What You Need to Know About Carcinoid Syndrome

November 12, 2012

What You Need to Know About Carcinoid Syndrome

Carcinoid syndrome is an umbrella term for numerous different disorders that all have one thing in common – the growth of carcinoid tumors. These rare, small, slow-growing cancer tumors leech hormone-lie chemicals into a blood vessel over the liver that causes carcinoid syndrome. By the time a patient experiences symptoms, the tumors are quite advanced. A person can spend several years with carcinoid tumors and have no idea they have them.

Carcinoid tumors grow mostly in the cells of the digestive system devoted to producing hormones, but can be found in other parts of the body such as the pancreas, lungs and liver. Doctors do not know what causes the appearance and growth of carcinoid tumors. Carcinoid tumors affect patients differently. Some live for decades with the syndrome while others soon die.


Symptoms of carcinoid syndrome tend to be unique to each patient. But the world-famous Mayo Clinic lists the five most common symptoms:

  • Skin flushing as if a person is suffering a fever

  • Problems breathing, including wheezing caused by a bronchospasm

  • Chronic diarrhea

  • Heart beats too quickly

  • Purple thin veins on the lips and nose which can develop into sores

  • Pain in the abdomen

  • Night sweats in both women and men

One complication of carcinoid syndrome is heart disease. Patients may go to the doctor for symptoms of heart disease and then discover that they have carcinoid tumors. Symptoms of heart disease include:

  • Noticeable swelling of the ankles and feet

  • Noticeable swelling of the abdomen not due to overeating

  • Chronic dizziness or fainting

  • Enlarged liver

Carcinoid Crisis

Anyone diagnosed with carcinoid syndrome is at risk of going into a potentially lethal carcinoid crisis, which only happens during surgery. The patient goes into shock from a sudden drop of blood pressure and can experience a thready pulse, rapid heartbeat and seizures. Patients also experience an inability to breathe. The good news is that carcinoid crisis can be prevented with the drug somatostatin.


There are a variety of treatment options available for patients. Although treatments for patients are different, the goal is the same – to remove the tumors and stop the cancer from spreading. Treatment options include a couple of surgical procedures. One procedure is to remove the tumor. Another option is to cut off the blood supply to the tumor and it soon dies because it lacks nourishment. This procedure is called a hepatic artery embolism. It is a very tricky operation.

Chemotherapy drug therapy helps kill any rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy medications must be taken for a specific length of time in order to work. Side effects are common because medications kill good rapidly dividing cells along with cancer cells. Side effects include nausea, weight loss, hair loss and fatigue.

One promising non-chemotherapy medication for carcinoid syndrome is called interferon alpha, which helps boost the body’s immune system. Interferon alpha needs to be injected every day. It also has harsh side effects, including severe headaches, nausea, vomiting and pain in the bones.

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