  Perhaps the incidence rate of NET Cancer is still not high enough to merit mention in the NICE guidelines. Or perhaps there is still a general ignorance of these types of cancers in the ‘medical establishment’?

You can see a copy of these guidelines here although I suspect only UK-based patients will be really interested. Personally, I feel there could be a section specifically on Neuroendocrine Tumours as there are for other ‘systemic’ cancer types, perhaps with cross references to the various anatomy based sections in the document.  Consequently, I’ve emailed NICE asking if there is anything in the pipeline to include guidance on NET Cancers and I urge UK-based patients to do similar – their email is: nice@nice.org.uk

NET Cancer patients and their advocates have been pushing and pushing for more recognition and it appears in the UK, this will go on for some time. Whilst I recognise the positive moves above, it’s important that both primary and secondary care medical staff are alerted to the symptoms of NET Cancer and are able to spot these at an earlier stage.

NET Cancer patients need an early diagnosis, not early misdiagnosis!

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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Living with an incurable cancer – does mind over matter help?

mindmatter1

When I started blogging in 2014, it was relatively easy – all I needed to do was to talk about my experience to help raise awareness of Neuroendocrine Cancer; then talk about my hike along Hadrian’s Wall for a local Charity.  The blog was only ever intended to be a temporary supporting tool for the walk and its build up; but I was persuaded by good reviews and viewing numbers to keep it going.  That suddenly made it more difficult!

In my early blogs, there were several ‘no go areas’ which were either too complex or potentially controversial.  I didn’t really have much time to think them through properly at that point in time. However, I’ve since dabbled in some of these areas to test the waters.   I’m not a healthcare professional of any sort so I can only talk about my own experiences and how I made improvements to my own issues. Since then;

Clearly there are many other issues involved including but not limited to social support, comorbidities, pain control.

It’s no secret that a cancer patient’s problems can at times go beyond the physical, i.e. the mind can also be affected. My research indicates that any cancer patient is at risk of succumbing to depression and anxiety with one study indicating it could be as high as 40% with an equal split between clinical depression and subclinical depression. The latter is an interesting condition as it’s not as severe as the former but can last much longer.  I suspect if I dug deeper, I would find there are other factors at play including (but not limited to) geography, socio-economic and gender. It’s also worth noting that these issues can also affect someone who is living with, or caring for, a cancer patient.

It would appear that studies into depression and anxiety in cancer patients have been a challenge because symptoms occur on a broad spectrum ranging from sadness to major affective disorders and because mood change is often difficult to evaluate when a patient is worried about death, is receiving cancer treatments, is fatigued or is experiencing pain. Living with cancer or depression can be hard (I can vouch for the former) – battling both together must be more difficult.  According to Cancer Research UK (one of the biggest and respected names in Cancer), depression and anxiety issues are an important but largely under-recognised problem for people with cancer. Read more by clicking here.  And if you listed the unmet needs for NETs, psychological problems would certainly be on the list.

Many people still see a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence but improvements in medical science has meant that fewer people now die of cancer (although certain cancers are still struggling, e.g. Pancreatic).  If fewer people are dying of cancer, it clearly indicates that more people are now either living with their cancer or going into remission?  The latter is indeed very good news and will have impacted the survival figures greatly.

However, some incurable cancers can also have a good prognosis or outlook despite their ability to put a dent in Quality of Life (QoL).  These cancers can provide physical and mental challenges to patients who are living with both the side effects of the cancer and the (lifelong) treatment.  One such type is Neuroendocrine Cancer, sometimes known as ‘the silent cancer or ‘cancer in slow motion‘ in respect the well differentiated versions.  In prognostic terms, there are worse cancers out there, even patients with metastatic disease can have good prognostic outcomes and live fairly normal lives with the right treatment.  But each person is different and there can sometimes be a varying cost in terms of quality of life and risk of patients succumbing to depression and anxiety issues.  Many people not only live with Cancer but they also live with the consequences of Cancer.

As a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient, I have at times felt like my mind wasn’t coping very well despite a healthy and happy outlook – not forgetting that I look so well 🙂  I’m good at bottling things up so it’s easy for me to put on a façade. However, I’ve always managed to give myself a proverbial ‘kick up the backside’ if I feel a drop in my levels of focus and determination. It’s too easy to be constantly fearful and blame every single ache and pain on my cancer (because most of the time it turns out not to be) –  this just increases the fear. I’m generally a POKER FACE type of guy and some might say that is dangerous! However, I’m not complacent nor am I in any form of denial.  One of the key reasons why I study my disease in some detail and work with my medical team prompting them as my own advocate where I think there is a strong connection, is so that I don’t become complacent whilst at the same time I don’t automatically assume any aches and pains are caused by the cancer.  NET Cancer needs an element of pragmatism now and then!  I also think exercise and nutrition can help body and mind – thus why I listed those factors above.

Does mind over matter help? I don’t believe a positive attitude helps cure any condition but I believe it can be helpful for anyone with cancer including those living with incurable diseases such as Neuroendocrine Cancer.

I’ll have Neuroendocrine Cancer forever – I cannot change that, so I’ll just have to deal with it. Quality of life is therefore important – I need to work to maintain and improve where possible.

If you think your psychological issues are unmanageable, I strongly encourage you to talk with your doctor or a counsellor.  In fact, you may appreciate this excellent video from NET Patient Foundation presented by Kym Winter helpful. She is a qualified Psychotherapist and Counsellor – click here.

I also liked this video by Dr Michael Burke, a Psychiatric Oncologist – click here

You may also enjoy my article “8 tips for conquering fear” which is written by a patient for patients and also features both the above videos.

8 tips for conquering fear

Thanks for listening

Ronny

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Passive patient or active advocate?

Sorry to have been quiet for a while but I’ve been so busy with house, family and cancer campaigning activities.  Additionally, I’ve been continuing my research into Neuroendocrine Cancer.  Why do I do this?  Whilst I have a great medical team, I’d also like to be my own advocate and this means understanding what medical people tell me! Moreover, I don’t want to be a passive patient, I want to be an active advocate for my own health.  I found this infographic on the internet which sums up my own views nicely (special thanks to Know your Own Health Ltd).

Passive vs Activated Patient
Passive vs Activated Patient

I actually enjoy researching neuroendocrine disease and I’d like to think it was all in one book somewhere – this simply isn’t the case! From what I’ve read in the past 4 years, I suspect the ‘all encompassing’ book would need to be about 10 feet thick. I also suspect I’m still at the tip of the iceberg! I don’t have room in my house for a 10 feet thick book, so I have to rely on ‘Professor Google’ a lot.  I learnt early on to be careful not to believe everything I find on the internet (…..including on patient forums).

Once you have been researching NETs for some years you learn which are the best sites and what is the sort of thing to ignore.  This wisdom came in handy recently when I was studying neuroendocrine tumours of the thyroid – apparently rarer than hen’s teeth.  To understand the subject, I also researched the Thyroid (in the anatomical sense) and then all types of Thyroid Cancer. It didn’t take long before my head was hurting but it will be the subject of a future blog post.

One of the issues with Neuroendocrine Cancer is the diversity of locations and symptoms in terms of the anatomy and presentational difficulties. Neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) are rare and they present complex challenges to diagnosis and treatment. Even in the case of metastatic spread to the liver and beyond, there are some important differences in the nature of these tumours compared to gastrointestinal and pancreatic cancers.  Many patients are first thought to be suffering from other ailments before finally being diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Cancer, thus delaying their treatment.  It’s not just confusion over vague symptoms leading to misdiagnosis of common ailments, I even found a story of someone who had been misdiagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and been given 12 months to live.  One year later, the person asked a doctor friend why he was still alive and feeling OK which led to further checks and the discovery that this person actually had a Neuroendocrine Tumour of the Pancreas – a less aggressive form of cancer (normally) which was treatable and offered a better prognosis.  Amazing story but this person’s treatment was delayed by 12 months. NET cancer in any part of the body is best left to (or overseen by) Neuroendocrine specialists (in my opinion).  However, had this guy done his own homework, he might have asked some key questions making his doctors at least think of some alternative scenarios.  Food for thought?

Thanks for reading

Ronny Allan

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Dr Google will see you now

 

Searching your symptoms on the internet is

Whenever I need to know anything nowadays, I mostly just look on the internet and sometimes I ask my virtual PA ‘Alexa’ to look for me!  However, you need to be very careful in acceptance of what is credible information and what isn’t.

As a relatively experienced health blogger and activist, I like to think of myself as ‘internet savvy’, so I occasionally find myself using ‘Dr Google’ to diagnose my aches, pains and unusual feelings (and I confess to using it to help others).  I mostly find there are no real or definitive answers online for patient issues.  Although I seem to learn something on each piece of research, I also find some really worrying stuff.  Some symptoms can have dozens of reasons and I often realise how difficult it can often be for a doctor faced with unusual, vague and nonsensical symptoms!

On a recent online symptom check for lower left abdominal spasms, I discovered I was pregnant with an alien baby!  

The internet is really powerful but also really dangerous.  For example if you look up “best treatment for cancer”, you have an astonishing 300 million offerings. Right there with rigorous, evidence-based sites, there are those offering fermented foods and DIY cancer cure kits (e.g. fake healthcare news and cancer myths). Worried patients sometimes need help to distinguish between sensible advice and fanciful claims/ miracle cures.

When I combine my own experience with what I read on patient forums, I can see that internet searching is not for the faint of heart.  Some people are already in a state of anxiety before they started searching Dr Google’s archives, and what they find has probably made their anxiety worse.  In fact, the rise of the internet has created a new term for those who worry themselves sick and continually misdiagnose symptoms on the internet –  ‘Cyberchondriac’. 

However …..

Even when we know ‘googling’ our symptoms won’t end well, we don’t seem to care, we just need answers!  Searching authoritative sites is therefore really important and the availability of proper medical information online is actually putting more power in the hands of patients.  It’s how we as patients exploit it that is really important.  Just as you can find examples of ‘cyberchondria’ online, you can also find examples of patient power in a doctor’s office.  Worryingly, you can also find examples of ‘Dr Google’ being right after being dismissed by real doctors, sometimes resulting in patient illness or even death.  

The medical community need to accept that searching for more information is a natural patient instinct, not a slight against one’s doctor. The profession will have to get better at educating the next generation of doctors now that Dr Google is here to stay and, I think, to help. That said, I don’t believe the internet will ever replace the profound human dimension of the doctor-patient relationship. 

Google-doctor-mug-300x300

Tips for online searching:

1.  Don’t actually use internet search engines if you can help it, go to a reputable site and then search that. For NETs try RonnyAllan.NET

2.  Try to be specific as possible because vague search terms will result in frightening answers, and in practice any symptom can be read as a sign for nearly every single horrible illness, or a worsening or recurrence of an existing condition.

3. Less common conditions are less common, and minor symptoms often resolve themselves in time. If you have more worrying symptoms, or if your symptoms are changing or progressing, then go ‘offline’ i.e. visit your GP or primary care facility. If you’re sure of your facts, be assertive until you’re convinced otherwise. However, accept that the internet may be wrong when you seek medical help. 

5.  If you’re someone with an already diagnosed serious illness, the worry that goes with that is quite understandable – check out my 8 tips article.  However, the same tips apply although you may now have established your own specific sources of advice in addition the general health areas. 

6. Charities and associations for specific conditions are also a good information source but just note they may not have the best or up to date simply because they have been granted a ‘charity’ or equivalent status, so be careful, I’ve been some complete rubbish on these sites.  Patient forums can be ‘frighteningly good’ but they can also be ‘good at frightening’. Personally, I try not to compare myself to strangers on the internet.

I will not compare myself to strangers on the internet
Graphic courtesy of Emily McDowell

OK, the lead graphic is slightly ‘tongue in cheek’ but for those who are very anxious, it’s a reality. I can see from my own group that many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients have become very adept at searching online – useful because many still need a lot of help.

Be careful out there it’s dangerous.  I have a private group for patients and caregivers where I like to ‘keep it real’. Check it out 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!

patients included