Symptoms of Adrenocortical Carcinoma

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Adrenocortical carcinoma, also known as cancer of the adrenal cortex, is a rare type of cancer that affects the adrenal glands that sit on top of both kidneys. Although rare, it’s the most common form of cancer of the adrenal gland. It can affect both adults and children.

Symptoms may occur because the tumor is pressing on nearby structures or organs. Other symptoms may be the result of hormones produced by the tumor. Some symptoms are more likely than others. And some may mimic other conditions, which is why testing and imaging are essential for eventual diagnosis. 

Functioning vs. Nonfunctioning Adrenal Cortex Tumors

Verywell / Shideh Ghandeharizadeh

Frequent Symptoms

Because the adrenal cortex produces various hormones vital for regulating bodily functions, cancer of the adrenal cortex can throw hormone production out of whack, causing symptoms. 

Hormones produced by the adrenal cortex help:

  • Balance electrolyte levels (salts in the body)
  • Regulate blood pressure
  • Influence male-type or female-type sexual characteristics 
  • Manage the use of protein, carbohydrates, and fat

Adrenal cortex tumors can be functioning or nonfunctioning. If a tumor is functioning, it will produce an overabundance of certain hormones such as:

High Aldosterone

Having too much aldosterone can cause the following symptoms:

  • Frequent urination
  • Muscle cramping or weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased thirst
  • Low potassium levels

High Cortisol

Having too much cortisol, also known as having Cushing's syndrome, can cause the following symptoms:

  • Hair growth
  • Round face
  • Weight gain in the torso, face, and neck, but not the arms and legs
  • Voice changes
  • Breast swelling
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Abdominal stretch marks
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Easy bruising
  • Osteoporosis (progressive bone thinning)
  • Depression 

In some people, high cortisol levels may only cause some (or even none) of these changes. 

High Estrogen

Having too much estrogen can cause the following symptoms:

  • Irregular menstrual periods in people with a uterus
  • Weight gain
  • Breast tissue growth
  • Reduced sex drive in males
  • Impotence in males

High Testosterone

Having too much testosterone can cause the following symptoms in females:

  • Hair growth on the arms, back, or face
  • Hair loss
  • Acne
  • Voice changes
  • Loss of a menstrual period 

Nonhormonal Symptoms

Not all adrenal cortex tumors produce excess hormones. Therefore, nonfunctioning tumors may not cause symptoms until the cancer has grown or spread. 

In some cases, symptoms happen because the tumor is pressing on nearby internal structures or has spread to other tissues or organs, causing pain or discomfort. Symptoms may include:

  • A palpable (can be felt) lump in the abdomen
  • A feeling of fullness in the abdomen
  • Pain in the back 
  • Pain in the abdomen

In Children

Overproduction of male-type hormones (such as testosterone) is more likely in children with adrenal cortex cancer. An increase of hormones in children can cause the symptoms mentioned above. It may also cause swelling of the penis and clitoris. Female-type sex hormones may trigger early puberty and breast development.

Increased levels of sex hormones may not produce noticeable effects in adults. Adults are more likely to notice symptoms when the tumor grows large enough or when the cancer spreads. 

Other Conditions That Cause Hormone Changes

Adrenal cortex cancer isn’t the only condition that can cause an overproduction of certain hormones. So having these symptoms does not automatically mean you have this rare type of cancer.

For example, other types of benign tumors can also cause Cushing’s syndrome, which causes high cortisol levels. Some medications can also raise cortisol levels, such as drugs for the immune system.

Rare Symptoms

Because adrenal cortex cancer is rare and doesn’t always produce symptoms in the early stages, it can be difficult to diagnose until the tumor starts to press on nearby areas or spreads. This is especially true in adults, who don’t display symptoms of excess sex hormone production as easily as children. 

As the tumor grows or spreads, it may cause symptoms such as pain in the abdomen, a feeling of fullness, difficulty eating because you feel full quickly, or pain in the back.

Complications 

As with other types of malignant cancer, potential complications due to cancer of the adrenal cortex are numerous. The cancer can grow larger and spread to other areas of the body, which can be fatal. 

The five-year survival rate for people with adrenocortical carcinoma is around 50%. However, rates drop to 35% in people who can’t get surgery.

When to See a Doctor


Often, doctors diagnose adrenal cortex tumors by chance since many people don’t display symptoms in the early stages. See a doctor if you have unexplained pain or discomfort that doesn’t seem to go away, such as a feeling of fullness after eating small amounts.

If you’re experiencing symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, it’s a good idea to see a doctor for testing. Don’t jump to conclusions, though. Many of your symptoms may be signs of other, less serious conditions.

A doctor can perform a physical exam and order additional testing to check for underlying conditions causing your symptoms.

Summary

Adrenocortical carcinoma is a rare type of cancer of the adrenal glands. If the cancer does not produce hormones, it may have few symptoms unless it spreads or grows large enough to crowd other tissues. If it produces hormones, it may have a variety of symptoms related to regulating fluids, nutrient use, and sexual characteristics.

A Word From Verywell 

Looking at a list of symptoms can be scary. Immediately, all these things sound familiar. You’ve definitely been urinating more, and you’re thirstier than usual. Does this mean you have adrenocortical carcinoma? 

Not necessarily. Grouped together, these symptoms may be a sign that something is seriously wrong. But in isolation, symptoms like increased thirst and frequent urination may result from diabetes, a highly treatable condition, or something else entirely. Hair loss alone, for example, can happen for a variety of reasons, including an allergic reaction or vitamin deficiency.

If ever you feel like something is off. Talk to a doctor and request testing to get a better picture of your overall health. 

Was this page helpful?
4 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. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer. Revised January 2, 2018.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Adrenocortical carcinoma treatment. Update May 20, 2020.

  4. University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Adrenal cancer outcomes.