What Is Adrenal Cancer?
Adrenal cancer is a condition that occurs
when abnormal cells form in or travel to the adrenal glands. Your body has two
adrenal glands, one located above each kidney. Adrenal cancer usually occurs in
the outermost layer of the glands, or the adrenal cortex. It usually appears as
A cancerous tumor of the adrenal gland
is called an adrenal cortical carcinoma. A noncancerous tumor of the adrenal
gland is called a benign adenoma.
Benign adenomas are relatively small, usually less than 2
inches in diameter. Most people with this type of tumor have no symptoms. These
benign tumors usually occur on only one adrenal gland, but they can appear on
both glands in rare instances.
Adrenal cortical carcinomas are usually much larger than benign
adenomas. If a tumor is more than 2 inches in diameter, it’s more likely to be
cancerous. Sometimes, they can get large enough to press on your organs and
cause more symptoms. They can also sometimes produce hormones that cause
changes in the body.
If you have cancer in the adrenal glands, but it didn’t originate
there, it’s not considered an adrenal cortical carcinoma.
What Are the Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?
Most of the symptoms of adrenal cancer
are caused by excess production of the hormones androgen and estrogen. Symptoms
may also arise from large tumors pressing on organs of the body.
Symptoms of excessive hormone
production are easier to spot in children than adults because physical changes
are more active and visible during puberty. Some signs of adrenal cancer in
- excessive pubic, underarm, and facial hair
- an enlarged penis
- an enlarged clitoris
- large breasts in boys
- early puberty in girls
The symptoms of adrenal cancer in
adult women are usually harder to detect. They usually don’t appear until the
tumor is large enough to press on the organs. Women with tumors that cause
increases in androgen may notice facial hair growth or deepening of the voice.
In men, if the adrenal tumor causes an
increase in estrogen production. This may cause some enlargement of the breasts
and noticeable tenderness.
Some other symptoms of adrenal cancer in adults can include:
- high blood pressure
- weight gain
- irregular periods
- easy bruising
- frequent urination
- muscle cramps
What Are the Risk Factors for Adrenal Cancer?
At this point, scientists don’t know
what causes adrenal cancer. However, certain conditions can put you at an
increased risk of developing adrenal cancer.
- Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which is an
abnormal growth disorder marked by a large body and organs
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is an inherited
disorder that causes an increased incidence of cancers
- familial adenomatous polyposis, which is an
inherited condition characterized by many polyps in the large intestines
- multiple endocrine neoplasia, which is an
inherited condition that causes many tumors to develop, both benign and
malignant, in glands that produce hormones
Smoking likely also increases the risk
of adrenal cancer, but there’s no conclusive proof yet.
How Is Adrenal Cancer Diagnosed?
Diagnosing adrenal cancer usually begins with your medical
history and a physical exam. Your doctor will also draw blood and collect a
urine sample for testing.
Your doctor may order further tests such as:
- a biopsy
- a CT scan
- a positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- an MRI scan
- an adrenal angiography
What Are the Treatments for Adrenal Cancer?
Early treatment can sometimes cure adrenal cancer. There are
currently three major types of standard treatment for adrenal cancer:
Your doctor may recommend a procedure called an adrenalectomy,
which involves removing the adrenal gland. If the cancer has spread to other
parts of the body, your surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes and tissue.
This treatment uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
and stop new cancer cells from growing.
Depending on the stage of your cancer, you may need to
undergo chemotherapy. This form of cancer drug therapy helps stop the growth of
cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered orally or injected into a vein
Your doctor may combine chemotherapy with other types of
Cryoablation, or the destruction of
tumor cells with freezing, may be necessary for tumors that are too big for
safe removal. You may also receive medication to prevent the adrenal glands
from producing steroid hormones, such as mitotane, if you have stage 2, 3, or 4
You can also discuss clinical trial
treatments with your doctor, such of biologic therapy, which uses the immune
system to fight cancer cells. Another option is targeted therapy, which uses
drugs to attack specific cancer cells.
What Is the Long-Term Outlook?
Follow-up appointments with your doctor are very important
if you’ve had adrenal tumors in the past. Adrenal cancer can come back at any
If you took mitotane as part of your treatment, your doctor
might prescribe hormones to compensate for the hormone suppression caused by