Adrenal Cancer: Introduction
What is cancer?
Cancer starts when cells in the body change (mutate) and grow out of control. To help
you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works
normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells
grow when your body needs them, and die when your body doesn't need them any longer.
Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them.
In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If
cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas.
They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).
What is adrenal cancer?
Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer that starts in the adrenal glands.
Anatomy of the adrenal glands
There are 2 adrenal glands. One sits on of each kidney. The 2 kidneys are located
deep inside the upper part of the belly (abdomen). The outer part of the adrenal gland
is called the adrenal cortex. Most adrenal cancers start in this part. The inner part
is called the adrenal medulla.
The adrenal glands make important hormones that:
Control how much sodium and potassium is in body fluids
Make small amounts of the male and female sex hormones
Help control heart rate, blood pressure, and the digestive and respiratory systems
Control how the body gets energy from (metabolizes) protein, fat, and carbohydrates
Help the body react to stress
Types of adrenal gland tumors
Cancer that starts in the adrenal glands is rare. Most tumors in the adrenal glands
are not cancer (they're benign). It's often hard to tell if an adrenal tumor is cancer,
even if part of the tumor is taken out and tested. But if the tumor grows and spreads
to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, it's cancer (malignant). Sometimes this
is the only way to know it's cancer. Benign tumors don’t spread.
Tumors that start in the adrenal glands include:
Adenoma. This is the most common kind of adrenal gland tumor. It's not cancer. These tumors
tend to be small (less than 2 inches across). In most cases, they don't cause symptoms
or problems. So people don't know they're there. Adenomas are often found when a scan
of the belly is done for a different health problem.
Adrenal cancer (adrenal cortical carcinoma). This kind of cancer is rare. But it's the most common type of adrenal gland cancer.
It starts in the cortex, or outer part, of the adrenal gland. It may be a functioning
tumor. This means it makes adrenal hormones. Or it may be nonfunctioning, so it doesn't
Pheochromocytoma. This is a growth that makes hormones inside the adrenal glands. In most cases it's
not cancer. This growth can also start in other parts of the body. But it's most often
in the adrenal gland.
Neuroblastoma. This childhood cancer most often begins in the adrenal glands. But it can also start
in the neck, chest, or spinal cord. The tumor is often formed in early childhood.
But it may not be found until later, when it grows and causes symptoms.
Most cancer tumors in the adrenal glands don't start there. They're tumors caused
by cancer that started in another part of the body. The cells spread (metastasized)
to the adrenal gland and formed a tumor there. For instance, lung cancer tends to
metastasize to the adrenal glands. In this case, the cancer cells in the adrenal gland
look like and are treated like lung cancer. The cancer is called metastatic lung cancer,
not adrenal cancer.
It's important to know if a tumor in the adrenal gland is a primary tumor that started
there, or a metastatic tumor that came from cancer in another part of the body. Tests
will be done to find out.
Talk with your healthcare provider
If you have questions about adrenal cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your
provider can help you understand more about this cancer.