Neuroendocrine Cancer – a difficult jigsaw

NET Cancer Jigsaw

A couple of years ago, I received a request from a reader asking if I would write an article about all the symptoms experienced by a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient and how to sort out what is and what isn’t associated with NETs.

Although I chuckled and raised eyebrows at the request, inside I was genuinely humbled that someone thought I was capable of achieving this herculean task.  I actually gave it quite a bit of thought to the point of compiling a matrix of types of NET, main symptoms, cross-referenced with the symptoms of the most common reported comorbidities. After it started to look like it might be bigger than the Empire State Building, I came to the conclusion that it’s an almost impossible task for a wee Scottish guy with less common disease 🙂  I also started to suspect that even the world’s top NET experts had not accomplished it either.

Here’s a picture of my work to date:

Book of NETS
A book listing all the possibly symptoms of NETs (clearly I’m joking with you)

I have, however, dabbled in attempts to work out my own problems over the past few years. NETs can present with a ‘syndrome’ – a bunch of symptoms normally caused by excessive hormone secretion, some of which are particularly vague and can sometimes continue to cause issues after treatment and beyond – it’s a real witch’s brew of symptoms. They can also cause non-syndromic issues pertaining to treatment side effects and it must also be noted that even NET patients get regular illnesses which adds to the issues healthcare professionals and patients face in monitoring NETs.

In my article “Neuroendocrine Cancer Syndromes – early signs of a late diagnosis”, I focused on the key symptoms experienced pre-diagnosis and then discussed how you might go about sorting out the symptoms from main side effects post treatment (another regular conundrum for most).  On a similar subject, you might want to check out my 5 E’s blog for carcinoid syndrome. I also compiled an article about the source of flushing and diarrhea given there were many differential diagnoses and not just syndromes.

NETs vs Other Illnesses

Adding another jigsaw piece to the issues with cancer and side effects – common comorbidities (many of an endocrine nature) can arise simultaneously. Is it connected with NETs are just another illness to manage alongside?  All of these factors can make it really difficult to determine the source of the symptoms.  I’m always conscious that the majority of NET patients are in their 5th decade onward and at an age where things start to go wrong quite naturally due to ‘time’ and ‘wear and tear’.

Here’s one classic example of this problem, I can see many people on forums also have diabetes (an endocrine disease). In the United States alone, nearly 7 million people have undiagnosed diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.  I can also see from the news in UK, that this is becoming a much bigger deal too – a report published in Feb 2018 claims that diagnoses have doubled in 20 years.  I’ve used the diabetes link as an example, there will be many other very common factors at play, e.g. hypothyroidism an age and gender relation issue.  It is certainly possible that many of the problems people face might just be an as yet undiagnosed/underlying condition, unconnected with NETs. To quote the great Dr Eric Liu, “even NET Patients get regular illnesses”.  Working it out is rather difficult though. Sometimes pragmatism is required. 

Syndromes vs Side Effects of Treatment

On forums where most people have a diagnosis and are undergoing treatment, there is regular discussion and Q&As about the source of symptoms, i.e. are they a result of a functioning syndrome (i.e. a consequence of the cancer) or something else?  For example, some people complain they still have (so-called) carcinoid syndrome diarrhea after bowel surgery………that needs some careful thought and understanding before coming to what might just be the wrong conclusion, particularly if all tumour markers are normal.  I have lost count of the number of times someone has asked about a symptom on a forum and got 50 different answers. One of the reasons why forums can be good at frightening rather than frighteningly good.  Personally, I never compare myself to strangers on the internet. I just hope most people are using the forums as ‘sounding boards’ and are simultaneously addressing these very complex issues with their doctors when they are genuinely concerned.

I really feel for anyone who is going through a difficult diagnosis or has been diagnosed and then continues to have numerous problems after initial treatment.  I also have a little bit of sympathy for primary care medical staff on the basis this is just one of over 200 types of cancer, many of which have wide age groupings adding to the complexity and difficulty. Moreover, many of the symptoms experienced by NET patients on analysis look very similar to everyday illnesses and other ailments. And if that wasn’t demanding enough for doctors, many patients present with already established and diagnosed comorbidities (other illnesses) which add another level of complexity. These difficulties can then continue throughout treatment. It can be a real challenge and I’m sure even Doctors can be totally flummoxed on occasion by patient presentations.

Summary

It is extremely difficult to “sort out the symptoms” when faced with multiple locations/tumour sub-types, multiple treatments causing multiple side effects, multiple side effects causing multiple symptoms, multiple comorbidities with symptoms similar to cancer syndromes and treatment side effects (and vice versa).  This disease can be very individual and what happens to one might not happen to another. Although we hope doctors generally take a holistic view when treating NET patients, I have a view that sometimes focussing in on a particular symptom might occasionally be a more effective route (the bottom-up approach – pun not intended!).  When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time!  It’s useful to know about the range of tumor markers and hormone markers – read more here.

 

One thing I have learned  ……educate yourself to the best of your abilities.  This will help you to better advocate for yourself.  Improvements are possible.

Neuroendocrine Cancer is a very difficult jigsaw and you sometimes need to look very hard for the missing piece!  The ‘missing piece’ can be variable and very individual, i.e. a NET specialist, access to a particular treatment or even just more support or access to support information that works.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Neuroendocrine Cancer Nutrition Series Article 2 – Gastrointestinal Malabsorption

 

This is the second article in the Neuroendocrine Cancer Nutrition series. In  the first article, I focused on Vitamin and Mineral deficiency risks for patients and there is a big overlap with the subject of Gastrointestinal Malabsorption. Those who remember the content will have spotted the risks pertaining to the inability to absorb particular vitamins and minerals. This comes under the general heading of Malabsorption and in Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, this can be caused or exacerbated by one or more of a number of factors relating to their condition. It’s also worth pointing out that malabsorption issues can be caused by other reasons unrelated to NETs. Additionally, malabsorption and nutrient deficiency issues can form part of the presenting symptoms which eventually lead to a diagnosis of Neuroendocrine Cancer; e.g. in my own case, I was initially diagnosed with Iron Deficiency Anemia in association with some weight loss. Even after diagnosis, these issues still need to be carefully monitored as they can manifest as part of the consequences of having cancer and cancer treatment.

Malabsorption will present via several symptoms which may be similar to other issues (i.e. they could masquerade as, or appear to worsen the effect of a NET Syndrome). These symptoms may include (but are not limited to) tiredness/fatigue/lethargy, stomach cramps, diarrhea, steatorrhea (see below), weight loss. Some of these symptoms could be a direct result of nutrient deficiencies caused by the malabsorption.  Some patients (and perhaps physicians?) could mistake these for symptoms of Neuroendocrine disease including certain syndromes, perhaps leading to prescribing expensive and unnecessary drugs when a different (and cheaper) strategy might be better.

Crash Course……. We eat food, but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food, it absorbs nutrients.  Food has to be broken down from things like steak and broccoli into its nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other plant and animal compounds. Digestive enzymes, primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine (they’re also made in saliva glands and the stomach), break down our food into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them.  If we don’t have enough digestive enzymes, we can’t break down our food—which means even though we’re eating well, we aren’t absorbing all that good nutrition.

What is malabsorption?

The malabsorption associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer is most prevalent with the inability to digest fat properly which can lead to steatorrhea. Patients will recognise this in their stools. They may be floating, foul-smelling and greasy (oily) and frothy looking. Many patients confuse steatorrhea with diarrhea but technically it’s a different issue although both issues may present concurrently. Whilst we all need some fat in our diets (e.g. for energy), if a patient is not absorbing fat, it ends up being wasted in their stools and in addition to the steatorrhea, it can also potentially lead to (unwanted) weight loss and micronutrient deficiencies of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Certain water-soluble vitamins, particularly B3 and B12, are also at risk. Many NET Patients are prescribed a supplement of pancreatic enzymes to combat these issues – see Article 5 in this series – Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT).

What causes it with NET Patients?

Structural Changes (i.e. Surgery) 

This can play a very big part in malabsorption issues. For example, if a patient has undergone Pancreatic surgery, this will most likely effect the availability of pancreatic (digestive) enzymes needed to break down food. Many Small Intestine NET (SI NET) patients will suffer due to the removal of sections of their ileum, an area where absorption of water-soluble vitamins and other nutrients take place. In fact, the terminal ileum is really the only place where B12 is efficiently absorbed.  Low B12 is known to cause fatigue.  Some patients with Gastric tumours succumb to pernicious anemia with the most common cause being the loss of stomach cells that make intrinsic factor. Intrinsic factor helps the body absorb vitamin B12 in the intestine. Although a less common tumour location, jejunum surgery could result in loss of nutrients as this section of the small intestine is active in digestive processes. Malabsorption issues for SI NETs are an added complication to the issues caused by a shorter bowel (e.g. faster transit time), something which is regularly assumed to be the effects of one of the NET Syndromes (particularly diarrhea and fatigue), when in actual fact, it’s a simple consequence of cancer treatment and may need a different treatment regime.

Evidence of the problems being caused by the effects of small intestinal surgery can be found in a recently published Swedish study which you can read here: Click here. This particular study recommends supplementation of B12 and D3 for those affected.  If you’re having trouble getting your physician to monitor your vitamin levels, show them these studies. I get these vitamins checked annually.

The Gallbladder and Liver

The Gallbladder plays an important part in the digestive system – particularly in fat breakdown. The liver continually manufactures bile, which travels to the gallbladder where it is stored and concentrated. Bile helps to digest fat and the gallbladder automatically secretes a lot of bile into the small intestine after a fatty meal. However, when the gallbladder is removed, the storage of bile is no longer possible and to a certain extent, neither is the ‘on demand automation’. This results in the bile being constantly delivered/trickled into the small intestine making the digestion of fat less efficient. One of the key side effects of Somatostatin Analogues  (Octreotide and Lanreotide) is the formation of gall stones and many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients have their gallbladder removed to offset the risk of succumbing to these issues downstream. However, the removal of the gallbladder increases the risk of Bile Acid Malabsorption (BAM) as described below. Any issues with Bile Ducts can also have a similar effect.

The Liver has multiple functions including the production of bile as stated above. However, one of its key functions within the digestive system is to process the nutrients absorbed from the small intestine.  If this process is affected by disease, it can potentially worsen the issues outlined above.

Bile Acids Malabsorption

Another risk created by the lack of terminal ileum is Bile Acids Malabsorption (BAM) (sometimes known as Bile Salts Malabsorption and some texts described the resultant diarrhea as ‘Bile Acid Diarrhea”). 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).

Somatostatin Analogues

Somatostatin Analogues can also impact (or worsen) the ability to digest fat as they inhibit the production of pancreatic digestive enzymes (amongst other things). This is a well-known side effect of both Octreotide and Lanreotide. The levels of the fat-soluble vitamins (ADEK) and B vitamins such as B12, need to be monitored through testing and/or in reaction to symptoms of malabsorption.  If necessary these issues need to be offset with the use of supplements as directed by your dietician or doctor. Supplements are less affected by malabsorption of nutrients but their efficiency can be impacted by fast gut transit times (thus why testing is important).  The evidence and recommendations for malabsorption caused by somatostatin analogues is here: Click Here.  

Overlapping Areas

Deficiencies of these vitamins and certain minerals can lead to other conditions/comorbidities, some more serious than others. For a list of the vitamins and minerals most at risk for Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, have a read of my article which was co-authored by Tara Whyand – Vitamin and Mineral deficiency risks.

There is a third article in this series discussing a related issue with Neuroendocrine Cancer, particularly where gut surgery has been performed. You can link directly to this article here  – “Gut Health” – (Gut Health, Probiotics and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)).

The fourth article  looks at Amines and why they can cause food reactions or exacerbate syndromes.

Many people also confuse steatorrhea with diarrhea (although these issues can appear simultaneously), again leading to wrong conclusions about the causes and effects, and worryingly, the treatment required. Check out my diarrhea article – click here.

Article 5 in this series looks at how to combat malabsorption caused by pancreatic insufficiency – Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT).

My article ‘The Diarrhea Jigsaw’ is complementary to this nutrition series.

Read a Gut Surgery Diet Booklet authored by Tara – CLICK HERE

Summary

A common problem in patients and from what I see, many just assume this is part of their various syndromes leading to the wrong therapy or no therapy as it’s simply ignored. Again, I remain very grateful to Tara Whyand for some assistance.

This is a big and complex subject and I only intended to cover the basics.  Everyone is different and nothing in here should be accepted as medical advice for you or anyone you know.  If you need professional advice, you should speak to your doctor or registered dietitian.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Surgery is risky but so is driving a car


surgery

I enjoyed reading the recent blog written by Dr Eric Liu entitled The Complications of Surgery.  In his article, Dr Liu, himself a surgeon, explains that surgery comes with risks and patients should be made aware and able to discuss these risks with their doctors.

This got me thinking about my own experience which goes back to the autumn (fall) of 2010 when I first met my surgeon.  At that time, there were a few articles about whether surgery or biochemistry was the best treatment for certain types, grades and stages of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs).  Another difficult issue for NETs can be the decision to cut or not to cut – as outlined in this article.

NETs are not that much different to other Cancers in this respect – there is always a balance between maximizing QoL and extending life.  I was very lucky that I lived on the south central coast of England because the local Neuroendocrine Cancer expertise was (and still is) one of the best in the country.  After initial diagnosis, I was followed up with more specialist tests and then offered multimodal treatment including surgery. The risks of surgery were always fully explained to me – in any case I had to sign the consent forms where they were listed!  Not sure why but I couldn’t help laughing (probably nervously!) when I noted that ‘death’ was one of the risks.  It didn’t put me off and I told him to “get on with it“.

What also caused me to smirk was my surgical labelling as a “young, slim and fit man”. I was then 55 years old, slightly heavier than I thought I should be and although I had been fit for most of my life, I wasn’t that fit at the time of diagnosis. However, my surgeon was clearly doing his own risk assessment and I seemed to tick all the boxes to be able to withstand what was to be a fairly rigorous 9 hours on his table. However, it was clear to me that age, weight/BMI and level of fitness are risk factors for surgery.

risk

I don’t want to get too deep into the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by surgeons but Dr Liu’s very honest blog and my own patient experience, highlights the need, not only for a two-way conversation between surgeon and patient, but also the need for informed consent.

I clearly survived but to be honest, it was a tough period.  During my first major operation, some risks were realised resulting in a much longer stay in hospital and some effects are still present today.  Many of the risks involved the dissection of desmopasia (fibrosis from NETs) around the aortic area (read more here). The planned 10 day stay was extended to 19 due to a suspected infection (elevated white blood cell count) and a post operative seroma (a pool of ‘liquid’) which was causing some pain. The white blood cell count eventually settled down but for the post operative seroma, I was subjected to a CT guided needle aspiration which was great fun to watch. Fortunately for this short notice and risky procedure, I was in the hands of one of the best Interventional Radiologists in the country.  Some six weeks after discharge, a follow-up scan spotted Pulmonary Emboli (blood clots) on one of my lungs and I’ve been on blood thinning treatment ever since. I returned to the same surgeon’s table 4 months later for a liver resection using laparoscopic techniques (keyhole). Again the risks were explained but it was a breeze and I was home after 6 days.

Yes, surgery comes with risks – sometimes they are realised, sometimes they are not.  Action planning to counter the common risks if realised is no doubt sensible (and I suspect already part of surgical procedures and training). However, as Dr Liu says, there can be unforeseen circumstances in the course of the operation and recovery.

Almost 8 years on from diagnosis, I’m certain the two major surgeries have played a big part in keeping me alive and as well as can be expected.  For me surgery remains the The Gift that keeps on Giving.  If you have time, I also published a blog Surgery for NETs – Chop Chop! which contains links to surgeons talking about surgery for Neuroendocrine Cancer.  There are also links to some surgical videos – I personally found them fascinating.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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


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Cancer doesn’t take holidays (but I do)

20150402_121150
Mt Jacinto near Palm Springs

After diagnosis in July 2010, holidays were put on the back burner, there were too many problems and too many risks – not least of which was the lack of overseas insurance cover for my condition (well, I’m sure they’d quote me but could I afford it?). After 2 years of treatment including several surgeries, I was feeling more confident and my body had become stronger, holidays were put back on the agenda, but nothing too strenuous, nothing too far away.

However, 2 more years down the road, Chris and I are just back from a 12,000 mile round trip (21 hours on an aeroplane), around 1200 miles/20 hours of driving from beaches to deserts and mountains and back again, 8 different hotels and some great sights and adventures including 200 miles of driving in the Californian ‘wilderness’ picking up some sections of Route 66.  The picture in the blog needed a ‘white knuckle’ cable car ride up to 8500 feet followed by a 2 hour hike in noticeably thinner air.  Worth it!

Did I have issues? Yes. Were they inhibiting? Not really. Was I exhausted on return?  Yes (….I still am!). Did my travel insurance cover me for NET Cancer treatment? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely, I was extremely confident I wouldn’t have a NET Cancer problem and was therefore happy to take the risk (everyone needs to take their own decisions). My travel insurance at the time covered me for all other medical emergencies worldwide and within the European Union (EU) countries I’m covered for medical treatment using the E111 system – however, the latest trip was to California where medical treatment can be very expensive for the uninsured.  Note – in 2016, I’m now covered for NET treatment worldwide.

Holidays now have to be planned around treatment, mainly monthly injections – not too much of a drama.  I have to take my daily blood thinning injections with me on the plane. I have a letter from a Doctor to explain but I’ve always been waved through without question. When required, I will change a monthly injection date by up to a week each side – no issues to date.  That said, I’m impressed by the logistical talent of my friend Hilary, she’s gone to Australia for a month and has arranged an Octreotide injection whilst she’s there!

Cancer doesn’t take holidays, but I do.  Sometimes, you just have to get on with it 🙂

Ronny

Thanks for listening

Ronny

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Lanreotide – Four more years

The UK general election steps up a gear this month and social media is playing a huge part in the debate leading up to 7 May 2015.  In the USA, the different parties are busily working on their candidates ready for 2016. It appears that politicians worldwide, are keen to exploit all areas of communication to eke out votes from the young and old who now use social media on a scale which makes 4 or 5 years ago look prehistoric. In 2012, Barack Obama’s ‘four more years’ tweet was the biggest retweeted post ever up to that point after he thanked his 22 million followers.  He took the top spot from Justin Bieber but was then overtaken last year by Ellen De Generes’s famous mass celebrity selfie.

Four years ago, I thought Twitter was only for famous people, I was a low to medium user of Facebook for the odd joke and family photo and I thought blogs were only for journalists.  However, I had other things going on and wasn’t worried about such ‘trivia’.  Four years ago, I commenced my post-surgical and long-term treatment for metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer.  You can read more about my journey here – my diagnosis and the intervening period leading up to my first big surgery – I woke up on NET Cancer Day.

When I left the hospital, I knew I would be starting long-term monthly ‘somatostatin analogue’ treatment and had assumed Octreotide (Sandostatin LAR) would be the drug of choice. However, my Oncologist prescribed 90 mg Lanreotide (Somatuline Autogel, known in the USA as Somatuline Depot). Although I didn’t relish the thought of any injection in the ‘rear end’ every 28 days for the rest of my life, I admit to being slightly relieved.  I had been reading about patient experiences with the alternative, mainly the needle length and the occasional problems mixing the drug prior to injection.  Although Lanreotide has a similar gauge (thickness), the needle is a good bit shorter and is deep subcutaneous rather than Octreotide LAR’s intramuscular (IM) route. No mixing is required as Lanreotide comes prefilled.  I’ve just chalked up “butt dart” number 53 last week!

If you are interested in the science, please be aware that a somatostatin analogue is a synthetic (manufactured) version of a naturally occurring hormone which inhibits the peptides and amines that can be dangerously hypersecreted by certain neuroendocrine tumours.  If you are after a more technical explanation of this process, you should check out my blog Neuroendocrine Tumours – not an exact science! – inside you will find a link to a fantastic paper by Dr Eugene Woltering, one of the world’s top NET Cancer experts.

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Whilst I was waiting for my first major ‘debulking’ surgery and after checks to confirm if my tumours were ‘avid’ to somatostatin analogues, I was prescribed daily Octreotide (self injecting) and this did eventually lessen the main effect of my ‘carcinoid syndrome’, facial flushing.  It wasn’t until after this surgery that the facial flushing was dramatically reduced although I do remember a minor occurrence within a month.  I started Lanreotide in Jan 2011 and I haven’t had a facial flush since.  However, it’s worth adding that my Chromogranin A (CgA) blood test (correlated to tumour mass) did not return to normal until after a liver resection 3 months later.  My 5HIAA urine test results (correlated to serotonin levels) returned to normal earlier indicating the Lanreotide was doing its job!

Octreotide/Lanreotide side effects are to be expected and most people seem to have different and/or greater or lesser effects than others.  The daily Octreotide did not bother me too much other than some discolouring of the stomach at the injection sites (i.e. black and blue!) ….I’m more observant nowadays, so it’s possible I may not have recorded this properly. The monthly Lanreotide has caused only minor issues and the ones I’ve encountered are already well documented side effects. I always try to be careful not to immediately assign blame for certain side effects which I’m fairly confident are as a result of my new ‘plumbing’ rather than the Lanreotide.  The main adverse side effects I’m sure can be attributed to Lanreotide are:

– itching but only on the legs below the knees centred on the ankles – and nearly always the right leg.  I have no idea why but even after my injection last week, this still happened!  It is not as intense as 2011 and only lasts for about a week after the injection.  Occasionally, the injection site will itch but only for a day or two.  I have a tub of emollient cream (almond oil) on standby which seems to calm it down.

– minor pain at the injection site but this only lasts for an hour or two and I believe this to be associated with the administration of the injection.  My experience is that a lack of training or confidence hurts more!  I always instruct the injector to stick the needle in fast and release the contents slow (min 20 seconds) and no pinching the skin!  Watch a useful injection video here.   You can self inject Lanreotide (upper thigh area) but I’m not ready for that yet!

– small lumps form at the injection site which is alternating superior external quadrant of the buttocks.  They are more conspicuous if the injection is done slightly too high which was my initial experience and they took months to fade.  I opted to stand up for the first two injections and I attribute this decision for a slightly too high injection site.  I now lie down which is actually recommended for the smaller and thinner patient.

– fatigue normally within 24-48 hours of the injection. Not even sure it can be classed as proper fatigue but it’s a ‘you need to sit down and fall asleep’ feeling! It normally only lasts for 1 day before the normal energy levels return.

– although the side effects of small intestinal surgery and gallbladder removal can cause malabsorption issues, in particular the inability to digest fat properly; somatostatin analogues can exacerbate steatorrhea as they inhibit the production of digestive enzymes which aid fat digestion.  I notice a marked and short-term increase in this problem normally within 72 hours of the injection.

Four years ago, there was some ‘talk’ that somatostatin analogues were also able to stunt or reverse the growth of certain neuroendocrine tumours.  Has this been the case for me?  Possibly.  I’ve had regular CT scans every 3-6 months and since two bouts of major surgery in 2010/2011, I’ve also had 2 x Octreoscans (the most recent incorporating a SPECT).  I did once spend a day analysing 4 years of scan results looking for variations in size and concluded that there was a stable trend and potentially a fading of one or two of my largest liver tumours. I was reminded these two types of scans were not really precise enough to detect small millimetre increases or decreases and as there were other factors at play, there was little commitment to make this declaration.  However, I did note in the summary of the CLARINET study, Lanreotide was associated with prolonged progression-free survival among patients with advanced, grade 1 or 2 (Ki-67 <10%) enteropancreatic, somatostatin receptor–positive neuroendocrine tumours with prior stable disease, irrespective of the hepatic tumour volume.  In terms of its anti-proliferative effects, an interim report from the CLARINET extension study suggested longer-term Lanreotide treatment is well tolerated with ‘anti-tumour’ effects in patients with progressive disease.

I have my ups and downs and I do feel quite well most of the time.  Most people tell me I look quite well too!  Over the last 4 years I’ve made some fairly significant adjustments to cope with my condition and maintain a reasonable quality of life – my monthly injection of Lanreotide is no doubt playing a big part.

So ‘four more years’ of Lanreotide gets my vote and I’d like to tell the world! I just wish I had 22 million twitter followers to help with my message 🙂  A retweet by Ellen De Generes, Barack Obama or Justin Bieber would help though!

(Check out my blog “5 years of Lanreotide“)

Thanks for reading

Ronny Allan

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