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Neuroendocrine Carcinomas Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Neuroendocrine carcinomas are cancers that start in neuroendocrine cells found throughout the body.

These cells get signals from the brain. They make hormones that help control digestion, heart rate, sleep, and more.

There are many types of neuroendocrine tumors.

The symptoms vary widely based on:

  • Where the cancer is.
  • Whether it makes hormones.
  • Which hormone it makes.

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What Are Neuroendocrine Carcinomas?

Doctors define neuroendocrine carcinomas as cancers that come from neuroendocrine cells.

These cancers most often occur in the digestive tract. But they can also occur in the lungs, pancreas, endocrine glands, skin, and reproductive system.

Neuroendocrine cells make hormones, including:

  • Adrenaline, which increases your heart rate when you feel stressed.
  • Gastrin, which tells your stomach when to release acid and digestive enzymes.
  • Insulin, which your body needs to process sugar.
  • Serotonin, which affects your sleep, mood, and digestion.

By causing problems with these hormone levels, neuroendocrine carcinomas can affect energy levels, mood, digestion, and more.

What Kind of Cancer Is Neuroendocrine Carcinoma?

Neuroendocrine tumors are cancers that:

  • Affect the endocrine (hormone) and nervous systems.
  • Can appear anywhere in the body.
  • Are rare. They make up only 0.5% of all cancers. About 12,000 people in the U.S. get neuroendocrine cancer each year.
  • Are often slow-growing cancers but can also be fast-growing.

What are the types of neuroendocrine carcinomas?

The 3 main types of neuroendocrine cancers are:

  • Gastrointestinal (GI). These tumors can happen in the intestines, rectum, stomach, or elsewhere in the digestive system.
  • Lung. Small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma is the most common type of this cancer in the lung.
  • Pancreas.

More rarely, these cancers can also occur elsewhere, including in neuroendocrine cells in the:

  • Adrenal glands.
  • Breast.
  • Ovaries or testes.
  • Kidney.
  • Parathyroid.
  • Pituitary gland.
  • Skin.
  • Thyroid.

What causes neuroendocrine cancer?

Cancer forms when gene changes in the neuroendocrine cells cause the cells to grow out of control.

There are no known environmental or lifestyle factors that specifically cause neuroendocrine carcinomas.

Some people are born with a disease that makes these gene changes more likely. But, many people with neuroendocrine cancers don't have a genetic disease.

What are neuroendocrine carcinoma risk factors and complications?

Neuroendocrine cancer risk factors

The following risk factors can increase your risk of getting a neuroendocrine tumor:

  • A family history of neuroendocrine tumors.
  • Age. Neuroendocrine tumors are very rare in children.
  • Diabetes. This is a risk factor for neuroendocrine tumors in the pancreas.
  • Genetic problems, including neurofibromatosis type 1, multiple endocrine neoplasia (types 1 and 2), Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis complex.
  • Smoking.

Complications of neuroendocrine tumors

Neuroendocrine tumors can lead to serious health issues, including:

  • Anemia (low iron or red blood cells).
  • Bleeding in the GI tract.
  • Bowel obstruction.
  • Cushing syndrome from making too much cortisol.
  • Heart damage.
  • Liver damage.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Seizures or loss of consciousness due to extremely low blood sugar.
  • Stomach ulcers.

If left untreated, neuroendocrine tumors can cause death.

Why choose UPMC for neuroendocrine carcinoma care?

Neuroendocrine tumors often need a team of doctors who focus on distinct areas. That's because these cancers affect not just the endocrine system but also digestion, heart rate, and much more.

Our team works closely with other body systems experts to make sure you get complete care.

We offer advanced tests, treatments, and clinical trials for medicines not yet widely available.

Many doctors refer their patients with neuroendocrine carcinomas to UPMC due to our vast knowledge and skill.

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Neuroendocrine Carcinoma Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of neuroendocrine cancer?

The symptoms of neuroendocrine carcinoma vary widely based on where the tumor is and whether the cells make hormones.

For instance, a lung neuroendocrine tumor can cause coughing. An adrenal gland tumor that releases too much stress hormone can cause anxiety.

Possible neuroendocrine tumor symptoms include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Bloody stools.
  • Constipation.
  • Cough or hoarse voice that doesn't go away.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Dizziness.
  • Facial flushing.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fainting.
  • Fever that persists or keeps coming back.
  • Frequent urination.
  • Frequent lung infections like pneumonia.
  • Increased hunger.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin).
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea.
  • Pain in a certain part of the belly that doesn't go away.
  • Shaking, especially in the arms and hands.
  • Seizures.
  • Skin rash.
  • Weight loss you can't explain.

How do you diagnose neuroendocrine carcinomas?

Doctors diagnose neuroendocrine cancers using:

  • Blood and urine tests. These look for high levels of hormones or proteins made by neuroendocrine tumors.
  • Endoscopy. The doctor sends a thin, flexible tube with a camera and lights on it down the throat. They can view the esophagus, stomach, and top of the small intestine.
  • Colonoscopy. The doctor moves a tube with a special camera and lights through the rectum to view the large intestine.
  • MRI or CT scans. These look for tumors in the GI tract and lungs.
  • A biopsy. Doctors take a small sample of a mass and use a microscope to see if it looks like cancer cells.
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How Do You Treat Neuroendocrine Carcinomas?

Doctors often treat neuroendocrine tumors with a mix of treatments, based on:

  • Where the tumor is in the body.
  • What hormone it's making.
  • How fast it's growing.

Neuroendocrine cancer treatments may include:

  • Chemotherapy medicines. These kill fast-growing cancer cells but can also harm some healthy cells. This causes side effects, including hair loss and nerve damage.
  • Hepatic artery embolization. The doctor moves a catheter through an artery in the groin to an artery in the liver. They put a substance into the blood vessel that supplies a liver tumor to kill it.
  • Medicine that blocks the production of a specific hormone. This will reduce symptoms of neuroendocrine tumors that make too much hormone.
  • Non-surgical techniques that cut off blood supply to tumors. The doctor reaches the tumor through a colonoscopy or endoscopy and sends tiny instruments through a tube to remove it.
  • Radiation therapy or high-dose radiation targeted to a tumor to kill or shrink it.
  • Radiofrequency ablation. An electrical current destroys tumor cells.
  • Surgery to remove the tumor.
  • Targeted drugs that act on a certain protein in cancer cells and stop them from multiplying.
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