The human body is a complex system made up of millions of cells. The cells growth is regulated by body’s internal mechanism. Sometimes, when one or group of these cells gets damaged or mutated due to Genetic/Metabolic/ Hormonal or External Environmental factors, they start growing abnormally and multiply at uncontrollable pace, forming tumors called cancers. Endocrine cancers is one amongst such cancers. Onlymyhealth editorial team spoke to Dr. Mukta Baxi, Consultant – Surgical Oncology, Manipal Hospital, Ghaziabad, to know about lesser known facts of endocrine cancer.
The endocrine system, often known as the hormone system, is made up of such hormone-producing glands which secrete their secretions directly into the blood stream and which are scattered all over the body including organs like Intestine, etc. The hormones are tiny molecules in charge of regulating biological processes throughout life. The main hormone producing gland system comprises of hypothalamus, Pitutary gland, Pineal gland in skull region, thyroid and Parathyroid gland in neck, Thymus gland in chest, Pancreas & Adrenals in abdomen and ovaries and testis.
Lesser known facts about endocrine cancer
Many hormones are also being produced by other organs containing special types of cells – including neuroendocrine cells in intestines, Pancreas, thymus, lungs, Bronchus, Appendix. Many other organs have cells producing hormones like Kidneys(Erythropoitin) or may develop endocrine responsive tumors especially in breast and reproductive system and some also develop syndromes like hereditary multiple endocrine disorders, thus causing complex interplay of hormones in the whole body. Endocrine system cancers are different from cancers in many ways:
1. Abnormal functioning
They not only forms tumors but also start functioning abnormally as regard to secretion of small molecules called hormones like hyper production or underproduction of hormones or production of many new hormones other than their own. So, they not only affect the organ by making tiny tumors sometimes even less than a cm (so often missed on normal imaging like USG or CT or MRI and need special imaging modalities)
2. Symptoms in more than one system of the body
They produce symptoms in many systems of the body where these hormones act, so it becomes difficult to pinpoint the origin and diagnosis is often delayed as often patients roam to different medical specialties because of the symptoms related to that anatomical region or specialty. Endocrine cancer cells can be detected in the thyroid, adrenal, pancreatic, and pituitary glands, among other endocrine system organs.
3. Hereditary factor
Even if they come out benign, few still have inherent potential to metastasize years after so need to be treated on time and followed up frequently. They may run in families so hereditary factors become important and many family members need to be screened.
4. Complete reversal of symptoms is possible
Often not very responsive to usual therapies but when treated in time has high potential of complete reversal of symptoms produced by hormone overproduction.
5. What are the symptoms of endocrine cancer?
Endocrine cancer patients may notice variety of symptoms as related to the gland affected and its secretions. Sometimes multiple glands may be affected causing mixed picture. Common symptoms related to Endocrine tumors include:
- Neck lump or thyroid lump in their neck with or without hormone abnormality, sometimes visible externally, sometimes not but detected because of symptoms of hormone overproduction (Functioning type) or underproduction also . There may be abnormal weight gain or weight loss, neck pressure, change in voice etc and sometimes the mass in totally inside chest
- May affect calcium balance in the body. Many patients may have recurrent formation of stones esp in kidney or may develop abnormal deposition of calcium or brittle bones, behavior changes, emotional imbalance or osteoporotic symptoms.
- An adrenal tumor may affect blood pressure esp in young or middle age patients, cause central obesity or may produce too much sex steroids, for example, may cause a female patient to develop male characteristics like facial hair. When diagnosed timely may be reversed
- Other group of tumors are hormone responsive tumors in glands whose function is manipulated by hormones
- Fainting attacks, flushings, fever, fatigue, sudden weakness of limbs and proximal muscles, excessive acidity, low sugar or development of severe diabetes, recurrent or copious diarrhea, changing mental state, vision abnormalities, gynecological problems etc are other symptoms of special types of tumors due to different glands manifestation.
- As the tumor becomes larger, symptoms may appear. When a big tumor destroys a section of the gland, hormones become scarce. It may also have an impact on surrounding structures. A large pituitary tumor, for example, could impinge on the nerve that connects the eyes with the brain, producing visual problems.
6. Tumors can develop in any of the endocrine glands
Endocrine related cancers mainly include a group of sex steroid responsive cancers, like cancers of the breast, endometrium, prostate, and testis, but also other cancers such as those of ovary cancers that are responsive to pituitary hormones. The thyroid is the endocrine gland that helps regulate metabolism. Thyroid cancer is the most common cancer in the world. Around 42 million people are living with some type of thyroid disease.
A neuroendocrine tumor is an uncommon cancer developed in special cells called neuroendocrine cells. They have characteristics of cells of neural origin and cells of hormone producing glands. This Rare cancer may occur anywhere in the body, most commonly in Intestine, Appendix, Pancreas, Thymus, Lungs, Bronchus etc often takes a long time from the first-time symptoms to diagnosis, sometimes even more than 4-5 years. Initially, the symptoms are detected as problems like diarrhea, pain, flushing, cough, wheeze, tiredness, or fatigue, copious diarrhea. This means over 90% of neuroendocrine tumor patients get treatment for the wrong diseases for a long time.
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are the rare & accounts for 7% of cases of all types of pancreatic cancer. The pituitary gland is an endocrine gland in the brain responsible for producing hormones that are important for the functioning of the body. The pituitary gland tumors are mostly non-cancerous, and only a few hundred people are ever reported to develop this condition. Diagnosing cancer at an early stage increases the chances of survival and is even curable in many cases. Regular screening, blood tests, and other scanning methods can detect asymptomatic cancers.
7. Endocrine cancer treatment
To remove an endocrine tumor surgically and get a complete cure is a possibility for any endocrine tumor. Other modalities are also sometimes needed in cancers. Diagnosis and treatment by experts is important for initial complete treatment although chances of recurrence remains. Hormonal manipulation is occasionally used to help patients balance their hormone levels in the body. Your doctor may recommend additional tailored regimens to address your specific needs, depending on the type of tumor.