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Exploring neuroendocrine tumors, cancer that can act like other conditions

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Monday, November 21, 2022
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Neuroendocrine cells function like nerve cells but can produce hormones. When tumors form on them, it can mimic other conditions, such as diabetes.

LANSDALE, Pa. (WPVI) -- One size doesn't fit all when it comes to cancer, and sometimes, it can act like other medical conditions.

Neuroendocrine tumors is one of those types.

Bonnie St. Onge of Lansdale, Pa., was always healthy, but when a local hospital offered an inexpensive full-body scan, she said yes, out of curiosity.

"When it was finished, the technician said - You need to tell your doctor that you have a 5 centimeter mass in your mid-gut," says St. Onge.

Busy with her summer passion, being a hot air balloon crew chief, Bonnie put tests off till fall.

When she got them, they showed a tumor on her pancreas of "neuroendocrine" cells.

These cells are responsible for performing functions such as regulating the movement of air, blood through the lungs, and how quickly food is processed through the gastrointestinal tract.

"You can develop a neuroendocrine tumor in literally any part of your body," says Dr. Neena Vijayvergia, an oncologist who heads up the neuroendocrine program at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Dr. Vijayvergia says the most common places are in the lungs, small intestine, pancreas, rectum and appendix.

Like other cancers, they can spread, but they also have a unique trait.

"A good bunch of them tend to produce a lot of hormones, which lead to hormonal symptoms," says Dr. Vijayvergia.

Symptoms like - skin flushing, diarrhea, thirst, frequent urination, and dizziness - similar to diabetes.

The tumors can also form a lump under the skin or cause pain.

Dr. Vijayvergia says very little is known about their cause.

"About 90% of them just happen on their own. 10% of these tumors are genetic," she says, noting that there is extensive research on this question.

Treatment varies, depending whether tumors are slow-growing or aggressive.

Most drugs use a "lock & key" tactic, unlocking a protein on the tumor cell, to stop both growth and hormones.

Last year, Bonnie received a revolutionary drug called Lutathera. It works on the lock and key approach, but delivers an extra punch.

"They attached a radiation particle to it. And so then radiation is delivered to the cancers. Now we're doing studies of, we're attaching chemo to it," says Dr. Vijayvergia.

Bonnie says the side effects were bearable, and the drug is working.

"When I heard that the cancer cells were shrinking, I felt like I had a new lease on life," she says with a smile.

"I'm here and I'm able to see my family and my grandchildren grow older," says Bonnie of her four daughters and 13 grandchildren.

Dr. Vijayvergia says neuroendocrine tumors are rare, so it's essential to get an opinion from a center with a multidisciplinary team dealing with them every day.