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There’s a lot of scary diseases in this world and some of them are particularly spooky. One such disease is the lesser known type of cancer that infiltrated my body – Neuroendocrine Cancer (aka Neuroendocrine Tumors or NET for short). Not only is it scary, but it’s also cunning, devious, misleading, double-crossing, and it likes nothing better than to play tricks on you.
It will sneak into your body without you even knowing anything about it. It finds places to hide, mainly the small intestine, appendix, lungs, stomach, pancreas and a host of other places. It can be fiendishly small to avoid being seen. Once it’s established in the primary location, it will try to break out via your blood and lymphatic system. It wants to establish other bases in your mesentery, your liver, your lymph nodes, your bones and many other places. It can often be uncannily quiet, not showing any symptoms.
Sometimes it wants to have fun, so it will often over-secrete certain hormones to add or introduce symptoms which mimic many other diseases such as IBS, asthma, abdominal upset, diarrhea, flushing. These are just more tricks. You will go to your doctor, perhaps many times, to report what looks like routine/regular symptoms but it’s also really good at tricking your doctors. After several visits, your doctors could become so frustrated that nothing serious is obvious, they might even start to think it’s all in your head. This is exactly what Neuroendocrine Cancer wants because it actually hasn’t finished its tricking yet.
One particular type of NET has a wicked trick up its sleeve. This one will over-secrete a hormone called Serotonin which will cause fibrosis in your abdominal area, potentially causing obstructions and damage to major organs and blood vessels. It will also try to introduce fibrosis to the right side of your heart causing more life threatening issues. In addition to common symptoms of flushing, this type and others will also make you feel weak, fatigued, pain, agitated, anxious, dizzy, nauseous, jaundiced, acid reflux, skin irritation, anemic, lose weight and give you heart palpitations. Its main trick is to prevent you from being diagnosed.
It’s still not finished as it has a ‘finale’ trick. Neuroendocrine Cancer actually wants to kill you, and if it’s left to plough its relentless path throughout your body, that’s exactly what it will do.
It’s not just scary, it can also be deadly. Spread the word and help save a life.
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NANETS (North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society) is one of the biggest NET conferences, bringing together NET Specialists from around the world to discuss state-of-the-art treatment modalities, new therapies, and ongoing controversies in the field of Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (Tumors and Carcinomas). This is fairly complex stuff but much of it will be familiar to many. I’ve filtered out several outputs from the conference which I think are both relevant and topical to patients. The list is below allowing you to easily peruse and read further via linkages if you need to read more. Remember, some of these are extracts so do not contain all the details of the research or study – although some of the linkages will take you to in-depth information if that’s your bag. Where applicable, I’ve also linked to some of my blog posts to add context and detail in patient speak. The list comprises articles which were published in medical news media and for which I received alerts. It does not comprise the entire schedule of NANETS 2017. I may add more to the list if other relevant and interesting articles are published downstream.
Some of the output from the conference is in ‘study form’ and has not yet been published as peer-reviewed data (important notice to readers).
The full link to all poster abstracts for NANETS 2017 can be found here
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“Cured” – In cancer, this word can evoke a number of emotions. Interestingly, not all these emotions will be as positive as you might think. If you want to spark a heated debate on a Neuroendocrine Cancer patient forum, just mention that you’ve been cured. I’ve been living with Neuroendocrine Cancer for 7 years so I must be cured, right? Not as easy as this unfortunately and I’m guessing this is the case for many cancers.
Doctors clearly need to be careful when saying the word “cured‘ even if there is a 99% likelihood that a cancer will not recur. It is (currently) impossible to know if there are “micrometastases” present in your body—that is, metastases which are too small to be seen, even on the latest imaging. There’s plenty of conservative alternative terms that can be used such as ‘stable’, ‘no evidence of disease (NED)’, ‘in remission’ or ‘complete response’. I don’t see the latter two much in Neuroendocrine disease circles.
So with all these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, what exactly is a cure?
Answering this question isn’t a simple case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because it depends on the way that the term ‘cancer’ is defined. It should actually be viewed as an umbrella term for a collection of hundreds of different diseases. They all share the fundamental characteristic of rogue cells growing out of control, but each type of cancer, and each person’s individual cancer, is unique and comes with its own set of challenges.
That’s why it’s very unlikely that there will be one single cure that can wipe out all cancers. That doesn’t mean individual cases of cancer can’t be cured. Many cancers in fact already can be. Scientists aren’t actually on the hunt for a ‘silver bullet’ against all cancers, Quite the opposite. The more scientists get to know each type of cancer inside and out, the greater the chance of finding new ways to tackle these diseases so that more people can survive. Thanks to a much deeper understanding of cell biology and genetics, there exist today a growing number of targeted therapies that have been designed at a molecular level to recognise particular features specific of cancer cells. Along with chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, these treatments—used singly and in combination—have led to a slow, but steady, increase in survival rates. You can definitely count Neuroendocrine Cancer in that category.
Cancer is seen today less as a disease of specific organs, and more as one of molecular mechanisms caused by the mutation of specific genes. The implication of this shift in thinking is that the best treatment for, say, colorectal cancer may turn out to be designed and approved for use against tumors in an entirely different part of the body, such as the breast. We’re certainly seeing that with certain targeted therapies and more recently with Immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy will eventually cure cancer, right?
Immunotherapy will play a huge part in cancer treatment in the future, that we know. But to suggest that it’s a cure is probably overstating its current success. Neuroendocrine Cancer has not been forgotten – you can read more about Neuroendocrine Cancer and Immunotherapy here.
I heard the Oncolytic Virus at Uppsala is a cure?
There is currently no scientific evidence that the Oncolytic Virus (AdVince) can cure humans with Neuroendocrine Cancer. So far it has only been proven in destroying neuroendocrine tumours in mice. The Oncolytic Viruses developed in Uppsala are now being evaluated in phase I clinical trials for neuroendocrine cancer. If you’re not up to speed with this trial, read more here – Oncolytic Virus Uppsala
Isn’t prevention better than a cure?
This old adage is still relevant BUT latest thinking would indicate it is not applicable to all cancers. Scientists claim that 66% of cancer is simply a form of ‘bad luck’ and if the claim is accurate, it follows that many cancers are simply inevitable. The thinking suggests that random errors occurring during DNA replication in normal stem cells are a major contributing factor in cancer development confirming that “bad luck” explains a far greater number of cancers than do hereditary and environmental factors. This scientific thinking is a tad controversial so it’s worth remembering that even if, as this study suggests, most individual cancer mutations are due to random chance, the researchers also admit that the cancers they cause may still be preventable. It’s complex!
Surely a cure is more possible if the earlier cancer is diagnosed?
To a certain extent this is true for many types of cancer. In fact the same scientists did say ….”We detect those attacks when they’re still early, before the cancers have widely spread, at a time when they can still be cured simply by surgery or perhaps surgery and adjuvant therapy, which always works better on smaller tumors.”.
What about Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs)? Clearly I’m not qualified to make such statements except to say that I am of the opinion that earlier diagnosis is better for any curative scenario. The challenge with NETs is getting a diagnosis before the cancer does long-term damage. It’s an extremely sneaky cancer. When you read NET guidelines (ENETS/NANETS etc), the word ‘cure’ and ‘curative’ is mentioned. Bearing in mind that our most expert NET specialists are involved in the drafting of these guidelines, perhaps we should pause and think before dismissing these claims. Clearly with advanced disease, the cancer becomes incurable but treatment for many being palliative to reduce tumor bulk and reduce any symptoms and/or syndrome effects. The words ‘cure’ and ‘curative’ can be found in many NET specialist publications in relation to early stage disease, so I guess there must be something in it. Having checked ENETS publications, I can see it’s related to certain conditions and factors such as localisation within the organ, tumour size, good resection margins and there are also recommendations concerning the gaps between follow-up surveillance in certain scenarios. Clearly in these cases, surveillance is as vital as any other scenario.
The newspapers are always talking about breakthroughs and cures for cancer?
Newspapers looking for a good headline will use words such as ‘cure’. Sadly, headlines are generally written by sub-editors who scan the article and look to find a ‘reader-oriented angle’ for the heading. They either can’t or don’t have time to understand what’s actually being said. Unfortunately this then leads to people sharing what is now a misleading article without a thought for the impact on those who are worried about the fact they have cancer and whether it can be cured or not. There’s also a lot of fake health news out there – check out my article series about the problems with the internet and ‘Miracle Cures’.
What would a cure mean to those living with NETs?
This is something that has crossed my mind, even though I don’t believe it will happen in my lifetime. I guess it would be good to get rid of the known remnant tumors left behind from my treatment (and any micrometastases currently not detectable). However, many NET patients are living with the consequences of cancer and its treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy, somatostatin analogues, radionuclide therapy, liver directed therapy, and others. Many of these effects would remain – let’s face it, a cure is not going to give me back bits of my small and large intestine, liver and an army of lymph nodes. So support for those living with NETs would need to remain despite a cure.
The emotional aspect of the word ‘cured’ seems to be an issue across many cancers and it’s certainly very controversial in NET circles. The world has still not cured the many cancers that exist. But over the next five to ten years the era of personalised medicine could see enormous progress in making cancer survivable. I think both doctors and patients need to take a pragmatic view on the ‘cured’ word and to end this article I wanted to share an interesting quote I found whilst researching:
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Firstly, let me say that I have no intention of advising you how to lose or gain weight! Rather, I’d like to discuss what factors might be involved in losing or gaining weight either at diagnosis or after treatment. I can also talk freely about my own experience with my condition and associated weight issues. If nothing else, it might help some in thinking about what is causing their own weight issues.
I wrote a patient story for an organisation over 3 years ago and it started with the words used as the title of this blog. Those were actually the words my asthma nurse said to me after I nonchalantly told her I thought I’d lost some weight (….about half a stone). I said “no” and this response triggered a sequence of events that led to all the stories in all the posts in this blog (i.e. my diagnosis). I can’t remember at which point I started to lose the weight but I was initially reported to have Iron Deficiency Anemia due to a low hemoglobin result and my subsequent iron test (Serum Ferritin) was also low and out of normal range. This, combined with the weight loss, the GP was spot on by referring me to a clinic. The sequence of events during the referral led to a diagnosis of metastatic NETs (Small Intestine Primary). If I had been a betting man, I would have put money on my GP thinking “Colorectal Cancer”. So my adage “If your doctors don’t suspect something, they won’t detect anything” applies.
I was diagnosed at a weight of 11 st 7 lbs (161 lbs or 73 kg). Spoiler alert, I’m now 10 st 7 lbs (147 lbs or 66 kg). I can also tell you that I weigh myself most days at the same time using the same scales. I won’t be caught out again!
Why did I lose weight?
I had major surgery about 10 weeks after diagnosis. When I left the hospital after my 19 day stay, I was a whole stone lighter (14 lbs or 6.3 kg). I guess 3 feet of intestine, the cecum, an ascending colon, a bit of a transverse colon together with an army of lymph nodes and other abdominal ‘gubbins’ actually weighs a few pounds. However, add the gradual introduction of foods to alleviate pressure on the ‘new plumbing’, and this is also going to have an effect on weight. I remember my Oncologist after the surgery saying to use full fat milk – the context is lost in memory but I guess he was trying to help me put weight back on. I also vividly remember many of my clothes not fitting me after this surgery. In fact, since 2010, I’ve actually dropped 2 trouser sizes and one shirt/jumper size. I did spend a lot of time in the toilet over the coming months, so I guess that had an impact! The commencement of Lanreotide in Dec 2010 did introduce another side effect which complicated the issues caused by my ‘new plumbing’ – malabsorption.
I started to put on some weight in time for my next big surgery – a liver resection. The average adult liver weighs 1.5 kg so I lost another 1 kg in one day based on a 66% liver resection. However, what was also going on was something that took me a while to figure out – malabsorption and vitamin/mineral deficiency. That knowledge led me to understand some of the more esoteric nutritional issues that can have a big effect on NET patients and actually lead to a host of side effects that might be confused with one of the several NET syndromes. What it also confirmed to me was that I could still eat foods I enjoy without worrying too much about the effect on my remnant tumours or the threat of a recurrence of my carcinoid syndrome, something I was experiencing prior to and after diagnosis.
I did eventually adjust my diet and my weight has now flat-lined at around 10 st 7 lbs (give or take 1 or 2 lbs fluctuation). I actually lost half a stone (7 lbs or 3.5 kg) in 2014 whilst training for an 84 mile charity walk – many commented that I looked thin and gaunt. It took several months to put the weight back on but at least I knew what was causing the loss. I don’t have any appetite issues although I try to avoid big meals due to a shorter gut, so I snack more. With the exception of the 4 months of intense training for the 84 mile hike, I cannot seem to lose or gain weight. As my current weight is bang in the middle of the BMI green zone (healthy), I’m content.
Why do NET patients lose weight?
That’s a tricky one but any authoritative resource will confirm fairly obvious things such as (but not limited to) loss of appetite and side effects of cancer treatments. NETs can be complex so I resorted to researching the ISI Book on NETs, a favourite resource of mine. I wanted to check out any specific mentions of weight and NETs whether at diagnosis or beyond. Here’s some of the things I found out:
Carcinoid Syndrome. Weight loss is listed but not as high a percentage as I thought – although it tends to be tied into those affected most with diarrhea.
Gastrinoma/Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome. Up to half of these patients will have weight loss at diagnosis.
Glucagonoma. 90% will have weight loss.
Pheochromocytoma. Weight loss is usual.
Somatostatinoma. Weight loss in one-third of pancreatic cases and one-fifth in intestinal cases.
VIPoma. Weight loss is usual.
MEN Syndromes. One of the presentational symptoms can be weight loss.
Secondary Effects of NETs. Many NETs can result in diabetes (particularly certain pNETs) and as somatostatin analogues can inhibit insulin, it could push those at borderline levels into formal diabetic levels. In people with diabetes, insufficient insulin prevents the body from getting glucose from the blood into the body’s cells to use as energy. When this occurs, the body starts burning fat and muscle for energy, causing a reduction in overall body weight.
It must be emphasised that there will always be exceptions and the above will not apply to every single patient with one of the above.
What about weight gain?
You always associate weight loss with cancer patients but there are some types of NETs and associated syndromes which might actually cause weight gain. Here’s what I found from ISI and other sources (as mentioned):
Cushing’s Syndrome. Centripetal weight gain is mentioned. (Centripetal – tends to the centre of the body). I also noted that Cushing’s Syndrome tends to be much more prevalent in females. Cushing’s syndrome comprises the signs and symptoms caused by excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol (hypercortisolism) or by an overdosage of drugs known as glucocorticoids.
Insulinoma. Weight gain occurs in around 40% of cases, because patients may eat frequently to avoid symptoms. However, according to an Insulinoma support group site, I did note that after treatment (some stability), things can improve.
Again, it must be emphasised that there will always be exceptions and the above will not apply to every single patient with one of the above.
The NETs Jigsaw
Like anything in NETs, things can get complex. So it is entirely possible that weight loss or weight gain is directly caused by NETs, can be caused by side effects/secondary effects of treatment, and it’s also possible that it could be something unrelated to NETs (Dr Liu “Even NET patients get regular illnesses“). I guess some people might have a good idea of the reason for theirs – my initial weight loss was without doubt caused by the cancer and the post diagnostic issues caused by the consequences of the cancer.
I guess that weight loss or weight gain can be a worry. I also suspect that people might be happy to lose or gain weight if they were under/over weight before diagnosis (every cloud etc). However, if you are progressively losing weight, I encourage you to seek advice soonest or ask to see a dietician (preferably one who understands NETs).
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Patient stories are key to any awareness campaign. Nothing like a human being standing up and letting you know about their experience. Many are positive examples of how they are overcoming their trials and tribulations, others tell stories of a struggle. They all have different styles, some are the ‘kick ass’ type stories, some are just thankful – all of them are perfectly acceptable. I normally like to place myself somewhere in the middle with phrases like “I’m still here“, although I can veer left and right when the mood takes me!
Because of my social media footprint, I get a lot of private messages from people across the globe. Many are from people who have no wish to go public and that’s fine. Many are from people who value my opinion and that’s humbling. On forums, you can get 50 answers, with me you normally only get one (even if it’s a “I don’t know”). Most are fairly easy to answer, just a link to something or asking for one of my articles they can’t seem to find. Some are a bit trickier but I get there in the end. Some are pretty worrying and really difficult to answer. And nearly all of them amplify something we already know ……. despite some tremendous medical advances, there’s still a lot of unmet needs for Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, in particular access to NET specialists, access to the best and latest proven treatments and follow-up support for those affected by their experience (physical and mental). I’m talking in a global sense including countries perceived to be advanced in medical terms.
Take ‘A’ for example. This patient has a classic well differentiated Small Intestinal NET (Si NET) with lymph node metastasis. That resulted in fairly classic abdominal surgery that many of us will have had (including myself). For the past year, this patient has struggled with no follow on support, no dietary advice and has been left alone. This patient told me he is actually receiving his follow on advice from my blog site. This patient is also struggling on the emotional side because people say he looks rather well and have commented that he must have been wrongly diagnosed but at least is now cured.
Example ‘B’ is similar. This patient has had surgery (the surgeon got everything apparently ….) but has been declared non-syndromic on the basis there is no diarrhea. However, there is flushing, joint paint, general abdominal issues, weight loss, headaches, fatigue, dehydration and chronic constipation. It took this patient 6 months to find out about a local NET advocate organisation and 10 months to find out there was access to a dietitian.
Example ‘C’ is worrying. In this example I was contacted and asked about surveillance intervals as it was noticed I was having regular scans. What I found was someone who had a metastatic midgut NET and not had any surveillance for 3 years (including tumour/hormone marker checks and Echocardiograms). This is despite an advanced healthcare system and oodles of availability. This patient is now seeing a NET specialist.
Example ‘D’ is horrendous. This patient was treated as a bowel cancer case when they had a low-grade classic Si NET …… surgery and then classic bowel adenocarcinoma chemo. Now, it might be that was the only treatment modality available in this patient’s country but it’s a worrying example of the extent of the unmet needs for NET patients in the country concerned.
I could go on with many other examples and I might expand this post downstream.
One thing is very clear to me, we need a new paradigm in international advocacy and we need to start focusing more on these support issues. As the number of people living with cancer rises, the requirement for post diagnostic support also rises. Even those who are ‘stable’ need support. One thing is for sure, the shock effect of what people tell me never wears off because I know there are more shocking stories still to hear.
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In my article ‘Ever wonder what caused your NET’, I concluded that currently, the only known scientifically explained causes for NETs were heredity/genetic in nature. This is mostly associated with those who have MEN syndromes (yes, they are a syndrome not a type of tumour) and a few other less common types of NET including Pheochomocytoma/Paraganglioma (Pheo/Para) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma (MTC) (the familial version of MTC is often referred to as FMTC). However, please note this does not mean that all those diagnosed with Pheo/Para and MTC will have any heredity or genetic conditions, many will simply be sporadic tumors.
In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that a number of Neuroendocrine tumours arise as a result of germline genetic mutations and are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern. The number of genes implicated is increasing.
Apparently, 5-10% of Gastroenteropancreatic NETs (GEP NETs) are estimated to have a hereditary background. Syndromes associated with these include Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN), Von Hippel Lindau (VHL), Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1) and Tuberous Sclerosis (TS), each of which are briefly outlined in the above reference. People who have a genetic condition may present with the tumors (perhaps along with an associated hormonal syndrome) and so the genetic condition if there is one, may not be known at this point. Thus why I was interested in a paper published in Springer Link last week:
When should genetic testing be performed in patients with neuroendocrine tumours?
Crossref DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11154-017-9430-3
In this review, the authors examined the features which may lead a clinician to suspect that a patient may have an inherited cause of a NET and they outlined which underlying conditions should be suspected. They also discussed what type of screening may be appropriate in a variety of situations. If there is a way to identify which patients are likely to have a germline mutation, this would enable clinicians to counsel patients adequately about their future disease risk, and allows for earlier detection of at-risk patients through family screening. There’s a couple of minor errors in the text but I’ve contacted the authors.
The authors focused on presentations of NETs of the gastrointestinal system, chromaffin cell tumours (Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma) and Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma. Pituitary tumors (normally associated with MEN1), were not considered in scope for the review. Interesting, the review includes news of a move by endocrinologists to reclassify ‘Pituitary Adenomas’ as Pituitary NETs (PitNETs). Read the abstract here. This would appear to be in line with a gradual shift from the benign nomenclature associated with certain NETs to the ‘malignant’ potential of these type of tumors. The abbreviation is also in line with others, e.g. pNET, SiNET, etc. A useful reminder that we must stop using the term ‘Carcinoid‘ as this is regressing this extremely useful initiative to highlight the malignant potential of all NETs.
There also appears to be some linkage to the study looking at the possibility of familial Small Intestine NETs (SiNETs). You can read more about a US registered trial here (with apologies for use of the now defunct term ‘Carcinoid‘).
When should genetic testing be performed in patients with neuroendocrine tumours?
Crossref DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11154-017-9430-3
This is a complex subject and the text above is very basic. If you wish to dig further, the quoted reference is a good read. Just to emphasise, it’s aim is to provide advice about when to recommend genetic testing for NETs, and in doing so provides some useful reference information. It’s broken down into 4 distinct tumor groupings:
You may also find this article from the National Cancer Institute very useful. It has a wider scope but a different aim. “Genetics of Endocrine and Neuroendocrine Neoplasias (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version”
I also noted the UKINETS Guidelines for NETs has a section on genetics and includes something called Carney Complex.
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Since my diagnosis of incurable and metastatic neuroendocrine cancer in 2010, it’s really all been about me. I didn’t see the trauma coming, and my family has supported me throughout every single step. I really don’t want to be the focus of attention as that mantle was normally evenly distributed. However, there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to put you into the spotlight.
Facing an uncertain future with regular scans, injections, treatment, pills, examinations and blood tests has made me the center of attention, whether I like it or not. The focus is on me because these things are necessary to keep me alive for as long as possible and also because I live with the consequences of cancer and its treatment which provides further challenges. A good quality of life is not only a motivator for change, good planning and constant surveillance, but it’s also hard work and has an additional impact on the whole family. It means all activities including work, holidays, days out, social activities and, even the simple act of eating, might all need to be organized around me due to the vagaries of my condition. It will never stop, it will never end and it will always be about me!
This has gone on for seven years and counting. “Cancerversaries” are on the calendar alongside birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Tumor marker tests and scans are reviewed twice yearly so the relentless attention continues, often peaking at these test milestones and worrying moments in between. The detailed analysis of unusual pain or other disturbances are documented. The attention is on me.
Then, my wife finds a lump. The local doctor investigates and refers her for a mammogram. The mammogram check leads to an ultrasound which then leads to a biopsy. We have a two-week wait before the all clear is given but the worry doesn’t immediately dissipate as another check was scheduled for three months. Hang on a minute … this is not about me!
I’m starting to realize it shouldn’t be all about me and it needn’t be all about me. It’s about other people, too. There is nothing in the rule book that allows cancer to be limited to a single family member. Cancer doesn’t really care how many in your household already have the disease – anyone is a target. It’s bad enough having one cancer patient in the house without another cropping up. One thing is for sure, when it comes to a cancer diagnosis in the family, I really want it to be all about me.
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Postscript: Very excited to share my first article published in CURE magazine. This is a real story about recent events involving my own family. As a long-term cancer patient, it can seem like it’s always about ‘me’ and then something happens which changes that perception. It’s actually about others too, and always has been. If you want to talk about something similar in your life, please share with others in your comments below or message me.
This is the beginning of a new phase in my activities and another opportunity to spread awareness of Neuroendocrine Cancer to new audiences, something I promised I would do. I hope you will support my first contribution to an exciting organisation brand.
It would be great if you would take the time to read the article directly on the Cure site here, and any likes, comments and sharing would be appreciated. Also on their respective Facebook post for the same article.
The article can be found here
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