Neuroendocrine Cancer: Ga68 PET Scan – a game changer?

When I was offered my very first Ga68 PET/CT at a 6 monthly surveillance meeting in May 2018, I was both excited and apprehensive. Let me explain below why I had a mix of emotions.

I was diagnosed in 2010 with metastatic NETs clearly showing on CT scan, the staging was confirmed via an Octreotide Scan which in addition pointed out two further deposits above the diaphragm (one of which has since been dealt with). In addition to routine surveillance via CT scan, I had two further Octreotide Scans in 2011 and 2013 following 3 surgeries, these confirmed the surveillance CT findings of remnant disease. The third scan in 2013 highlighted an additional lesion in my thyroid (still under a watch and wait regime, biopsy inconclusive but read on….).

To date, my 6 monthly CT scans seem to have been adequate surveillance cover and all my tumour and hormone markers remain normal. I’m reasonably fit and well for a 62-year-old.

Then I ventured into the unknown

this is not actually my scan!

I wrote a comprehensive post about the Ga68 PET entitled “…. Into the unknown” – so named because that is how I felt at the time. It’s well-known that the Ga68 is a far superior nuclear scan to the elderly Octreotide type, showing much greater detail with the advantage of providing better predictions of PRRT success if required downstream. It has been a game changer for many and if you look below and inside my article, you will see statistics indicating just how it can ‘change the game’ in somatostatin receptor positive Neuroendocrine Cancer diagnostics and treatment.

The excitement of the Ga68 PET

I was going to get the latest ‘tech’ and thought it could be useful confirmation of what I already knew. I also felt lucky to get one, they are limited in UK and there has to be a clinical need to get access. I was excited because it might just rubber stamp the stability I’ve enjoyed for the past 5 or so years since my last surgery in 2012.

The apprehension of the Ga68 PET

I also felt apprehensive because of the ‘unknown’ factor with cancer, i.e. what is there lurking in my body that no-one knows about, and which might never harm me but this scan will light it up demanding attention. I was also apprehensive in case this more detailed scan found something potentially dangerous. As we know, NETs are mostly slow-growing but always sneaky. Of course, any new tumours found may not actually be new, they were just not seen until the Ga68 PET was able to uncover them.  How annoying!

Is the Ga68 PET Scan a game changer?

To confirm the advantages of SSTR PET over Octreotide scans, a study comprising 1,561 patients reported a change in tumour management occurred in over a third of patients after SSTR PET/CT even when performed after an Octreotide scan.

  • Overall, change in management occurred in 44% (range, 16%-71%) of NET patients after SSTR PET/CT.
  • In 4 of 14 studies, SSTR PET/CT was performed after an 111In-Octreotide scan. In this subgroup, additional information by SSTR PET/CT led to a change in management in 39% (range, 16%-71%) of patients.
  • Seven of 14 studies differentiated between inter- and intramodality changes, with most changes being intermodality (77%; intramodality, 23%). (note: intermodality means changes within the same treatment, intramodality means change to another treatment).

In an older study, this slide from a NET Research Foundation conference shows some more interesting statistics:

This slide from a recent NET Research Foundation conference confirms the power of more detailed scanning

Was Ga68 PET a game changer for me?

Yes, I believe so.  I’m now in the ‘bone met club’ and although that single metastasis has probably been there for some time, it’s not a ‘label‘ I was keen to add to my portfolio. If I was to be 100% honest, I’m not totally convinced it’s a metastasis. The scan has brought more light onto my thyroid issue.  In fact it indicate even more potential issues above the diaphragm including what looks like a new sighting around my left pectoral.  The can also lghts up a known issue in the left clavicle lymph nodes, first pointed out via Octreotide scan in 2010 and biopsy negative.

In addition to a nuclear scan update (routine surveillance), it also formed part of an investigation into progression of my retroperitoneal fibrosis (initially diagnosed 2010 but potential growth spotted on recent surveillance CT).  The Ga68 PET doesn’t make fibrosis light up (it’s not cancerous) but there are some hotspots in the area of the aorta close to the fibrosis.   Surgery is on hold for now as my kidney function is fine following a renal MAG3 scan which reported no blockages. 

It would appear I’m no longer a boring stable patient

The Ga68 PET Scan confirmed:

Bone Metastases. Report indicates “intense focal uptake“. It always amazes me that people can be thankful for having an extra tumour.  I’m thankful I only have a single bone metastasis (right rib number 11). I had read so many stories of those who got their first Ga68 PET and came back with multiple bone metastases. I’ll accept one and add to my NET CV. I have no symptoms of this bone metastasis and it will now be monitored going forward. I’m annoyed that I don’t know how long it’s been there though!

Confirmation and better understanding of the following:

  1. Thyroid lesion There is some uptake showing. A 2014 Biopsy of this lesion was inconclusive and actual 2018 Ga68 PET report infers physiological uptake. I’m already diagnosed hypothyroidism, possibly connected.  (Edit – on ultrasound in Jan 2019, looks slightly smaller than previous check).
  2. Left Supraclavicular Fossa (SCF) Nodes lighting up “intense uptake“.  I’ve had an exploratory biopsy of the SCF nodes, 5 nodes removed negative. Nothing is ‘pathologically enlarged’ in this area. Monitored every 6 months on CT, annually on ultrasound.  I had 9 nodes removed from the left axillary in 2012, 5 tested positive for NETs and this area did not light up. This whole area on the left above the diaphragm continues to be controversial. My surgeon once said I had an unusual disposition of tumours.  (Edit: Nothing sinister or worryingly enlarged showing on Jan 2019 ultrasound – measuring 6mm).
  3. Report also highlights left subpectoral lymph nodes which is new.  The subpectoral area is very interesting as from my quick research, they are closer to the left axillary (armpit) nodes than they are to the SCF nodesI’m hoping to get an ultrasound of these in January at my annual thyroid clinic (Edit: nothing sinister showing on ultrasound in Jan 2019).
  4. My known liver metastases lit up (remnant from liver surgery 2011) – not marked as intense though. The figure of 3 seems to figure highly throughout my surveillance scans although the PET report said “multiple” and predominately right-sided which fits.
  5. Retroperitoneal area. This has been a problem area for me since diagnosis and some lymph nodes are identified (intense word not used). This area has been highlighted on my 3 octreotide scans to date and was first highlighted in my diagnosis trigger scan due to fibrosis (desmoplasia) which was surrounding the aorta and inferior venous cava, some pretty important blood vessels. I wrote an article on the issue very recently – you can read by clicking here. So this scan confirms there are potentially active lymph nodes in this area, perhaps contributing to further growth of the fibrosis threatening important vessels – read below.

Retroperitoneal Fibrosis (Desmoplasia)

I have learned so much about desmoplasia since this issue arose that I now fully understand why I had to have radical surgery back in 2010 to try to remove as much of the fibrosis as possible from the aortic area. You can read more about this in my article.  Desmoplasia via fibrosis is still very much of an unknown and mystery condition in NETs.

I now know that my fibrosis is classed as clinically significant and according to the Uppsala study of over 800 patients inside my article, I’m in 5% of those affected in this way (2% if you calculate it using just the retroperitoneal area).

It appears this problem has come back with new fibrosis or growth of existing fibrosis threatening to impinge on blood vessels related to the kidneys and also my ureters (kidney to bladder urine flow). The Ga68 PET doesn’t make fibrosis light up (it’s not cancerous) but there are some hotspots in the area of the aorta close to the fibrosis.

I didn’t expect this particular problem to return – it was a bit of a shock. My hormone markers have been normal for 8 years and this just emphasises the importance of scans in surveillance. 

Conventional Imaging is still important though

There’s still quite a lot of hype surrounding the Ga68 PET scan and I get this.  However, it does not replace conventional imaging (CI) such as CT and MRI scans which still have their place in routine surveillance and also in diagnostics where they are normally at least the trigger for ‘something is wrong’. For the vast majority, a CT/MRI scan will find tumours and be able to measure reductions and progress in regular surveillance regimes. There are actually recommended usages for the Ga68 PET scan here.  For example, it is not recommended for routine surveillance in place of CI.

In fact, the retroperitoneal fibrosis has appeared on every CT scan since diagnosis but the changes were highlighted on my most recent standalone CT and it triggered the Ga68 PET (although my new Oncologist did say I was due a revised nuclear scan).  It’s not a ‘functional’ issue (although it is caused by functional tumours). In fact the fibrosis is not mentioned on the Ga68 PET because it is not lighting up – but the lymph nodes surrounding it are mentioned and they are under suspicious as being active.

Read a summary of all conventional scans and nuclear scans by clicking here.

Next Steps

I’ve since has meetings with my Oncologist and Surgeon and a treatment plan is underway. My surgeon explained it all in his wonderfully articulate and brilliant surgical mind. Fortunately it’s not really urgent but pre-emptive treatment may be required at some point as the consequences of kidney/bladder function are quite severe. Following some further checks, the anticipated surgery is on hold for now as my kidney function is fine following a renal MAG3 scan which reported no blockages.  I continue to have monthly renal blood tests and it was hinted another renal MAG3 could be done at the end of the year.


My game has changed, that’s for sure. I’m now entering a new phase and I’m waiting on details of my revised surveillance regime. However, at least my medical team and I now know what WE are dealing with and the risks vs benefits are currently being assessed. I’m heavily involved in that.

If you can see it, you can detect it. If you can detect it, you can monitor or treat it.

Gallium 68 PET Scans – Into the Unknown


Cancer is a growth industry …literally! More people are being diagnosed than ever before. Fortunately, more people are surviving than ever before. This is against a backdrop of better awareness, better screening in the big population cancers, and to a certain extent better diagnostic tools, all of which is leading to earlier diagnosis.

So how does this affect Neuroendocrine Cancer?

According to the latest SEER database figures for Neuroendocrine Cancer, one reason for the 7 fold increase in incidence rates since the 1970s is all of those things above including better diagnostics. This has led to a revised set of epidemiological information in many countries that have made the effort to accurately update their cancer registries and there are consistent reports of incidence rates way beyond the recognised rare thresholds. Another piece of good news is that the increase in NET incidence is also due to earlier diagnosis. To sum that up – NETs is also a growth industry.

Better diagnostics

Combined with more awareness and education (including the important pathologists), more NETs than ever are being found, and many found earlier. However, it’s not party time yet because there remains far too many misdiagnoses due to the low population of the disease and the difficulty in diagnosing it. I want to focus on scanning (thus the title of the article). Whilst there are really important factors involved in a diagnosis, such as tumor and hormone markers, and biopsies (tissue is the issue), a scan is very frequently what triggers many deeper investigations to unearth a NET, i.e. if you can see it, you can normally detect it (whatever the ‘it’ is). And I include the widespread availability and increasing advances in endoscopy/ultrasounds/cameras which have also been instrumental in picking up many Gastrointestinal NETs.

The Gallium 68 PET Scan

There’s a lot of excitement about the Gallium 68 PET Scan since it was approved by the US FDA. It’s not new though and has been in use in several countries for some time. It’s a ‘nuclear scan’ and can often form part of what is known as a ‘Theranostic Pair’ (i.e. in conjunction with a therapy – read more here).

What does it do?

It comprises two main components – a PET scanning machine, and the use of a diagnostic imaging agent which is injected into the person undergoing the scan. Most machines have an inbuilt CT which forms part of the scan. The agent is a somatostatin analogue labeled radionuclide (Gallium 68) and basically the PET will then be used to see where the peptide/radionuclide mix ‘loiters’ (i.e. where there are concentrations of somatostatin receptors (SSTR) normally indicating ‘focal intense abnormality‘ of the type that is regularly found with NETs.

Imaging Agents. There are different agent variants, namely, DOTATATE, DOTATOC and DOTANOC. In USA, you may sometimes see this referred as NETSPOT which is more of a commercial label for the agent (NETSPOT is a DOTATATE). Ga68 PET or SSTR PET are common descriptors for the entire process regardless of the compound. Clearly the scan works best for those with ‘somatostatin receptor positive’ tumours.

These newer agents have several benefits over the elderly In111-pentetreotide (Octreotide scan), including improved detection sensitivity, improved patient convenience due to the 2-3 hour length of the study (compared to 2 or 3 days with Octreoscan), decreased radiation dose, decreased biliary excretion due to earlier imaging after radiotracer administration, and the ability to quantify uptake. The quantification of the uptake can help decide whether a patient is suitable for radionuclide therapy such as PRRT. Eventually, all Octreotide scans should be replaced with SSTR PET but it will take some time (and money).

Octreoscan vs Ga68 PET

To confirm the advantages of SSTR PET over Octreotide scans, a study comprising 1,561 patients reported a change in tumour management occurred in over a third of patients after SSTR PET/CT even when performed after an Octreotide scan. Worth pointing out that SSTR PET is replacing the ageing Octreotide scan and not conventional imaging (CI). You can see the recommended scenarios for use of SSTR PET in this article published by the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. The slide below is interesting, although it was a small study. However, you can see the treatment changes as a result of a Ga68 PET are quite striking.

This slide from a NET Research Foundation conference confirms the power of more detailed scanning

Any pitfalls with Ga68 PET Scan?

When you look at the study data above, it looks like an excellent addition to the diagnostic and surveillance toolkit for NETs. However, one of the challenges with modern scanning equipment and techniques is the ability to correctly interpret the results – in my opinion, this is almost as important as the efficiency of the machines and radionuclides. This requirement has been acknowledged in many articles and I particularly like this technical paper from a very experienced nuclear medicine physician Professor Michael Hofman from the Centre for Cancer Imaging at the Peter MacCallum Cancer in Melbourne. I had a chat with Professor Hofman who added that this is a very sensitive scan, so often picks up “new” disease, which isn’t really new, just never identifiable on standard imaging. However, there’s an excellent section on pitfalls in interpretation and I’m quoting an abstract below.

“Although GaTate PET/CT is a highly sensitive and specific technique for NETs, the attending physician or radiologist must be aware of various physiologic and other pathologic processes in which cellular expression of SSTR can result in interpretative error. Most of these processes demonstrate low-intensity and/or nonfocal uptake, in contrast with the focal intense abnormality encountered in NETs. Causes of interpretative pitfalls include prominent pancreatic uncinate process activity, inflammation, osteoblastic activity (degenerative bone disease, fracture, vertebral hemangioma), splenunculi or splenosis, and benign meningioma.”

“The highest-intensity physiologic uptake of GaTate is seen in the spleen, followed by the adrenal glands, kidneys, and pituitary gland”

It follows that failure to interpret nuclear scans alongside the patient’s clinical history can sometimes result in two big issues for patients:

1. Unnecessary worry when ‘something’ shows up which is actually a false positive.

2. Something which leads to irreversible treatment when it is was not required.

Just imagine something which is 40 times better than current PET scan technology? That’s what the scientists are working on now. Here’s an example called “EXPLORER“. You can update yourself here. The issue of interpretation will be even more difficult when the new generation of scans appear. There’s an excellent article from Cancer Research UK talking about the modern phenomenon called ‘overdiagnosis’ – read here

Lanreotide and Octreotide and timing the scan?

From the same technical document referred above, here’s an extract (updated to include Lanreotide). “Uptake at physiologic and pathologic sites may change in patients who undergo concomitant short- or long-acting somatostatin analog therapy, which competes with the radiotracer for bioavailability. We generally discontinue short-acting octreotide for 12–24 hours and perform imaging in the week before the next dose of long-acting Octreotide/*Lanreotide, which is typically administered monthly“.  It’s actually the same text as found in the manufacturer’s drug leaflet (click here). More evidence behind the reason for this restriction is found here (please refer to the comments on Ga68 PET – the article also covers the issue of PRRT which is very interesting as a separate subject to the scan timings).

*added by the author for completeness.

Having my first Ga68 PET Scan after 8 years of  living with NETs? 

When I was offered my very first Ga68 PET/CT at my recent 6 monthly surveillance meeting, I was both excited and apprehensive. I was diagnosed in 2010 and my staging was confirmed via an Octreotide Scan pointing out two further deposits (one of which has since been dealt with). I’ve had two further Octreotide Scans in 2011 and 2013 following 3 surgeries. The third scan in 2013 highlighted my thyroid lesion – still under a watch and wait regime. So far, my 6 monthly CT scans seemed to be adequate surveillance cover and my markers remain normal.

I’m apprehensive because of the ‘unknown’ factor with cancer – what is there lurking in my body that no-one knows about and which might never harm me.

I’m excited because it might just confirm that there is nothing new to worry about.

However, I’m both excited (morbidly) and apprehensive because the scan might find something potentially dangerous. As we know, NETs are mostly slow growing but always sneaky. That said, at least I will know and my medical team will know and be able to assess the risk and decide on a course of action.

Doing the Scan

On 5th June 2018, I attended a very experienced Ga68 PET establishment called Guys Cancer Centre in London.  I arrived and was immediately taken under the wing of the nuclear medicine guys who asked me fairly in depth questions about my clinical background.  They then inserted a cannula ready for the injection of the radiolabelled tracer.  I was then installed in the ‘hot room’ where they injected the radionuclide tracer through the cannula and then I had to remain in the hot room for 1 hour to let the tracer circulate.  After 1 hour, I was taken to the PET scanner and it took around 30-35 minutes. Following that I was allowed to leave for home.  It was an extremely easy experience and a significant improvement on doing the 3 day Octreotide scan.


Door to the ‘hot room’

The Results of the Ga68 PET Scan – CLICK HERE

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


In the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life

Adding life to years is as important as

OPINION.  In the last 24 months, there seems to have been announcement after announcement of new and/or upgraded/enhanced diagnostics and treatment types for Neuroendocrine Cancer.  Increased availability of radionuclide scans, increased availability of radionuclide therapies, combination therapies, increased availability of somatostatin analogues, biological therapies, enhanced surgical and minimally invasive techniques, new oral drugs for carcinoid syndrome, more trials including  immunotherapy. Admittedly, some of the announcements are just expansions of existing therapies having been approved in new regions. Compared to some other cancers, even those which hit the headlines often, we appear to be doing not too badly. However, the pressure needs to stay on, all patients, regardless of where they live, need access to the best diagnostics and treatments for them; and at the requisite time. This alone is one very big unmet need in a whole range of countries still lacking.

The ‘War on Cancer’ forgot about Neuroendocrine

The ‘war on cancer’ has been around for the last 50 years, it’s still being waged.  There are now more ‘fronts’ and it’s taking longer than thought to find the ‘cure’. The recently announced Cancer Moonshot initiative is a timely ‘reinforcement’.  Despite this 50 year war, it seems like there’s only been a war on Neuroendocrine Cancer for the last 10 of those years. I guess they were focussed on the big cancers and/or the seemingly impossible ‘universal cure’.  Prior to that, for NETs, there is only evidence of some skirmishes, more like guerrilla warfare. Now we have a developed nuclear capability!  I believe the turning point was the SEER database work carried out by Dr James Yao in 2004 who confirmed the incidence had grown by 400% in 3 decades, i.e. confirming it was no longer rare. The rise of both incidence and prevalence was then amplified in the follow on 2012 study (Desari et al).  To be rare is to ignored, so I don’t understand the motives of those who ignore the indisputable mathematical facts available.

Let’s not forget about the consequences of cancer

It is true that half of people diagnosed with cancer now survive for at least ten years. Many live for years with cancer, on ‘watch and wait’ or going through various treatments and tests; their future remaining uncertain.  For this group, and even for those whose treatment has successfully removed or shrunk their tumour, the struggle with the consequences and late effects of cancer and its treatment can last for years.  Many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients fit into this category.

This is why I was very pleased to hear about the new International Neuroendocrine Cancer Alliance (INCA) campaign to not only address the ‘unmet’ needs of NET patients but to undertake to do it alongside NET specialists representing regional groupings.  I was also extremely happy to have been invited as a guest of INCA to attend the first ever joint patient-physician seminar hosted by ENETS followed by the annual INCA summit where doctors were also invited to form a panel for the first session. It’s worth remembering that I’m not part of the INCA alliance, nor do I represent any national organisation on this blog.  I’m simply RonnyAllan.NET  I was pleased to have asked the very first question about this particular unmet need, emphasising we need more support for those living with Neuroendocrine Cancer, including research into their common issues.

The first question to the first ever joint patient-physician symposium

Unmet Needs for NETs

So, there’s a lot of treatments for many types of Neuroendocrine Cancer out there, just not everyone has access to them – therefore an unmet need at the international level.  Others are earlier diagnosis, access to multi-disciplinary teams (MDT), ability to access quality information at diagnosis and beyond including clinical trials, funding, accurate national registries to improve statistics and more treatments fot some of the less common types. One area where I feel there is a huge unmet need is in the area of patient support following diagnosis.  Although some countries are more advanced than others in this area, even in the so-called advanced countries, there are huge gaps in provision of long-term support for those living with Neuroendocrine Cancer. For example, physicians need to focus more on:

Late diagnosis. People will be dealing from the effects of late diagnosis which has resulted in metastatic disease – and some people will have been fighting misdiagnosed illnesses for years.  That takes its toll.

Consequences of Surgery. People will have had surgery which in many cases is life changing – various bits of the gut (gastrointestinal tract) are now missing, lungs are now missing – many other locations will have been excised or partly excised.  These bits of our anatomy were there for a purpose and QoL takes a hit when they are chopped out.

Inoperable Tumours and Syndromes. People will be dealing with remnant and/or inoperable tumours which may or may not be producing an associated NET syndrome (some of the symptoms can be rather debilitating in the worst cases)

Consequences of Non-surgical Treatment.  Additionally, people will be dealing with the side effects of multi-modal non surgical treatments, such as somatostatin analogue hormone therapy (Octreotide/Lanreotide), chemotherapy, biological therapy (mTOR inhibitors) (i.e. Everolimus (Afinitor)), biological therapy (protein kinase inhibitors (i.e. Sunitinib (Sutent)), radionuclide therapy (i.e. PRRT).  Whilst it’s great there are a wide range of therapies, they all come with side effects.

Secondary Illnesses and Comorbidities. Some people will have gained secondary illnesses in part due to the original cancer or treatment – e.g. somatostatin analogue hormone therapy can have a side effect of increasing blood sugar to diabetic levels.  There are many other examples.

Finances. NET Cancer can be an expensive cancer to treat and this is exacerbated by the length of time the treatment lasts. A highly prevalent cancer, treatment is for life.  It follows that NET Cancer is an ‘expensive’ cancer to have.  Whilst most people have access to free public services or private insurance, many people will still end up out-of-pocket due to their cancer.

Emotional Aspects. Many NET patients are kept under surveillance for the remainder of their lives.  With that comes the constant worry that the cancer progresses, tumours get bigger, new tumours show up, treatments are denied (i.e. PRRT in the UK).  It’s no surprise that anxiety and depression can affect many patients in these situations. To some extent, there can be a knock-on effect to close family members and carers where applicable.

As I said within my question to the INCA panel, even if you found a cure for NETs tomorrow, it will not replace the bits of my GI tract excised as part of my treatment.  For many people, even ‘beating’ cancer might not feel much like a ‘win’.  It’s a two-way street though – we need to work with our doctors, trying to change lifestyles to cope better with some of these issues.  This is why it’s really important to complete patient surveys. However, my point is this: more research into some of these issues (e.g. nutrition, optimum drug dosage, secondary effects) and earlier patient support to help understand and act on these issues, would be good starters.

“Adding life to years is as important as adding years to life”

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patients included

One every 2 hours


Neuroendocrine Cancer Incidence Rate - EnglandI’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t believe Neuroendocrine Cancer is rare and you can read why in some detail in my article Neuroendocrine Cancer – not as rare as you think.  Better diagnostic technology, greater awareness and better recording of the correct disease in national cancer registries.

The latest figures for Public Health England (covering ~90% of UK), indicate there are now 4800 diagnoses of NETs every year, i.e. more people than ever are being diagnosed, It is calculated from an incidence rate of 9/100,000 (using the 2011 census for England of 53,000,000) The new figures do not include Lung Neuroendocrine Carcinomas (LCNEC and SCLC) – so it is understated. This would appear to debunk the myth that the condition is rare given that the incidence rate has now gone beyond the threshold to be considered rare in Europe (5/100,000).

You can read the Public Health England (PHE) paper by visiting the NET Patient Foundation site here.

To put this diagnostic data into perspective:

4800 newly diagnosed NETs a year in England alone

= 400 a month

= 92 a week

= 13 a day

= 1 every 1.84 hrs

And in USA …

The UK is not alone in recording major increases taking the incidence and prevalence beyond the threshold of rare disease categorisation.  The very latest SEER figures for USA confirmed the disease is no longer rare in 2017, particularly as the annual incidence rate is now 23,000 in that country (circa 5 every 2 hours).
Neuroendocrine Cancer Incidence Rate - USA

Please let’s stop perpetuating the myth.

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – not as rare as you think


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.


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 …….” 

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.

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.

Graphic from the NET Research Foundation –

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)

“… 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.