When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer at an incurable stage, certain words start to mean more. Take ‘palliative’ for example. Before I was diagnosed I had always associated the word ‘palliative’ with someone who had a terminal disease and this type of care was to make the final days/weeks as comfortable as possible. So it was a bit of a shock to find out in 2010 that my treatment was palliative in nature. However, I’m still not dead and I’m still receiving palliative care. Go figure! The answer is simple – the cancer story is changing. What was once feared as a death sentence is now an illness that many people survive. As survival rates increase, so too will the number of people living with the legacy of cancer and its treatment.
What is palliative care?
Some people with incurable cancer will continue to receive treatment to keep the cancer at bay and that treatment is by definition, palliative. In fact, palliative care can be given at any time during an illness. It’s not just for treatment of the cancer, it’s also to help with the effects of that treatment, i.e. the consequences of cancer. It also encompasses things such as emotional and other practical support.
In the most general terms and while it clearly can go into some detail and long lists, palliative care can be defined as follows:
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. Relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects is an important part of cancer care. This approach is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care. Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care.
I looked at a few sites and many of them confirm the above. However, there appears to be even more sites where it is still heavily associated and inextricably linked with end of life or hospice care where you may come into contact with the term palliative care specialist. Whilst it’s not wrong to make that association, more work needs to be done to cater for the growing numbers of ‘incurable but treatable’ who are not ‘terminal’ and still need this type of support, in some ways like you would with a chronic condition. I also sense a push in certain areas to emphasise the meaning of palliative care to include a much broader definition than is currently in most people’s minds. This needs much more publicity. I’m not saying that ‘palliative’ does not include ‘hospice care’ but I’m not intending to cover that aspect in this blog which is aimed as those with incurable but treatable cancers.
My palliative care experience
When I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) in 2010, I quickly accepted the fact that any treatment I would receive would not be curative. I also quickly accepted that if I didn’t have any treatment, I would probably die. The words used were ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’, more technical sounding but essentially meaning the same thing as palliative. Debulking means removing as much tumour as possible in order to increase the chance that perhaps other treatments can be of some help. Cytoreductive means the same thing but generally extends the ‘debulking’ activity to other modes of treatment (e.g. chemotherapy/radiotherapy).
NETs is one of a number of cancers for which ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’ therapies can in many cases confer some survival advantage. In fact if you read ENETS or NANETS guidance for advanced NETs, you will frequently see the statement that cytoreductive surgery should be considered if greater than 90% of metastatic tumour burden can be safely resected or ablated. NETs, particularly with distant metastases, can come with a ‘syndrome’ and some of the symptoms can be rather debilitating for many patients. These syndromes are a result of tumours secreting excess amounts of hormonesand the types vary from patient to patient and from NET type to NET type. It follows that if surgical debulking reduces the amount of tumours, then it should normally decrease the effects of the associated syndrome. In fact, one letter from a specialist did describe my surgery in symptom palliation terms. I can confirm this is about right as my hormone marker 5HIAA remained elevated after surgery to remove my primary and local tumours, but did not return to normal until after my liver surgery.
However, there are a number of other treatments that can be considered ‘palliative’ in a metastatic or advanced environment. Getting rid of tumours is always the optimum treatment for any cancer but just as surgical debulking can reduce the amount of cancer, other non-surgical modalities such as liver embolization or ablation can have the effect of reducing the symptoms of the cancer and therefore providing relief to the patient. Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) are another good example of palliative care. Although they might have an anti-tumour effect for some, they mostly work by reducing or inhibiting the secretion of excess hormones which contribute to the various NET syndromes. ‘Symptom control’ is as defined above, palliative care.
I’m already looking forward to my next palliative care appointment.
Since my diagnosis, I seem to have been in a perpetual learning phase! What not to do, what not to eat, what not to read! However, a couple of years ago, I came across a list of ‘E’ words (5 of them) which is a handy reminder for Carcinoid Syndrome patients, particularly those whose symptoms are not under control. When I say “carcinoid syndrome” in this article, I only mean the syndrome that is caused by what was once called “Carcinoid Tumors”, i.e. mainly serotonin secreting types but include tumours which are well differentiated found in the small intestine, appendiceal, rectal, lung, and one or two other less common places.
There are many variations of this list but this is my take! I suspect some of this also applies to other types of NETs and other NET Syndromes.
On analysis of this list, it struck me that I was aware of the issues and their potential effects and I’m certain there is science to substantiate the content. These E’s are apparently the most common ‘triggers’ for Carcinoid Syndrome. Clearly, they are not going to have the same effect on every patient e.g. I have the occasional drink of ‘Ethanol’ and I always enjoy it, I go for long exhausting walks and I always feel great after. I had dental treatment without any precautions before I was aware of the risks …….. nothing happened! Before I was treated, stressful meetings at work would make me flush though! As for eating – well that’s another couple of blog’s worth! (see the Diarrhea Jigsaw and Nutrition Blog 4 – Food for Thought)
The 5 Es are, however, very important, as a severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome symptoms could be debilitating and life-threatening and I’m fairly certain the list was compiled with this in mind. Some people are more affected by Carcinoid Syndrome and this is not necessarily related to the extent or aggressiveness of their disease. Some people just react differently. An extremely severe attack of Carcinoid Syndrome can also be known as a ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ which is very dangerous on the operating table due to the effects of anaesthetics – thus why many NET patients may be infused with somatostatin analogues (usually Octreotide) prior to and during surgery or other medical procedures. There’s a lot of excitement generated around the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’but it is generally uncommon.
I’m not saying the 5Es should be ignored but NET Cancer is complex and most things need to be read in the correct context. What works for some may not work for others. There can also be confusion surrounding the source of symptoms, i.e. are they syndrome or something else? This is why I believe NET patients need to answer some key questions when considering the risks associated with the 5 E’s:
Are you currently syndromic? If you are, then the 5 ‘E’ list is probably very good advice but interpreting the advice in the correct context remains important.
Are your syndrome related biochemistry results normal (e.g. 5HIAA)? Normal readings (in range) tend to mean the syndrome is under control and many people who were diagnosed with a syndrome may actually be non-syndromic following treatment.
Have you had treatment or are having treatment likely to produce side effects which might be confused with Carcinoid syndrome? For example, surgery can be the long term cause of diarrhea and other issues. Despite the role of somatostatin analogues, these could also be the root cause of certain reactions.
The vagaries of this disease will no doubt throw up some exceptions and additions. There will be patients who have no syndrome but have elevated biochemistry and vice versa! Additionally, there will be patients who have had surgery and/or are being treated with somatostatin analogues but will still be syndromic in varying degrees of severity.
The so-called ‘5 Es’ are as follows:
Epinephrine: This was a new piece of information for me and I only discovered this as a potential problem when I started monitoring some of the USA Facebook forums. This does not appear to be that well-known in UK. Epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) is often used in dentistry mixed with a local anaesthetic. I won’t risk this, so I’ve instructed my Dentist to place a note on my record asking for epinephrine not be used (and clearly I’ll remind them each visit!). According to NET guru Dr Woltering, plain novocaine, carbocaine or plain marcaine are preferred. You should also check that your anaesthetist for any procedure you may be undergoing is aware of your carcinoid syndrome. However, the danger is not just with dentistry work. Any anaesthesia is risky. Check out my post ‘carcinoid crisis’.
For those who have standby ‘Epi Pens’, I did read the following statement on the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation website: “ …….. one exception is the administration of epinephrine in the case of an allergic anaphylactic reaction (i.e. a bee sting), so it cannot be avoided in this case, just make sure that Octreotide (Sandostatin) is also available“. This advice is also extremely relevant to Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma patients who may be a high risk of intraoperative hypertensive crisis.
Eating: This is very individual. Certain foods or large meals can be difficult, particularly if you have had any gastrointestinal surgeries. I keep a personal diary trying to identify things that upset my system. I try to find some balance between what I know is good for me and also what I know I enjoy. For example, I found that very large meals do not agree with my ‘new plumbing’. If I eat a lot of sweets, I’ll also suffer …..so I just eat a little – check out my blog post Chocolate – The NET Effect.
Personally speaking, I’m fairly certain the vast majority of my issues are related to my treatment (past and present) rather than being provoked by Carcinoid Syndrome, i.e. if I rush to the toilet after a meal, it’s not syndrome, it’s a reaction of my compromised digestive system. So with this in mind, I try to reduce those things but additionally strike a balance between quality of life and excessive and rigid adherence to some of the guidance out there (see below) – as I said above, interpretation and context is important. My compromised system cannot deal with big meals so I ‘graze’ most of the day and then eat a small to medium-sized meal in the evening. I’ve been doing this for 3 years and reduced my visits by 300% without any special or expensive medication.
In my blog Nutrition Blog 4 – Food for Thought, I’ve linked to authoritative sources on potential diet triggers. I’m not suggesting you cut out all of the foods on these lists (you won’t last long!). Some can indulge in those foods and some cannot. For example, chocolate and caffeine (tea/coffee) are on the lists but I eat/drink those frequently (in moderation) and have no problem. It’s a case of testing things out. I like to describe my eating as ‘The Risk Management of my Quality of Life’. By the way, no-one is suggesting that a NET patient with carcinoid syndrome (and don’t forget this is only one syndrome of many with NETs) should stop eating foods high in the offending amines or are precursors to serotonin (e.g. tryptophan). They do not make tumours grow (a myth) but just make sure you adhere to the dietary restrictions for any 5HIAA test.
Emotions: Stressful situations can cause symptoms to flare up. While it is difficult to avoid all stress (work, home, commuting, etc), it is helpful if you can manage or reduce it. Like eating, this is a very individual area. From personal experience, I know stress can exacerbate carcinoid syndrome. Before I started my treatment, I was regularly flushing in meetings at work (….. think boxing matches!). After my treatment, stress was definitely a factor causing increased bowel motility. I’ve removed a lot of stress from my life and it helps. You may need to be ruthless in managing this aspect of your illness.
Exercise: Exercise is extremely important for overall health and well-being and I know quite a lot of NET Cancer patients who exercise regularly without issues. It can, however, trigger carcinoid syndrome if you overdo it – it is, however, like eating, a very individual thing. I take the view that ‘zero’ exercise might potentially be an even higher risk. Even a walk around the garden or gardening is exercise. When I was at work, I would walk to see people rather than phone them. Sometimes I walk to town rather than drive, it all adds up! I have evidence from my own exercising regime proving in my case that exercise can reduce the knock-on effects of some of the other E’s (emotions and eating) and/or the side effects of treatment – check out my blog entitled Exercise is Medicine. Those who are syndromic and/or have other conditions to manage are probably best to take medical advice on how much exercise they need to do.
Ethanol (alcohol, liquor):Many NET patients have difficulty tolerating wine, beer and spirits (hard liquor). I was never a big drinker so for me it was easy to go almost teetotal. I do have the occasional beer but very infrequently and normally on holiday – I personally don’t get any issues with the odd beer but again this is trial and error. I really enjoy my beer when I celebrate my ‘Cancerversaries‘. Also check out my blog Alcohol – the NET Effect
I’m sure there could be a 5 A’s to 5 Z’s list of things to avoid but as I said above, this needs to be balanced with what the actual risks for you are and if you’re like me, quality of life. If you read most Facebook closed group or forums, you will always find at least one person is affected by something which affects no-one else. Please note this article is just my own appreciation of these issues and I emphasise once again that everyone has different experiences. I do, however, think it’s important to consider any secondary illnesses, effects of surgery and biochemistry results (or indeed a combination of one or more of these factors). Everything in life involves some kind of risk management and if you are totally risk averse, then you are unlikely to have much of a life (or a diet!).
It’s not easy but my daily diary helps me assess trends and work out what things upset me more than others – I can then reduce or eliminate. You need to tailor your own advice perhaps with the help of a doctor and/or dietician versed in NET Cancer. I also have some related posts on the subject of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malabsorption and probiotics – check them out as the problems associated with these subjects could potentially look like a worsening of carcinoid syndrome and lead to unnecessary worry and unnecessary treatment.
For most, Carcinoid Syndrome can normally be controlled by the use of debulking surgery and/or somatostatin analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide). However, there is a new drug called ‘Teloristat Ethyl’ (XERMELO) which looks like it may provide supplementary treatment for patients whose carcinoid syndrome diarrhea is not adequately controlled by somatostatin analogues. It’s an expensive drug and comes with side effects so you need to be sure it’s your syndrome causing the problem before you commit to a prescription.