What Is Adrenal Cancer?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Cancer of the adrenal glands is relatively uncommon. Tumors on these triangular-shaped organs located just above the kidneys may impact hormones produced by the glands. These hormones vary from those controlling blood pressure to those that can help you respond to stress, and more.

Tumor on one of two adrenal glands, located above the kidneys.

Sebastian Kaulitzki / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Types of Adrenal Cancer

The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system. This system's job is to release hormones that regulate various functions such as sexual development, puberty, stress, and metabolism.

The adrenal gland is comprised of both an inner and an outer section. The inner part, known as the medulla, makes stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline that we rely on to respond to emergencies. Meanwhile, the outer cortex makes hormones that affect metabolism and blood pressure.

Most tumors found in the adrenal glands are non-cancerous. In cases where they are malignant, determining the type of adrenal cancer depends, in part, on where it is found in the adrenal gland.

Adrenocortical Cancer

This type originates from the outer cortex. While rare, this is the most common of cancerous adrenal tumors. The adrenal cortex is the area responsible for producing cortisol and aldosterone hormones.

Tumors here can be one of two types:

  • Functioning: These tumors, which make hormones, comprise up to 70% of cases.
  • Non-functioning: This type of tumor does not make hormones.

Adrenal Pheochromocytoma

This rare type of cancer involves tumors inside the medulla, which produces hormones. Most tumors that arise here are not cancerous. The medulla is the area responsible for making dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

Neuroblastoma

While neuroblastoma can start in areas such neck, spinal cord, or chest, it usually begins in the adrenal gland. It develops from fetal nerve cells called neuroblasts.

Adrenal Cancer Symptoms

Signs that someone may have adrenal cancer are often connected to excess hormones that these tumors can churn out. If the tumor becomes very large, symptoms may be caused by the pressure this may exert on nearby organs. Some symptoms those with adrenal cancer may experience include:

  • Abdominal stretch marks
  • Back or stomach pain
  • Cramping
  • Excessive facial or body hair growth in women
  • Fatty deposits on the back of the neck or shoulders
  • Full feeling unrelated to the amount eaten
  • Heart pounding or rapid heartbeat
  • Headache
  • High blood sugar or diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Low potassium levels
  • Muscle cramping
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Unexplained weight change
  • Weakness

Someone with adrenal cancer could have just one such symptom or might have several or more of these.

Causes

While it is not clear what causes adrenal cancer, there can be a hereditary connection. This tends to run in certain families, as well as those with a history of the following syndromes:

Just because you have been diagnosed with one of these syndromes does not mean you will develop adrenal cancer. But if you suspect you might have an adrenal tumor, be sure to discuss this with your doctor.

Diagnosis

To determine if you may have an adrenal tumor, your doctor will discuss your family history and concerning risk factors, as well as any signs or symptoms you may be experiencing.

You will also likely be asked to undergo some exams such as a blood test to determine cortisol and other hormone levels and give a urine specimen.

You may also undergo a metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scan. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and the affected adrenal area is scanned. Adrenal vein sampling may be done to compare the amount of hormone produced by each gland.

Any tumor will also likely be biopsied to see if it is cancerous. It's common to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) to identify if there are tumors elsewhere.

Treatment

The treatment plan for an adrenal tumor is guided by what your tests reveal. This will depend in part on how early any cancer is caught and whether it is still located in just one area.

If the tumor is still within the adrenal gland, then local treatment is possible. If it is no longer localized, however, then systemic therapy will be needed. Many times combinations of approaches may also be used, all with the goal of curing your body of cancer.

Here are some options for treating cancerous adrenal tumors:

Your doctor will help you to navigate the various treatment possibilities and to minimize any side effects. Be sure to discuss any concerns you may have to help determine the best approach to treat any adrenal cancer you may be dealing with successfully.

Prognosis

With any cancerous tumor, this may often depend on the stage at which this is detected. As a general rule, the earlier a tumor is found and the more self-contained this is, the better.

Coping

It's not uncommon to be concerned, stressed, or even depressed when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Talk about any worries with your doctor to clarify the specifics related to your diagnosis and treatment plan. Here are some other coping strategies to try:

  • Share your concerns with those close to you.
  • Arrange to speak to a therapist.
  • Seek spiritual support from those leading your house of worship.
  • Find a cancer support group.
  • Consider requesting medication such as anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressives.

You will also likely do better if you feel better. Do what you can to maximize your health with practical steps such as:

  • Get a good amount of rest.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Drink plenty of liquids.
  • Try meditation or relaxation exercises.
  • Exercise to keep your body in shape.

A Word From Verywell

Whatever the stage, getting a diagnosis of cancer can be difficult. However, now more than ever before, there are excellent treatment options that can help to cure you of adrenal tumors. The more you educate yourself here, the more options you will have in dealing with this condition.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cedars Sinai, Adrenal cancer: Overview.

  2. MD Anderson Cancer Center, Adrenal tumors.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Adrenal tumors. Updated June 30, 2018.

  4. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Adrenal Tumors.

  5. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Neuroblastoma.