What Is Neuroendocrine Cancer?

Senator Bernie Sanders's daughter-in-law died two days after getting a neuroendocrine cancer diagnosis.

Less than a week after his own surgery for heart trouble, senator Bernie Sanders and his family mourned the loss of his daughter-in-law, Rainè Riggs. Two days prior to her death, healthcare providers diagnosed Riggs with neuroendocrine cancer.

Riggs, who was married to Sanders's son Levi and was a mother of three, died on October 5, 2019, at the age of 46. According to her obituary, Riggs's illness was swift and confused healthcare providers.

The quick progression of neuroendocrine cancer is tragic and alarming. Here's what you need to know about the rare type of cancer.

What Is Neuroendocrine Cancer?

With neuroendocrine cancer, tumors form in the body's neuroendocrine cells, which release hormones. Neuroendocrine cells are in almost all your organs, mainly your digestive system, thyroid gland, and lungs.

For instance, neuroendocrine cells in your digestive system tell your body when to release digestive juices. Those cells also control the speed at which food moves through your system.

Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) can occur anywhere in the body. However, they usually form in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, pancreas, and lungs. NETs are rare. About 12,000 people are diagnosed each year in the United States. NETs account for about 7% of all cancers that happen in the pancreas.

Neuroendocrine Cancer Symptoms

NETs are usually slow-growing, though there are some fast-growing ones. However, NETs often don't produce symptoms until cancer spreads to nearby organs and affects their functioning.

There are no defined symptoms because NETs can occur anywhere in the body. The symptoms usually depend on where the NETs are located and whether the cancer is functional, affecting hormone production.

When symptoms are present, they can include general cancer symptoms like:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms that depend on the size and location of the NET and whether it's functional can include:

  • Pain in a specific area of the body that persists
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hoarseness or cough that persists
  • Changes in your bowel or bladder habits
  • Unusual discharge or bleeding
  • High or low blood sugar
  • Diarrhea

Neuroendocrine Cancer Treatment and Survival Rate

Treatments depend on size, location, stage of cancer, type of NET, and overall health. Healthcare providers may recommend surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy. Also, you may receive one or several of those treatments.

While Riggs's diagnosis was fatal, NETs are not always deadly. Survival rates depend on where the tumor is located and the stage. For example, the five-year survival rate if NET is in the GI tract depends on where the cancer has spread, such as:

  • If cancer has not spread to other body parts, there is a 97% five-year survival rate.
  • If cancer has spread to nearby tissue or the regional lymph nodes, there is a 95% five-year survival rate.
  • If cancer has spread to distant areas of your body, there is a 67% five-year survival rate.

A Quick Review

Neuroendocrine cells are the cells in your body that release hormones. Those cells are nearly everywhere in your body. When neuroendocrine cells become tumors, neuroendocrine cancer develops.

There is no defined set of symptoms because the symptoms depend on the size, location, and type of tumor. For the same reasons, treatment options vary. The survival rate of neuroendocrine cancer also varies with tumor location and stage.

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  2. Klöppel G. Neuroendocrine Neoplasms: Dichotomy, Origin and ClassificationsVisc Med. 2017;33(5):324-330. doi:10.1159/000481390

  3. American Cancer Society. What is a gastrointestinal carcinoid tumor?.

  4. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Neuroendocrine tumors: Statistics.

  5. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

  6. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Neuroendocrine tumors: Introduction.

  7. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Neuroendocrine tumors: Types of treatment.

  8. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Neuroendocrine tumor of the gastrointestinal tract: Statistics.

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