The Invisible NET Patient Population 

The Invisible NET Patinet Population

OPINION

 

I found some of the quotes from the recent NET SEER Database study (Dasari et al) very interesting.  The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program is a comprehensive source of population-based information initiated in 1973 that is updated annually. Although the study is US-based, it represents the largest study of Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs) ever recorded and is therefore a good guide to what might be found beyond USA. In fact, other national declarations of incidence and prevalence of NETs seem to bear these statistics out, i.e incidence rates of 7-8/100,000 …… almost 7 times the rate recorded in the 1970s. If you want to understand the factors behind this massive increase, I covered this extensively in my post “Neuroendocrine Tumors – not as rare as you think“.  In this article, I looked at USA and beyond. Those who are regular readers of my articles will already know I’ve been ‘banging on’ about this for a few years. Other organisations and individuals (including NET specialists) are now indicating these tumors are not rare, some vindication for my aforementioned ‘banging on’.  This is now a serious disease with some serious statistics behind it and we need a new way of doing things.

 There are two further quotes which I’d like to focus on in this article:

1. From the NET SEER Database study published 2017:

…… many cases of NETs may not have been reported to cancer registries unless considered malignant…… it is likely that we have underestimated their true incidence and prevalence” – i.e. the slide here:

SEER 2012 Underestimated

2. From Dana Farber (Kulke, Chan):

“Estimated more than 200,000 undiagnosed cases in the US” – this slide here:

dana-farber-200000

…. But what do these quotes actually mean?  Here’s my take:

Underestimating the true incidence and prevalence of NETs

I studied the latest SEER NET study, formally titled “Trends in the Incidence, Prevalence, and Survival Outcomes in Patients With Neuroendocrine Tumors in the United States” (authored by Arvind Dasari, MD, MS; Chan Shen, PhD; Daniel Halperin, MD; et al). From this document, I can see the authors were aware of the well-known faults in cancer registries worldwide and the effect this has on the true incidence and prevalence of Neuroendocrine Cancer.  These issues, which are a worldwide problem, include the incorrect registration of Neuroendocrine Cancer as other types based on the anatomical location of the primary tumor.  At this point, you may wish to check out my post “The Human Anatomy of Neuroendocrine Cancer” which provides some real life examples of the confusion between primary Neuroendocrine location and other cancers. That said, things are definitely improving because the latest SEER data shows a marked increase in the incidence of High Grade Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (NEC), an area where this issue is prevalent. A similar increase in NEC was also illustrated in the UK’s figures from Public Health England (PHE) in 2016 (click here) indicating that cancer registries are getting better and not before time, although it has to be said this only came about due to a major intervention by NET Patient Foundation and others. Through this work, it’s becoming clear that the incidence of all NETs in UK is around 8 to 9 per 100.000 (rare threshold <=5).

But there’s another issue impacting whether a diagnosis is actually entered on a cancer registry or not.  Unfortunately, there are members of the medical community who still see well differentiated NETs as benign tumors, ‘not a proper cancer’ and still use ancient terminology ………  ‘Carcinoid’.  The WHO 2010 classification for NETs was based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential. Here’s a quote from the UKINETS Guidelines in 2011 (Ramage, Caplin, Meyer, Grossman, et al).

Tumours should be classified according to the WHO 2010 classification (Bosman FT, Carneiro F, Hruban RH, et al. WHO Classification of Tumours of the Digestive System. Lyon: IARC, 2010). This classification is fundamentally different from the WHO 2000 classification scheme, as it no longer combines stage related information with the two-tiered system of well and poorly differentiated NETs. The WHO 2010 classification is based on the concept that all NETs have malignant potential, and has therefore abandoned the division into benign and malignant NETs and tumours of uncertain malignant potential.

The guidance in WHO 2017 for Endocrine Organs reinforces this statement.

The undiagnosed NET patient population

From above, you can see why the incidence (and therefore the prevalence) of our disease has almost definitely been underestimated.  However, that’s not the end of my story……..

A number of statements are clear about Neuroendocrine Tumors:

  • Low/Intermediate grade well differentiated tumors are known to have been growing slowly over a number of years before discovery or accurate diagnosis occurs,
  • They can be difficult to diagnose,
  • They are not that well-known amongst the general medical population,
  • Many people are initially misdiagnosed with another condition, with some this will result in late presentation with metastatic disease.
  • Many NETs are found during autopsies.

The living undiagnosed. It’s worth pointing out that one of the conclusions made by the recent SEER NET study is that the increase in incidence and prevalence can be attributed to a number of factors including earlier diagnosis.  This is of course excellent news.  Also worth noting that another conclusion of the study is that we are all living longer, reflecting improvements in therapies.  This is also great news and is a factor in increased prevalence figures. However, it seems obvious that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there still be diagnosed who have tumors silently growing inside them and who are in a loop of referrals between primary and secondary care awaiting a proper diagnosis. See the Dana Farber slide above.  Please help these people by sharing this article – you never know who it will reach – Diagnosing the Undiagnosed.

The dead undiagnosed? The true incidence of NETs may be much 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 (based on the known incidence rate at the time, this is 8 per 100,000).
  • In Australia, one study claimed that 0.05% of all autopsies found a Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma. “
  • The Mayo Clinic experience shows that in up to 50% of cases of pheochromocytoma, the correct diagnosis is made at autopsy (ergo the incidence rate could be double what is published).
  • Here is an article claiming that former US President Dwight D Eisenhower had a biopsy confirming he had a Pheochromocytoma.  Click here.
  • A Hong Kong study indicated that 1% of all autopsies discovered an ‘Islet Cell’ tumour (i.e. a Pancreatic NET or pNET).
  • In one series, (excuse the outdated terminology…….) ‘carcinoid’ tumors were found in 1.22% of 16,294 autopsies in Malmö, Sweden, 90% of which were incidental findings.

It’s possible that many of these people showed no NET symptoms during their life but …… it’s equally possible that many of these people had NET symptoms but just put up with it and/or had been diagnosed with something else, and then died without a correct diagnosis.  There is no evidence that any investigation follow ups were done so this possibility remains.

The potential for even more undiagnosed. To add to the underdiagnoses of NETs issue, 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 has 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

Are you undiagnosed but suspect NETs?

Check out my advice by clicking here.

Summary

I suspect there’s an invisible patient population for many conditions but the slow-growing and relatively quiet nature of Neuroendocrine Cancer means there could be a significant undiagnosed burden walking around, looking for a diagnosis, putting up with symptoms and being treated for other conditions. I see people on forums looking for clues, social media can sometimes be helpful here. That said, I do get the feeling some do not have NETs, regardless of the symptoms they associate with the disease, but I guess many of them will go on to be formally diagnosed with something. I’m contacted by many ‘undiagnosed’ people on my own blog and supporting Facebook sites (mostly privately) and I can tell you that’s a tough gig.  I only hope I’ve given them some useful ideas about where to look or what to ask/suggest.

I feel earlier diagnosis reported in the SEER study is partly due to increased awareness, particularly in the medical world. I would also suggest that it has improved in the general population due to the explosion of social media information dissemination. It’s also accurate to say that improvements in diagnostic capabilities is also playing its part in pushing up incidence rates, just as improved therapies have pushed up prevalence rates, something emphasised by Dasari (et al) in the most recent study.  Things are improving but there is so much more to do.

The issues caused by inefficient registries together with ‘the undiagnosed’, combine to suggest there is a large invisible NET patient population out there ……. we just need to find them!  

Thanks to NET Patient Foundation for featuring this article here.

NET Patient Foundation logo

Neuroendocrine Cancer – Incurable is not untreatable

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, despite in most cases in reference to well differentiated diagnoses. 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, including the higher grade cases.

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

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