Neuroendocrine tumors are rare cancers that originate in the cells of the neuroendocrine system. This type of cancer can happen in many parts of your body, but most commonly impacts the lungs, appendix, small bowels or pancreas.
Every day your brain sends signals to neuroendocrine cells in your body. These cells make and release hormones that control certain body functions. The pathway the brain uses to do this is called the neuroendocrine system.
“Through this system, your brain is able to control blood pressure, heart rate, the amount of glucose in the blood and much more,” said Dr. Demet Gokalp Yasar, medical oncologist/hematologist with Cancer Care & Research at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “These neuroendocrine cells are everywhere from head to toe, which is why this type of cancer can happen throughout several parts of your body.”
Different types of neuroendocrine tumors
Some neuroendocrine tumors grow slowly and produce a hormone. This type can also make people have symptoms like skin flushing, diarrhea, a feeling of dizziness, tremors or skin rash.
Other types are more aggressive and do not release any hormones, which means there are fewer symptoms.
However, most cancers have common symptoms like unexplained weight loss and fatigue. Depending on the location, you also may experience pain in the location of the cancer.
“It is important that we do a tissue biopsy to determine what type of neuroendocrine tumor we are dealing with and where it came from,” Dr. Yasar said.
Causes and treatments
Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be recommended treatment options for this type of tumor. The recommended course of treatment for neuroendocrine tumors depends on several factors including the grade of the tumor, staging of the tumor, symptoms and what part of the body it originated.
“Similar to other tumors, they can metastasize into other parts of the body depending on when it was caught,” Dr. Yasar said.
These cancers are present at any age. While the causes are unknown, having neuroendocrine syndromes such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN1 or MEN2) or tuberous sclerosis can increase your risk. Your primary care provider may also recommend additional cancer screenings if you have one of these syndromes.
For more information about neuroendocrine tumors or if you are concerned about your risk, talk to your primary care provider.