All About Carcinoid and Neuroendocrine Tumors

Eric Shinohara, MD, MSCI
Updated by: Lara Bonner Millar, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: June 1, 2011

What is a Carcinoid Tumor?

The neuroendocrine system is comprised of cells that are spread throughout several organ systems, including the lungs and digestive system. They are called neuroendocrine cells because they have characteristics of both nerve and endocrine cells. Nerve cells use electrical impulses to transmit signals. Endocrine cells, such as the thyroid and pancreas, make up glands that secrete hormones, such as thyroid hormone and insulin, which can be used to communicate with other organs. Tumors of the neuroendocrine system account for about 2% of all cancers and can be classified as either pancreatic endocrine tumors or carcinoid tumors. Approximately 12,000 cases of carcinoid tumor are diagnosed a year. They most commonly arise in the gastrointestinal system (esophagus, stomach, intestines) and are thought to regulate digestion by controlling digestive enzyme release and intestinal motility. About 30% of carcinoid tumors arise in the lungs. Because carcinoid tumors originate from hormone producing tissues, many of the side effects of carcinoid tumors can be linked to the inappropriate release of various compounds into the blood stream, which will be discussed later.

Carcinoid tumors occur slightly more frequently in women than men with an overall rate of approximately 2.5 cases per 100,000 people. Carcinoid tumors also appear to be slightly higher in African Americans with 4.48 and 3.98 cases per 100,000 African American men and women, respectively. It is diagnosed most commonly between the ages of 50 to 70. Carcinoid tumors often do not cause symptoms and can be difficult to diagnose.

These tumors arise in three areas: the foregut, midgut and hindgut. The foregut includes the lungs and the stomach, the midgut is comprised of the small intestine, appendix, and the beginning of the large bowel (colon), and the hindgut is composed of the end of the large bowel, the rectum and the organs of the genitourinary tract (ovaries, testes). Recent data suggests that over the past 30 years the incidence of carcinoid tumors appears to be rising. Previously it was believed that these tumors were fairly benign, however, recent data suggest that they may be more aggressive than previously thought, with a 5-year survival rate of 67.2% for all carcinoid tumor sites.

Am I at Risk for Carcinoid Tumor?

Carcinoid tumors appear to be more common in women and African Americans. African Americans also tend to have a worse prognosis. There are medical conditions which are associated with carcinoid syndrome, including Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) type I, Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, atrophic gastritis, and ovarian teratomas. Recent studies suggest that the number of cases of carcinoid tumors diagnosed a year have been increasing by 6% per year, but it is unclear as to why this is occurring. Some studies have suggested that smoking may double the risk of carcinoid tumors in the small intestine. There does not appear to be an association between carcinoid tumors and diet.

How can I prevent carcinoid tumors?

Presently, there is no way to prevent carcinoid tumors. There may be an association between carcinoid tumors and smoking, hence not starting or quitting smoking may reduce the risk of developing carcinoid tumors.

What are the Signs of Carcinoid Tumor?

The signs of carcinoid tumor vary with the organ from which they arise. Generally, these tumors are found incidentally during an operation or procedure for another disease, such as during an appendectomy or a colonoscopy. Studies have suggested that 1 in 300 people who undergo appendectomy will have a carcinoid tumor found in the appendix. If symptoms are present, they tend to be relatively vague, such as abdominal discomfort. Symptoms which cause people to seek medical attention are uncommon. In the small intestine, carcinoid tumors can cause obstruction or intestinal bleeding. Carcinoids of the colon can also cause intestinal bleeding. Carcinoids of the rectum (very end of the colon prior to the anus where stool is stored) can be found during rectal exam and can cause rectal pain or bleeding. Carcinoid tumors tend to be slow growing, which also contribute to the slow evolution of symptoms. This has led to long intervals between the start of symptoms and diagnosis.

The most distinctive symptom of carcinoid tumors, known as carcinoid syndrome, rarely occurs. Carcinoid syndrome is made up of a constellation of symptoms which are caused by the release of a variety of substances (serotonin, histamine, and substance P, among others) by the carcinoid tumor. These symptoms can be precipitated by certain foods, such as those high in tyramine, such as blue cheese and chocolates, and those that contain ethanol, such as wine and beer. Carcinoid syndrome most commonly affects people with carcinoid tumors of the small bowel, however these tumors do not cause the symptoms associated with carcinoid syndrome until liver metastasis develop. This occurs because excess hormones produced by carcinoid tumors in the intestine are usually broken down by the liver. Therefore 90% of people, who have carcinoid syndrome, will have metastatic disease. Carcinoids of the lung and other non-digestive tract organs can also, on occasion, cause carcinoid syndrome.

One third of tumors of the midgut cause symptoms, and 10% will be associated with carcinoid syndrome. Only 10% of carcinoid tumors of the hindgut are symptomatic and they are rarely associated with carcinoid syndrome.

Carcinoid syndrome includes:

  • Flushing and telangiectasias
    • Flushing occurs in approximately 85% of people with carcinoid syndrome. Most commonly flushing occurs in the face, but can affect the trunk as well, causing a reddish or purplish appearance to the skin. Generally, episodes of flushing last about 30 seconds, but can last as long as 30 minutes. It is thought to be caused by the release of tachykinin or histamine by the carcinoid tumor. The most common tachykinin is substance P, which is a potent vasodilator (substances which open up blood vessels). Histamines also have vasodilatory effects.
    • Telangiectasias are collections of tiny blood vessels which can develop superficially on the faces of people who have had carcinoid tumors for several years. They are most commonly found on the nose or upper lip and are purplish in color. They are thought to be due to chronic vasodilatation.
  • Diarrhea
    • Diarrhea, which can be extremely watery and explosive in nature, occurs in up to 80% of people with carcinoid syndrome and may be accompanied by abdominal cramps and pain. The severity of the diarrhea is variable, occurring only a few times a day or up to 30 times or more a day. It appears to be related to serotonin secretion by the carcinoid tumor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter normally made by the body, however in carcinoid syndrome it is produced in great excess. Serotonin causes increased secretion as well as increased motility of the gut.    
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and decreased blood pressure (hypotension)
    • Dilation of blood vessels can lead to a rapid heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure. Dilation of blood vessels may also be responsible for the flushing associated with carcinoid syndrome. These symptoms may be caused by bradykinin, which acts as a blood vessel dilator.
  • Closing off of the airways (bronchospasm)
    • Bronchospasm is seen in about 10-20% of people with carcinoid syndrome. Symptoms from bronchospasm are similar to those an asthmatic may experience. It can cause wheezing and difficulty breathing and may be associated with facial flushing. It may be related to the secretion of bradykinin or serotonin, but this is still being studied.
  • Pellagra
    • Pellagra is most commonly associated with a niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency, which is caused by a deficiency of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can be converted into niacin. Tryptophan is normally used to make serotonin (a neurotransmitter) in the body, however in people with carcinoid syndrome, so much tryptophan is being converted into serotonin that tryptophan levels decrease to the point where pellagra can occur. Pellagra usually manifests as dry scaly skin (dermatitis), dry cracked skin at the edges of the mouth (stomatitis), swollen tongue (glossitis), diarrhea and mental confusion (dementia).
  • Right sided heart disease or failure
    • It is thought that high levels of serotonin in the blood stream damages the heart, leading to fibrosis, particularly of the heart valves. This generally affects the right side of the heart when liver metastases are present. The left side of the heart is usually not affected because the lungs can break down serotonin. Right sided heart failure symptoms include swelling (edema) in the extremities and enlargement of the heart.

How is Carcinoid Tumor Diagnosed?

When a person presents with one or more of the above mentioned symptoms and carcinoid syndrome is suspected by the physician, confirmatory laboratory and imaging tests are ordered to verify that the symptoms are the result of a carcinoid tumor.

What are the Screening Tests for Carcinoid Tumor?

Generally, carcinoid tumors are found incidentally during an operation or a procedure. However, if a person has symptoms, which are suspicious for carcinoid syndrome, tests can be ordered to confirm that these symptoms are truly from a carcinoid tumor. Generally, the first test ordered is a urine test to detect serotonin breakdown products. In particular, the compound 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) is measured in a 24 hour collection of the person's urine. This test can correctly confirm that the person's symptoms are due to a carcinoid tumor 75% of the time. However, the person being tested must avoid a number of foods and medications during the testing period which can falsely elevate or decrease the 5-HIAA level. Normally 2 to 8 mg/day of 5-HIAA is found in urine, however, up to 30 mg/day can be found in people with malabsorptive disease or who have recently eaten tryptophan rich foods (chocolate, certain types of cheeses). Generally people with carcinoid syndrome have 5-HIAA values of greater than 100 mg/day, though not always. People with metastatic carcinoid tumors, but without carcinoid syndrome, tend to have elevated 5-HIAA levels, yet generally have lower levels than those with carcinoid syndrome. This test may not be useful for detecting carcinoid tumors of the foregut (stomach and lungs) as they often do not produce 5-HIAA. In these cases imaging studies may be useful, which will be discussed later.

If the urine test fails to produce a diagnosis, blood tests can be performed. The blood test is used to determine 5-HIAA blood levels while the person is fasting. Normal values vary from laboratory to laboratory, but are generally between 101-283 ng/ml. Other blood tests can be used including tests for chromogranin A, bradykinin, kallikrein, and substance P among others, however these tests are not available at all hospitals.

Generally, if the 5-HIAA blood test fails to produce a diagnosis, an epinephrine (adrenaline) provocation test can be performed. In this test, the physician tries to induce symptoms associated with carcinoid syndrome by giving intravenous (IV) epinephrine. This test can confirm that a carcinoid tumor is causing the person's carcinoid syndrome symptoms nearly 100% of the time. The person's blood pressure, heart rate and facial color are closely monitored as epinephrine is given IV. The physician starts with 2 micrograms and goes up by 2 micrograms every five minutes until symptoms develop or a dose of 10 micrograms is reached. People with a carcinoid tumor will experience flushing, increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure at one of these doses and these symptoms generally last for one to two minutes. The test is stopped after the person first experiences these symptoms.

A new provocation test uses pentagastrin, a polypeptide that can stimulate the secretion of gastric acid and pepsin (a digestive enzyme). IV pentagastin is given and flushing symptoms are identified. The advantage of this test is that it can be used to detect not only midgut and hindgut tumors, but also foregut tumors unlike the tests mentioned previously.

Imaging tests can be used once the diagnosis of carcinoid tumor has been established using one of the above mentioned tests to locate the tumor. Alternatively, imaging studies may be the initial studies ordered to detect the tumor, particularly in cases where carcinoid syndrome is not present. Based on the suspected location of the tumor, several tests can be used. Barium studies can be used to find tumors; they coat the digestive tract and can outline tumors which can then be seen on X-ray. Barium swallows are used to locate tumors in the upper digestive tract such as the in the esophagus, stomach and the first part of the small intestine. Barium enemas work in a similar fashion, with contrast injected into the rectum, and can be used to examine the rectum and colon for tumors. Endoscopy can also be used to directly visualize tumors using a special camera attached to a flexible tube, allowing the physician to reach the esophagus and stomach. A colonoscopy is done in a similar fashion and can be used to examine the rectum and colon directly. Bronchoscopy can be used to examine the airways of the lungs for tumors. Another special type of scope (camera) has an ultrasound probe at the end of it. The ultrasound uses sound waves to detect how deep a tumor has invaded normal tissue. Biopsies can be taken during any of these exams and examined microscopically by a pathologist to identify carcinoid tumors. Unfortunately, none of these studies are very good at examining the majority of the small intestine, which is where many carcinoid tumors arise. CT scans can also be used to detect tumors throughout the body and CT guided needle biopsies can sometimes be used to obtain a biopsy for pathological examination. When a carcinoid is biopsied or resected and examined under the microscope, it may be classified as either "typical" or "atypical" depending on certain features. Typical carcinoids tend to be less aggressive than atypical carcinoids.

Several different types of scans can also be used to identify where the tumor is located and if it has spread. These scans use a compound, which is known to associate with carcinoid tumors. This compound is then attached to a radioactive substance. This combination is then injected intravenously and is taken up by the carcinoid tumor. Special scanners then detect the radioactive substance to identify where the tumor is. An example of this is the indium-111 octreotide scan, which can be used to localize the tumor. Octreotide is similar to somatostatin, a compound which can bind to somatostatin receptors, which are found on carcinoid tumors. However, there are other types of tumors, which can express somatostatin receptors; hence this study is not 100% specific for carcinoid tumors. The indium-111 is a radioactive compound, which is attached to the somatostatin, allowing the localization of the octreotide to be determined using a special scanner. An older scan, the I-131 MIBG scan, works in a similar fashion and can be used to locate the tumor. MIBG accumulates in the carcinoid tumor and the attached I-131 can be detected using a scanner to localize the tumor. However, like the indium-111 octreotide scan, other neuroendocrine tumors can also be detected. Hence this test is also not specific for carcinoid tumors. A PET scan using 5-hydroxytryptophan, a compound which is taken up by carcinoid tumors can also be used to identify where a tumor is located and if it has spread anywhere. Results from these imaging studies can be combined with CT scan results to better locate tumors.

What are the Treatments for Carcinoid Tumor?

In the past, carcinoid tumors did not have a formal staging system. They were staged as either localized, which means that the tumor has not spread beyond the wall of the organ or place of origin; regional, which is when the tumor has spread beyond the confines of the organ to adjacent tissues or lymph nodes, or distant metastatic spread, which indicates that the tumor has spread to distant organs and tissues.

Now the American Joint Committee on Cancer Staging (AJCC) has included carcinoid in a formal staging system, which applies to carcinoids of the stomach, colon, rectum, and ampulla of vater. There is a separate staging system for carcinomas arising within the appendix. Although there is now a staging system, the classification of tumors into localized, regional, or metastatic is still relevant in terms of thinking about prognosis and appropriate treatment options.

AJCC 7th Edition (2009)

Primary Tumor

Duodenum, Ampulla, Jejunum, or Ileum

  • T1 - small intestinal tumors: invades lamina propria or submucosa and 1 cm or less; ampullary tumors: 1 cm or less
  • T2 - small intestinal tumors: invades muscularis propria or size > 1 cm; ampullary tumors: tumor > 1 cm
  • T3 - jejunum/ileum: invades through muscularis propria into subserosal tissue without penetration of overlying serosa; ampullary or duodenum: invades pancreas or retroperitoneum; or into non-peritonealized tissues
  • T4 - invades visceral peritoneum (serosa) or other organs

Colon or Rectum

  • T1 - invades lamina propria or submucosa and 2 cm or less
    • T1a - <1 cm
    • T1b - 1-2 cm
  • T2 - invades muscularis propria, or size > 2 cm
  • T3 - invades through muscularis propria into subserosal tissue; or into non-peritonealized pericolic or perirectal tissues
  • T4 - invades peritoneum or other organs

Regional Lymph Nodes

  • N0 - none
  • N1 - yes

Distant Metastasis

  • M0 - none
  • M1 - yes

Stage Grouping: combines the T, N & M staging to define a stage.

  • I - T1 N0
  • IIA - T2 N0
  • IIB - T3 N0
  • IIIA - T4 N0
  • IIIB - N1
  • IV - M1


  • T1 – tumor size 2 cm or less
    • T1a - <1 cm
    • T1b - 1-2 cm
  • T2 - > 2 cm, but less than 4 cm
  • T3 - > 4cm or with extension to the ileum
  • T4 - invades adjacent organs or structures

Regional Lymph Nodes

  • N0 - none
  • N1 - yes

Distant Metastasis

  • M0 - none
  • M1 - yes

Stage Grouping: combines the T, N & M staging to define a stage.

  • I - T1 N0
  • II- T2, T3 N0
  • III - T4 N0 or any T N1
  • IV - M1

Generally, the treatment of choice for people with localized carcinoid is surgical excision of the tumor. The role of chemotherapy and radiotherapy has been debated, particularly when a complete surgical resection is performed. Treatment information about each type of carcinoid tumor will be discussed by location.

Foregut: Symptoms associated with foregut carcinoids include peptic ulcers, abdominal pain and intestinal bleeding. They are rarely associated with carcinoid syndrome.

  • Bronchial: Bronchial carcinoids only comprise about 1-2% of lung tumors. Carcinoid tumors of the lung are part of a spectrum of neuroendocrine tumors of the lung and can be divided into several subtypes. We will focus on the typical and atypical subtypes, which have different prognoses. People can present with cough, coughing up of blood (hemoptysis), wheezing, chest pain, or pneumonia. These tumors appear to be more common in women and are rarely associated with carcinoid syndrome. Tumors tend to be small, however there are often multiple tumors. Small tumors (<2 cm) metastasize less than 10% of the time, whereas larger tumors metastasize about 20% of the time. Surgical resection of the lesion is the treatment of choice for this tumor. Usually only a small portion of the lung needs to be removed, however in larger lesions an entire lobe of the lung may need to be removed. In the event that there has been regional spread to the lymph nodes, an extensive lymph node dissection will also be required to optimally treat the tumor. Rarely, the tumor will be localized to only the interior of the airway passage. In this very select group of people the tumor may be resected via bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy can also be used to guide a laser to destroy tumor in individuals, who are having trouble breathing because the tumor has blocked an airway. Generally, this is not a curative procedure and is only used in people who can not have surgery. With typical carcinoid tumor, the prognosis is quite good, even with metastasis, with greater than 90% of people surviving 5 years or more. However, atypical carcinoid tumors have a greater tendency to metastasize and behave more aggressively. They have a 5 year survival of 30-70%.
  • Stomach: Carcinoids of the stomach can be broken into three types, type 1 through 3. Type 1 gastric carcinoids are associated with atrophic gastritis (chronic inflammation of the stomach leading to loss of the glandular cells of the stomach) and pernicious anemia (anemia due to a B12 deficiency). They account for 70 to 80% of all gastric carcinoids. Tumors which are less than 1 cm in size can usually be treated with endoscopic resection with close endoscopic surveillance every 6-12 months. For tumors larger than 1 cm or if there are more than five lesions, a portion of the stomach may need to be resected.

    Type 2 gastric carcinoid tumors are associated with Zollinger-Ellison syndrome or multiple endocrine neoplasias (MEN) type 1. Zollinger-Ellison syndrome is a disease where there is increased secretion of gastrin, resulting in increased secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. MEN type I is one of three types of hereditary syndromes which affect endocrine tissues (hormone producing tissues). In MEN type I, the parathyroid, the pancreas, and the pituitary are predisposed to tumor formation. Type 2 gastric carcinoids make up only about 5% of all gastric carcinoids and behave like and are treated in a similar fashion as type I gastric carcinoids. Surgery to remove the antrum of the stomach, which releases gastrin, may be recommended to reduce gastrin secretion, leading to suppression of tumor growth.

    Type 3 gastric carcinoid tumors account for about 20% of gastric carcinoids. They occur sporadically, meaning that they are not associated with other conditions, unlike type 1 and 2 gastric carcinoids. They also tend to produce serotonin, unlike type 1 and 2 gastric carcinomas, which can lead to carcinoid syndrome.

Midgut: Symptoms associated with midgut carcinoids include vague abdominal pain (40% of the time) and obstruction of the intestinal tract (25% of the time). They are associated with carcinoid syndrome approximately 10% of the time. The gut can fold in on itself, where a portion of the gut slides into another portion of the intestine (intussusception) resulting in obstruction of the intestine. The tumor itself may grow large enough to cause obstruction of the intestine as well.

  • Small intestine: Carcinoid tumors of the small intestine most commonly arise towards the end of the small intestine (terminal ileum), where it attaches to the colon. Carcinoid tumors comprise approximately one third of all small intestine tumors. People can present with bowel obstruction or ischemic bowel (cutoff of the blood supply to the bowel). Carcinoid tumors of the small intestine tend to metastasize to the lymph nodes and liver, even when small, though the risk of metastasis does increase for larger tumors. The surgeon generally resects the area with the lesion as well as the regional lymph nodes (lymph nodes which drain the area the tumor was in). During the operation, the surgeon inspects the entire length of the bowel as up to 30% of people will have multiple tumors. Even in people with metastatic disease, surgery is generally recommended to prevent symptoms, such as obstruction, from developing. Prognosis depends on the extent of disease, but once metastases have occurred five year survival is approximately 36%.
  • Colon : Carcinoid of the colon can cause decreased appetite, weight loss, and abdominal pain. Tumors smaller than 2 cm tend not to metastasize to the lymph nodes or other organs, but those bigger than 2 cm metastasize to the lymph nodes approximately 60% of the time and to other organs approximately 40% of the time. Generally, removal of the entire colon is recommended however, there have been recent studies, which suggest that localized disease may be effectively treated with local excision of the tumor. Survival is dependent on stage, localized tumors have a 5 year survival of 72-76%, and tumors which have metastasized to other organs have a 5 year survival of approximately 30%.
  • Appendix: Carcinoid tumors are the most common tumors of the appendix. As with most carcinoid tumors, nearly all are discovered incidentally during surgery. They are most commonly found in people 40 to 50 years old and appear to be more common in women. Carcinoid tumors of the appendix are generally asymptomatic; only when the tumor causes obstruction leading to appendicitis or if there are metastases, are symptoms generally found. Appendicitis is generally rare as most carcinoid tumors are in the end of the appendix, not close to the opening, and hence obstruction tends to be rare. Nonetheless, about 1 in 300 people who undergo appendectomies have carcinoid tumors. Prognosis and treatment depend on the size of the tumor at diagnosis. Carcinoid tumors of the appendix are generally found while still small, with 95% found in tumors less than 2 cm in diameter. In these smaller tumors, appendectomy alone is sufficient to treat the tumor. If the tumor is larger, portions of the colon may need to be removed along with the appendix. 5 year survival is approximately 71%, however once the tumor has metastasized survival at five years is approximately 20%.

Hindgut: Symptoms associated with hindgut carcinoids are similar to other rectal cancers. Change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding and intestinal obstruction can occur. Carcinoids of the hindgut are rarely associated with carcinoid syndrome. Hindgut tumors can also arise in the genitourinary system which includes the kidneys and gonads (ovaries or testes).

  • Rectal: Most of the tumors of the rectum are discovered during colonoscopy or during the rectal examination. Occasionally, there can be rectal bleeding or pain. Carcinoid syndrome is rare. Smaller tumors (<2 cm) rarely metastasize, however tumors larger than 2 cm can metastasize 70% of the time or more, most commonly to the lymph nodes or liver. The extent of surgery necessary to treat rectal cancer is unclear. For smaller tumors, fulguration (burning of the tumor) can be used to treat the tumor. Larger lesions or ones that have crossed through the wall of the rectum have been treated with complete resection of the rectum, using the same surgical techniques used for other rectal cancers. However it is unclear if this improves survival compared with excision of the tumor alone, as many of these tumors have spread to other organs already. The percentage of people who survive for five years after diagnosis is approximately 90, 49, and 26% for localized tumor, tumors which have spread to the regional lymph nodes, and tumor which has spread to other organs, respectively.
  • Ovary: About 60% of carcinoids of the ovary arise as part of another ovarian tumor known as a teratoma. Teratomas are made up of tissues that are normally present in other organs such as bone, brain, lung and liver, among others. Carcinoid tumors that arise in teratomas tend to have a better prognosis. Ovarian carcinoids can also cause carcinoid syndrome without liver metastasis.

Regional Spread: When tumor has spread to the lymph nodes around the primary region, surgery is usually attempted to remove all of the tumor as well as the nodes around the tumor, which have disease. If this is not possible surgery is still often done to prevent symptoms from developing, such as obstruction of the intestine.

Distant Metastasis: Surgery cannot be used to cure the disease at this stage. Surgery is still used to prevent symptoms, such as obstruction, from developing but the focus is on treatments that can slow the progression of the disease and alleviate symptoms.

  • Radiation therapy is rarely used in the curative treatment of carcinoid and is generally used to treat metastasis that may develop in the bones or other parts of the body to relieve pain.
  • Chemotherapy is used for systemic therapy (treatment which attacks cancer throughout the body); unfortunately no single chemotherapy has been found to be effective. Clinical trials that use combinations of chemotherapies may be of greater efficacy. Generally the use of chemotherapy is limited to carcinoids, which have spread to other organs, or are causing severe symptoms that are not responding to other medications. Some of the chemotherapies that are used include 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), cisplatin, dacarbazine, etoposide, and doxorubicin, among others.
    • A directed form of chemotherapy can be used to treat liver metastasis. A catheter (a hollow, flexible tube) is threaded through an artery that leads to the liver (intra-arterial therapy) and chemotherapy is delivered through the catheter to the arteries that feed the tumor. This allows a high dose of chemotherapy to be delivered directly to the tumor while sparing the rest of the body from high doses of chemotherapy. Another form of intra-arterial therapy delivers a compound which blocks off the artery along with the chemotherapy. This therapy (chemoembolization) allows the direct delivery of chemotherapy, but also cuts off the blood supply to the tumor. Radio frequency ablation (RFA) can also be used to destroy liver tumors. A probe, which produces high frequency radio waves, is placed in the tumor which can heat it, destroying the tumor.

Other medications: Other treatments that control the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome are commonly used. Medications which boost the immune system may also be used to slow tumor growth.

  • Somatostatin Analogs: Several analogs of the hormone somatostatin are used to control the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome. Somatostatin regulates the endocrine system and can inhibit the release of other hormones. It can be used to block the flushing, diarrhea, and wheezing associated with carcinoid syndrome. Most commonly the somatostatin analogs, octereotide and lanreotide are used. They function similarly to somatostatin but are more potent inhibitors. There are also formulations which are long acting which allow longer intervals between injections of the drug. Most of the side effects occur at the injection site; however people can have nausea, vomiting, fatigue, cramps, and headaches. Generally, these drugs do not shrink tumors, but they can slow their growth and prolong survival.
  • Immune modulators: Interferons are compounds which regulate the activity of the immune system. Interferons are usually produced by the body to fight viral or bacterial infections; hence treatment with inteferons can cause flu like symptoms. They are delivered by injection and can sometimes shrink tumors and reduce carcinoid syndrome symptoms.
  • Newer Agents: Recent studies have suggested that cyproheptadine; a drug which blocks histamine and serotonin is effective at relieving symptoms of carcinoid syndrome. The most common side effect is drowsiness. Recent studies with a new somatostatin analogue, SOM230, have shown promising results in people who have carcinoids, which no longer respond to octerotide.

Treatment of the Heart: Damage to the heart can occur due to prolonged exposure to serotonin, causing problems with the heart valves and ultimately heart failure. Octerotide and other somatostatin analogs can be used to control serotonin levels to limit heart damage. Echocardiograms are performed using an ultrasound (sound waves) machine to determine how well the heart is functioning and can be used to monitor the heart's condition. If heart damage has occurred, medications which are commonly used in heart failure can be used. Heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to circulate blood as effectively as a normal heart. This can cause fluid to build up in the body, particularly the legs (edema) and as it progresses can cause fluid to build up in the lungs as well (pulmonary edema). Treatments for this include diuretics (water pill), which draw excess water out of the body and medications to help regulate the heart beat to make it more efficient.

Follow Up Testing

Follow up testing varies widely depending on the location of the carcinoid tumor, the stage of the disease at diagnosis, and the initial treatment given. For example, carcinoid tumors confined to the wall of the appendix may require no follow up after local resection; however tumors of the rectum which are locally resected need to be followed closely. At present, a standard surveillance program for small intestine carcinoid, where carcinoids commonly arise, has not been established. Generally, your physician may have you follow up every 3-6 months to determine if symptoms of carcinoid syndrome have developed. Imaging studies such as CT or MRI scans are usually done every 6-12 months or if symptoms develop warranting an immediate imaging study. Your physician may also order an echocardiogram periodically to evaluate heart function. Other tests, such as blood tests for serotonin and other products produced by carcinoid tumors, may also be checked regularly.

References & Further Reading

American Cancer Society, Detailed Guide: Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors.

The Carcinoid Cancer Foundation.

Caring for Carcinoid.

Edge S, Byed D, Compton C, et al, eds. "Cancer Staging Handbook" 7th ed. Springer. Chicago, 2010.

Hage R, de la Rivière AB, Seldenrijk CA, et al Update in pulmonary carcinoid tumors: a review article. Ann Surg Oncol. 2003;10(6):697-704.

Modlin IM, Latich I, Zikusoka M, Kidd M, Eick G, Chan AK. Gastrointestinal carcinoids: the evolution of diagnostic strategies. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2006 Aug;40(7):572-82.

National Cancer Institute, Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors (PDQ®).

The North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society (NANETS).

Robertson RG, Geiger WJ, Davis NB. Carcinoid tumors. Am Fam Physician. 2006 Aug 1;74(3):429-34.

Sitarma SV, Goldfinger SE. UptoDate Treatment of carcinoid tumors and the carcinoid syndrome.

Sitarma SV, Goldfinger SE. UptoDate. Diagnosis of the carcinoid syndrome.

Sitarma SV, Goldfinger SE. UptoDate. The carcinoid syndrome.

Thomas CF, Jett JR. UptoDate. Bronchial carcinoid tumors.