Adrenal Cancer

Adrenal glands are two small organs that are located on top of the kidneys. Out of two major types of adrenal tumors, adenomas and adrenal cortical carcinoma, adenomas do not show any symptoms of cancer and they can be cured by medicine or laparoscopic surgery. But, adrenal cortical carcinomas tumors are generally cancerous. A tumor as large as 2 or 2 ½ inches is mostly found to be cancerous. Adrenal cancer is mostly seen in women. Though, the average age of being affected by this disease is 45, it may occur at any age.

The outer part of adrenal gland is referred as adrenal cortex which is responsible to release hormones that are used to maintain blood pressure and characteristics such as hair growth and body structure. This is the part, where the tumors are developed more likely. The inner part of adrenal gland is termed as adrenal medulla, produce hormones that are responsible to control stress. In most of the cases, cancer is found at metastatic stage. It is easy to detect adrenal cancer in children than adults, because children often react more to these hormones which are responsible to produce tumors.

Signs & Symptoms

The adrenal cortical carcinomas produce hormones that show some body changes. In some people, symptoms of adrenal cancer are occurred by the hormones which are responsible to produce tumors and in rest of the people symptoms are caused due to massive increase of tumor which affects nearby organs. Symptoms are occurred based on hormones that are being overproduced. It is better to consult a doctor, if you experience the following symptoms which include.

  • Weight gain
  • Girls gaining puberty early
  • Girls not having regular periods
  • Excess hair on face and body of women
  • Penis enlargement in case of boys
  • Clitoris enlargement in case of girls
  • Excess growth of breasts in boys
  • Weakened legs
  • Purple color stretch marks on stomach

If the tumor is large it causes symptoms by pressing on another organ

However, sometimes, cancer starts in other part and spreads to adrenal glands. But, that is not called adrenal cancer. For example, if the cancer has been originated in lungs and it has been spread to adrenal glands, the disease is still named as lung cancer. The two adrenal glands are part of the body's endocrine system, which are responsible for producing hormones such as aldosterone, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Causes of Adrenal Cancer

The causes of adrenal cortical tumors are unknown. They are neither associated with smoking nor they run in families. Besides, certain genetic syndromes can cause a higher risk of Adrenal Cancer that include Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN-1). Smoking is also considered as a risk factor.

Test & Procedures

To diagnose adrenal cancer, doctor suggests you to undergo the following tests after physical examination. Test includes,

  • Blood and Urine Test
  • Biopsy
  • CT Scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography)
  • Ultrasound

The following are some important tests conducted to detect adrenal cancer:


Sound wave is used to produce images during ultrasound. The computerized images show a clear picture of adrenal glands and it becomes easier to find out the tumor in adrenal gland.

CT scans (computed tomography)

A number of x-rays are taken and then assembled to see the detailed picture. CT scan images show a detailed picture of adrenal gland including other areas. Analyzing these pictures, doctors can determine whether the cancer has been spread to other areas.

PET scan (positron emission tomography)

One type of radioactive sugar is introduced into a vain during PET scan. Cancerous tissues collect that sugar and thus affected cells are spotted by a scanner.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

Radio waves and strong magnets are used to produce clearer picture during MRI. Detailed images from different angles help doctors determine the stage of cancer. They can also find whether the tumor is benign or cancerous.


A small portion of the affected area is removed by the help of a biopsy needle and then tested under microscope to detect cancer. A CT scan or ultrasound can help to guide the biopsy needle.

Blood and urine tests

Depending on the symptoms, doctors may suggest for blood and urine tests to know if the patient has adrenal cancer. Doctors know better which symptom is related with high level of certain hormones.


Treatment for any cancer depends on its stage and overall health of the patient. The different methods of treatment include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Other drugs

In few cases, more than one type of treatment is required for patient.


Removal of adrenal gland through surgery is termed as Adrenalectomy. Endocrinologist is a surgeon who treats endocrine tumor through surgery. In most of the cases, laparoscopic surgery is used to treat adrenal cancer.


Radiation therapy is used to kill adrenal tumor cells. It uses high energy radiation to treat a tumor. A specialist who gives radiation therapy to treat a tumor is called as radiation oncologist. Radiation treatment is used after surgery to destroy remaining tumor cells based on stages. External-beam radiation therapy is mainly used to treat patients.


In Chemotherapy treatment, doctor use drugs for patients to treat tumors. Usually, drugs are given through vein or by mouth. Mitotane is the most common drug used for patients who suffer with adrenal cancer.

Other Drugs

Other drugs such as Ketoconazole, aminoglutethimide and metyrapone are used apart from Mitotane to get relief from symptoms caused by few hormones, but these drugs does not directly reduce adrenal tumor. Above treatments are essential to kill adrenal tumor cells.

After the cancer is diagnosed, doctor provides you treatment options to choose based on several factors such as your health condition, severity of symptoms, stages, type of tumor and possible side effects. It is good to take a second opinion because adrenal cancer is a very rare. Moreover, second opinion gives you more information about the cancer and only few sophisticated hospitals will have much experience in treating patients who suffer with this kind of tumor.

Side Effects

All side effects of treatments of adrenal cancer are temporary. Different treatments such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, targeted medicine therapy etc. have different side effects as mentioned below:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Rashes on hand and foot
  • Mouth sores
  • Low resistance to infection
  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

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