What is a carcinoid?

A carcinoid is a rare type of tumor that can arise in the lungs—in the large airways near the center (central carcinoids) or smaller airways toward the edges (peripheral carcinoids)—and may release hormones. These tumors arise from neuroendocrine cells, which have both nerve and hormone-making properties. The Center for Thoracic Oncology specializes in treating carcinoid lung tumors, which occur slightly more frequently in African Americans and in men, and are most common between the ages of 45 and 55 years. Typical carcinoid tumors tend to be slow growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Atypical tumors can be more aggressive and spread more quickly than the typical carcinoids.

Symptoms of Carcinoid Tumors

Carcinoid tumors often do not cause any symptoms at all, or not until very late in the disease. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • A group of symptoms including upper body obesity, round face, high blood pressure, hair growth, and irregular menses in women, stemming from increased production of steroids (hormones) by the adrenal and pituitary glands
  • Lasting cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Skin flushing, where the skin on the face and upper chest turns pinkish, red, or purple, and feels hot

Causes of Carcinoid Tumors

As with many cancers, it is unclear exactly what causes carcinoid tumors. Some research indicates that they arise from stem cells in the bronchial tubes. Family history and age may contribute to the formation of these tumors.

Carcinoid Tumor Treatments

If a carcinoid tumor is caught early, complete removal and cure (by surgical resection) is possible. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, resection (or removal) may involve removing part of the lung or bronchial tube, or it may only require local excision (or removal) of the abnormal tissue. Occasionally, laser or photodynamic therapy is used with surgery. After the procedure, patients are monitored in the intensive care unit to make sure they are ready to be discharged.

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Frank M. Shembri, MD