If I had a pound for every time I’ve said “make sure you get good surveillance and follow up”, I’d have a lot of pounds! Most Neuroendocrine Tumours are slow-growing and they can be difficult to diagnose due to their sneaky nature. Some can be just as sneaky beyond diagnosis though. The best way to combat that is through regular surveillance or ‘follow-up’. There are actually guidelines and recommendations for follow-up on the main NET specialist societies such as ENETS, NANETS and UKINETS. There’s others including in USA, the NCCN also have a set (and no surprises that the different organisation guidelines can often differ due to the healthcare systems in place). For more detailed or the latest guidelines content, you may need a login or in one instance (ENETS) a membership subscription.
The type and frequency of surveillance will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to; NET type, primary location, stage and grade. Worth also noting that these are guidelines and physicians will often take many factors into account in deciding on the frequency and content of follow up surveillance.
Let me also tell you that there isn’t really total common ground on exactly what that should be, although to be fair there’s much more agreement than disagreement. There’s even occasional mentions of “not enough data” to be able to say what the surveillance should be in certain scenarios – it’s not an exact science. So surveillance can be anything from monthly to recommended intervals such as 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 3 years and I’ve even read something which said “no specific follow-up strategy has been recommended” (e.g. ENETS “curative resection of an Appendiceal NET less than 1cm by simple appendectomy“). Often a patient will need to advocate to get the right attention. Knowing what the guidelines are for your situation is a good start.
So what sort of surveillance might be needed?
I think the definition of surveillance is actually wider than the guidelines infer. In addition to the planned follow-up surveillance, I also think there are checks that might be described as ‘opportunistic’. A simple example … if a nurse visits you at home, he or she might ask how things are. Similarly if you visit a GP/PCP, this could be an opportunity to assess the issue you are having against your medical history. Again, if you call your NET specialist or NET Specialist Nurse, this could be another opportunity to assess a problem, albeit over the phone. The other surveillance I would like to see more ‘formalised’ would be the surveillance of the consequences of cancer and it’s treatment – this is a huge unmet need in many cancers. Examples include (but are not limited to) the issues of vitamin & mineral deficiencies and gastrointestinal malabsorption.
However, the documented and objective surveillance methods are really important and can be very similar to those which were used to diagnose you. These are…..
Scanning is very important because the locations of tumours should already be documented and can therefore be tracked, or in the case of an unknown primary, continue to look. Scans are looking for tumours or suspicious objects and any progression of known tumour sites. There are different scans for different purposes and even for different parts of the body and NET type. Check out my article “If you can see it – you can detect it“ – click here. The Ga68 PET scan is becoming more available – click here.
Tumour Markers and Hormone Levels
You will have baseline test results which will be compared at each planned surveillance opportunities. Whilst there are common tests available, some types of NETs may need particular tests, especially if you have one or more of the NET Syndromes producing one or more of the offending hormones. These tests may even be required on an ad hoc basis if symptoms worsen. I have a fairly comprehensive article on this subject – click here. It’s also possible that a new biopsy might be necessary (perhaps following a scan) and this may even lead to a new grading on the basis that the score might turn out be higher than the baseline grade.
NETs are a heterogeneous group of malignancies so I guess some people have additional tests alongside their main tumour markers and hormone levels. I have the routine blood levels alongside my markers, that’s pretty standard I think. I also get my thyroid levels checked due to a lesion currently under watch and wait. Read about his here. Due to surgery and malabsorption issues, I also get regular vitamin checks, in particular B12 and D. Read here to see why this is important. As someone who was initially diagnosed with ‘Carcinoid Syndrome’ alongside my NET, I normally get an annual Echocardiogram to check for Carcinoid Heart Disease – they had removed that earlier this year from my surveillance but it’s now back as a precaution due to the discovery of some fibrosis growth in my retroperitoneal area. You may also be monitored for ‘at risk’ or comorbidity checks such as the thyroid.
Listen to your body
I also have a personal theory that patients are doing surveillance on a daily basis. For example, I actually maintain a diary briefly listing things such as sleeping patterns, what I’ve eaten, bathroom activity, weight, and some other stuff including particular comorbidities that might or might not be related (if not, then it’s also useful for any resulting GP/PCP appointment). That sounds like a lot of work but actually only takes me one minute each day. I’m really looking for patterns. If I think there is a pattern or a connection, I take this data to any appointment or contact the NET Nurse for advice or even just a sounding board. I can’t beat up my medical team for not spotting something where my input would have been important. I already learned that lesson prior to diagnosis.
A lot of people don’t like living in a surveillance society. Me? I’m perfectly happy about it – it will keep me alive longer. And if ‘Big Brother’ is a NET specialist, even better!
Always ask what your follow-up regime will be – this cancer can be SNEAKY.
Thanks for reading
You may also enjoy my article “10 Questions to ask your Doctor” – click here.
In 2013, just when I thought everything seemed to be under control, I was told I had a ‘lesion’ on the left upper lobe of my thyroid. At the time, it was a bit of a shock as I had already been subjected to some radical surgery and wondered if this was just part of the relentless march of metastatic NET disease. The thyroid gland does in fact get mentioned frequently in NET patient discussions but many of the conversations I monitored didn’t seem to fit my scenario – cue relentless study! I’ve been meaning to write this blog for some time but here is a synopsis of my research translated into ‘patient speak’. This is intentionally brief, it’s a big subject. I’ll finish off with an update on where I am with my thyroid issue.
Where is the thyroid and what does it do?
Before I found out about my thyroid problem, I had absolutely no idea what its function was. I can tell you know, it’s a small organ but it has a massive job!
It lies in the front of your neck in a position just below your ‘Adam’s apple’. It is made up of two lobes – the right lobe and the left lobe, each about the size of a plum cut in half – and these two lobes are joined by a small bridge of thyroid tissue called the isthmus. It is sometimes described as butterfly shape. The two lobes lie on either side of your wind-pipe. The fact that it comes up a lot in NET patient discussions is hardly surprising as it’s an endocrine organ responsible for making two hormones that are secreted into the blood: Thyroxine (T4) and Triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are necessary for all the cells in your body to work normally.
Do I have Thyroid Cancer?
I’ve had a number of biopsies on the thyroid lesion, several fine needle aspiration (FNA) and one ‘core’. The FNAs were generally inconclusive and the core confirmed fibrous tissue only. However, the general diagnosis is inconclusive and I have been labelled “THY3F”. Curiously this decodes to “an abnormality is present but it could either be a benign (non cancerous) growth or a malignant cancerous growth of the follicular cells. A quick primer on Thyroid Cancer is below if you’re interested.
It’s easy to worry about irregularities showing up on scans if you have NETs. Take the thyroid for example, the Ga68 PET has a habit of ‘lighting up’ thyroids – this is a worry because it’s an endocrine organ; and there is a type of thyroid NET (not forgetting the parathyroid), and NETs have a habit of metastasizing to strange places. Sure, you should get it checked out when this happens, but while you will only hear about the outliers on social media, statistically, the vast majority of thyroid nodules are benign. We know about ours because we get so many scans but many people will probably never know and will probably never be bothered by them either. When you look at the figures below, it becomes clear that many NET patients are going to have a thyroid nodule regardless of their diagnosis.
The following is a list of facts regarding thyroid nodules:
Thyroid nodules are three times more common in women than in men
30% of 30-year-old women will have a thyroid nodule.
One in 40 young men has a thyroid nodule.
More than 95% of all thyroid nodules are benign (non-cancerous growths).
Some thyroid nodules are actually cysts, which are filled with fluid rather than thyroid tissue.
Purely cystic thyroid nodules (thyroid cysts) are almost always benign.
Most women will develop a thyroid nodule by the time they are 50 years old.
The incidence of thyroid nodules increases with age.
50% of 50-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
60% of 60-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
70% of 70-year-old women will have at least one thyroid nodule.
Fear of spread
It’s easy to be concerned about irregularities showing up on scans if you have NETs. However, the Ga68 PET has a habit of ‘lighting up’ thyroids and this is a double worry because it’s an endocrine organ, and there is a type of thyroid NET (not forgetting the parathyroid). But it eventually became clear through research that most are unconnected. Sure, you should get it checked out, but while you will only hear about the outliers on social media, the vast majority of cases are benign. If you constantly fear cancer spread with every single issue you undergo as a human being, you probably need some help. You may therefore find my ‘fear’ articles a useful read plus there are two videos presented by professionals who help caner patients cope with these issues:
Thyroid overdiagnosis and overtreatment. You can find many medical papers confirming that incidence of thyroid tumour diagnosis has increased dramatically in many countries in the developed world over the past three decades. Papillary thyroid cancer, which has been responsible for virtually the entire increase, is rarely lethal. The 20 year survival rate is greater than 90%, and approaches 100% for the smallest cancers. The increasing incidence is most likely due to overdiagnosis—the detection of subclinical cancers never destined to cause harm. This conclusion has been reached because the incidence has been primarily due to the detection of small papillary cancers, mortality due to thyroid cancer has not changed significantly, and small foci of papillary thyroid cancer are commonly found at autopsy in people who died of other causes. Overdiagnosis is a problem because it exposes people to the potential side effects of treatment, but without an equal expectation of benefit, because the cancer is unlikely to advance. We know about ours because we get so many scans.
Issues above the diaphragm
There can be other issues with Thyroids including cancer and clearly this was my concern when the word ‘lesion’ was mentioned. At this point, it’s worth mentioning something from my cancer history which I initially assumed was related but it would appear to be a coincidence (for the time being …..). When I say “above the diagphragm”, I mean above the abdoment in the general neck and chest area. I also have a hotspot in my left supraclavicularfossa (SCF) lymph nodes (near the clavicle), geographically close to the thyroid (and my lesion is left-sided). 5 nodes were removed from this area in Feb 2012 for an exploratory biopsy which subsequently tested negative and CT and Ultrasound both show nothing vascular or pathologically enlarged. BUT …. there is still a hotspot showing on a subsequent Octreoscan and Ga68 PET since the nodes were removed in 2012. For the record, I also had positively tested nodes removed from my left axillary (armpit) during the same procedure (my distant disease has always been left-sided).
The surgeon who operated on my left axillary and SCF nodes also specialises in Thyroids and so it was an easy decision to ask to be referred to him. He explained that whilst he could just take the left lobe or the whole thyroid, it would mean lifelong treatment to add to my current burden and perhaps for something which will never trouble me. As nothing is palpable and I have no symptoms, I agreed to a ‘watch and wait’ approach. I now have regular tests and I saw him Endocrine MDT annually for a blood test review and ultrasound check (but see update below).
See EndocrineWeb for more detail about thyroid issues unrelated to NET.
Latest update as at 15 Jan 2019
After monitoring for the first two years, my specialist was not happy with TSH/T4 blood results (elevated for the second time and also on a retest). On 20 March 2018, following an Endocrine appointment, I was put on a trial dose of 50mcg of Levothyroxine to counter the thyroid panel results indicating mild hypothyroidism. Levothyroxine is a thyroid hormone replacement. My subsequent two x thyroid panel results are back in the middle of the range so all is good. Am detecting a slight increase in available energy.
The results of my first Ga68 PET scan in June 2018 indicated some “uptake” but the report inferred it was physiological uptake (false positive). In fact, at my 2019 appointment, the thyroid lesion is slightly smaller on the latest ultrasound. I’m personally fairly certain this is not connected to NETs and my Endocrine MDT have now referred me back to be survellanced by the NET MDT, they remain on call for any issues.
What else can go wrong with a thyroid?
Apart from cancer, the main issues appear to be an underactive Thyroid or an overactive Thyroid – known respectively as Hypothyroidism (not enough thyroxine is produced for the body’s needs) and Hyperthyroidism (too much thyroxine is produced for the body’s needs). Of course, these issues can be caused or made worse by cancer.
Hypothyroidism – If too little of the thyroid hormones are produced, the cells and organs of your body slow down. If you become hypothyroid, your heart rate, for example, may be slower than normal and your intestines work sluggishly, so you become constipated. Key symptoms: tiredness, feeling cold, weight gain, poor concentration, depression. Some of these symptoms look familiar? The word ‘hashimoto’s’ also comes up on patient forums frequently – this is related to hypothyroidism (underactive).
Hyperthyroidism – If too much of the thyroid hormones are secreted, the body cells work faster than normal, and you have Hyperthyroidism. If you become hyperthyroid because of too much secretion of the hormones from the thyroid gland, the increased activity of your body cells or body organs may lead, for example, to a quickening of your heart rate or increased activity of your intestine so that you have frequent bowel motions or even diarrhoea. Key symptoms – weight loss, heat intolerance, anxiety, and, sometimes, sore and gritty eyes. Hmm, again, some of these look familiar?
Check out this excellent short video fromWebMD – click here. It’s based on USA but most of it is relevant globally.
It’s also worth noting thatsomatostatin analoguesmight cause a “slight decrease in Thyroid function” (it actually states words to this effect in the Lanreotide and Octreotide patient leaflets). Thus why I advise you not to be underactive with your Thyroid surveillance – read more click here
Routine ‘Thyroid blood tests’ from your doctor will confirm whether or not you have a thyroid disorder. I now test for TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T3 and T4 every 6 months. My levels are back to normal ranges since being prescribed thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Remember: Hypo is ‘underactive’, Hyper is ‘overactive’. Sometimes there are very few symptoms.
Also worth mentioning something called the ‘Parathyroid’ as these glands can frequently be related to NET Cancer (see my blog on Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia(MEN)). It’s another subject in its own right but I just wanted to emphasise that this is a totally different organ with a totally different function (it regulates Calcium). They are located adjacent to the Thyroid, thus the term ‘para’.
Quick primer on Thyroid Cancer
There are a number of different types of Thyroid Cancer
Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type of thyroid cancer, accounting for about 80% of thyroid cancers. While papillary thyroid cancer typically occurs in only one lobe of the thyroid gland, it may arise in both lobes in up to 10% to 20% of cases. Papillary thyroid cancer is most common in women of childbearing age. It sometimes is caused by exposure to radiation. Even though papillary thyroid cancer is usually not an aggressive type of cancer, it often metastasizes (spreads) to the lymph nodes in the neck. Papillary thyroid cancer treatment usually is successful.
Follicular thyroid cancer accounts for about 10% of thyroid cancers. Like papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer usually grows slowly. Its outlook is similar to papillary cancer, and its treatment is the same. Follicular thyroid cancer usually stays in the thyroid gland but sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bone. However, it usually does not spread to lymph nodes. It is more common in countries where diets do not contain enough iodine.
There is a type of thyroid tumour which has recently been removed as a type of cancer. “Encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma” is now known as “noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillary thyroid-like nuclear features” or NIFTP. The word ‘carcinoma’ has gone. Read about this here.
Hurthle cell carcinoma, also called oxyphil cell carcinoma, is a type of follicular thyroid cancer. Most patients diagnosed with Hurthle cell cancer do well, but the outlook may change based on the extent of disease at the time of diagnosis.
Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is the only type of thyroid cancer that develops in the parafollicular cells of the thyroid gland. It accounts for 3% to 10% of thyroid cancers. Medullary cancer cells usually make and release into the blood proteins called calcitonin and/or carcinoembryonic antigen, which can be measured and used to follow the response to treatment for the disease. Sometimes medullary cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, lungs or liver before a nodule is found or the patient has symptoms. MTC can be treated more successfully if it is diagnosed before it has spread. There are two types of MTC:
Sporadic MTC is more common, accounting for 85% of medullary thyroid cancers. It is found mostly in older adults and is not inherited.
Familial MTC is inherited, and it often develops in childhood or early adulthood. If familial MTC occurs with tumours of certain other endocrine organs (parathyroid and adrenal glands), it is called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (see my blog on MEN 2).
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most dangerous form of thyroid cancer. It is makes up only 1% of thyroid cancers. It is believed that anaplastic thyroid cancer grows from a papillary or follicular tumour that mutates further to this aggressive form. Anaplastic thyroid cancer spreads rapidly into areas such as the trachea, often causing breathing difficulties. Anaplastic thyroid cancer sometimes is called undifferentiated thyroid cancer because the cells are so different from normal thyroid tissue.
Thyroid cancer is not very common but diagnoses are ‘skyrocketing’ most likely due to advanced detection techniques. Most are very slow-growing with 5 year survival of 97% according to MD Anderson. There is a very interesting article about the overdiagnosis of Thyroid cancer which I found useful given my situation. You can read it here.
Thyroid ‘nodules’ would appear to be very common with 50-70% of all 50-70 year olds having at least one nodule present and statistically, 95% of these are benign (see EndocrineWeb)
In 2014, Chris and I completed the 84-mile route of 2000 year old World Heritage site of ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ in Northern England. Some people saw this is a charity walk and a chance to make some money for a good cause. It was. However, it was MUCH MORE than that. Much much more.
A few months before this trek, I had come to a crossroads and I was unsure which direction to go. That anguish and a thousand other things were contributing to a degradation of my overall health, it felt threatening. I was not that long out of the main treatments for my metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer and it was still a delicate period as I waited for signs of some stability.
I was getting into some old habits at work (e.g. working long hours) and in hindsight, I can now see that was impacting on my search for normality and stability. However, at the time, it conveniently aided the image of invincibility which was my way of saying “get lost Cancer”. I was reaching out for something I could call normal and for a long time before diagnosis, me working hard was normal! I had always loved a bit of stress but not if it was going to help Neuroendocrine Cancer kill me!
And then boom! – a thyroid lesion is reported. I suddenly realised I had too many balls in the air and I was no longer the expert juggler I was previously. The mask on my poker face was slipping and something needed to change. The thyroid lesion (more on that later) was not the turning point but it was definitely one of a number of signs that I was not invincible, my situation was delicate and I needed to be more proactive on finding the normal I was so desperately seeking. Work was no longer the route I needed to take. To cut a long story short, I decided to retire early BUT in an effort to maintain personal challenges, I set myself some fitness targets which lead to the Hadrian’s Wall walk over 6 days. I actually set up this blog site simply to document the walk and that was the only reason at the time.
Four years later, Lanreotide injections passed the 100 mark, my thyroid lesionis not causing any issues although I have recently been prescribed medication to support my borderline hypothyroidism, I have much less stress in my life and I’m fitter and leaner than I was at diagnosis. I found a new normal and I liked it! Maintaining and improving it is both a physical and mental challenge though.
My Hadrian’s Wall blog was an acorn which has now grown into a nice little Oak tree and I’m truly thankful to everyone for their fantastic support. There’s still plenty tree left to grow
In November 2018, the blog passed three quarter of a million views and I’m on track for the magic one million in summer 2019.
Cancer isn’t always a one-time event. It can be a chronic (ongoing) illness, much like diabetes or heart disease. Cancer can be closely watched and treated, but sometimes it never completely goes away. The cancer may be ‘controlled‘ with treatment, meaning it might seem to go away or stay the same, and it doesn’t grow or spread as long as you are getting appropriate treatment. Sometimes the treatment shrinks the cancer, but the cancer is still there – it doesn’t go away and stay away – it’s not cured. More people are living with cancer than ever before and the ratio is on the increase thanks to better treatments.
For the first 18 months following my diagnosis, I underwent a significant number of treatments and tests. As I continue living with my cancer, that tempo doesn’t seem to have gone away. Every 6 months (and sometimes in between too) I undergo a plethora of tests and appointments. Some tests are annual. I feel I’m stuck in this perpetual surveillance world – sometimes I’m not sure what to expect or what’s going to happen next! I suspect this is the case for many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients.
I saw a post on one of the forums last week – the question was “what does stable actually mean”. The answer may seem obvious but one reputable website defines it as follows “A doctor may use the termcontrolled if tests or scans show that the cancer is not changing over time. Another way of defining control would be calling the disease stable“. Worth noting that “not changing” can also mean ‘not decreasing’.
It’s 2 months until my next Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) and if I was a betting man, I would guess they will say “stable” having confirmed no remnant tumour growth and my blood and urine tests will be “unremarkable” (don’t you just love those medical terms!).
So is this normal? I guess it could be for me but I like to tie quality of life into my ‘normal’ definition. I also think that living with an incurable cancer is not so much about “getting back to normal” but rather what’s normal for me now (i.e. I can’t put back bits of my small intestine back in!). As I’m tying this into quality of life which is something I’m constantly trying to improve, I must therefore be constantly trying to improve my ‘normal’. I guess for me, normal isn’t really a static thing.
Being stable and finding a new normal doesn’t mean you don’t need support. The surveillance scans and tests are a given but the support isn’t always there in the quantity and quality you might like. I may be stable but I still need support and often this can only be acquired by being a proactive patient. I have a number of ongoing issue which might present bumps on the road ahead (at least the ones I can see) and these present a challenge to my normality.
Thyroid lesion (ongoing). Although it has not grown since discovered. Watch and wait. Check out my Thyroid blog for the full story.
I’m on long-term blood thinners (Clexane) due to the discovery of blood clots in one of my lungs following major surgery in 2010. To keep an eye on the risk of developing osteoporosis arising from long-term use of this drug, I have an annual DEXA scan which measures bone density. My last scan indicated a slight reduction (nothing drastic). I’m not getting any younger, so my bones are starting to ‘moan’ a little.
I’m not syndromic but I do have some post surgical side effects. Anyone who’s had classic NET gastrointestinal or pancreatic surgery will know the issues. It’s a constant battle but I’ve made some improvements by understanding why these side effects occur and taking action to reduce their impact. For example, since my ‘turning point’ in 2014, I’ve managed to reduce bathroom visits by 300%, so things are pretty normal frequency wise. I continue to work on this. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is something I’d like to explore with my MDT, particularly as a big increase in my probiotics dose made a difference. Check out my Nutrition series of blogs.
My fatigue levels are vastly improved since my 2014 turnaround and I put this down to my turnaround changes in the last two years including keeping active and reducing stress levels. I continue to work on this too.
A new normal can be found. They can be improved. However, they need to be guarded by being proactive and positive. And …. it’s not the same for everyone.