Adrenal Cancer: Overview
What is adrenal cancer?
Cancer starts when cells change (mutate) and grow out of control. The changed (abnormal)
cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow
into (invade) nearby areas. They can spread to other parts of the body, too. This
is called metastasis.
Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer. It starts in the adrenal glands. You have 2 adrenal
glands. One sits on top of each kidney. The 2 kidneys are deep in the upper part of
your belly (abdomen). The adrenal glands make hormones that balance salt in your body
and help control blood pressure. They also make hormones that control how your body
gets energy from food and reacts to stress. The adrenal glands make a small amount
of sex hormones, too.
Each adrenal gland has 2 main parts. The outer part of the adrenal gland is called
the adrenal cortex. Most adrenal cancers start in this area. The inner part is called
the adrenal medulla.
Most tumors in the adrenal glands are not cancer. (These may be called benign tumors.)
It's often hard to tell if an adrenal tumor is cancer (malignant) or benign. If the
tumor grows and spreads to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, it's cancer. Benign
tumors don’t spread.
Types of tumors that start in the adrenal glands include:
Adenoma. This is the most common kind of adrenal gland tumor. It's not cancer (benign tumor).
Adrenal cortex cancer (adrenal cortical carcinoma). This kind of tumor is rare. But it's the most common type of cancerous adrenal gland
Pheochromocytoma. This is a tumor that makes hormones inside the adrenal glands (in the medulla). In
most cases it's not cancer.
Neuroblastoma. This cancerous tumor most often starts in the adrenal glands in children. But it
can also start in the neck, chest, or spinal cord.
Who is at risk for adrenal cancer?
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact
cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely
for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others
may be things you can change.
Doctors don’t know what causes most adrenal cancers. But some factors can increase
your risk for it. These include having a family history of certain genetic syndromes
Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) types 1 and 2
Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
Lynch syndrome or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)
Neurofibromatosis type 1
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for adrenal cancer and
what you can do about them.
Can adrenal cancer be prevented?
Researchers don’t yet know how to prevent this type of cancer.
What are the symptoms of adrenal cancer?
Symptoms of adrenal cancer are usually caused by the hormones the tumor is making.
Some symptoms are caused when the tumor is very large and is pressing on nearby organs.
People with adrenal cancer may have any or all of these symptoms:
Belly or back pain
Belly stretch marks
Fast heartbeat or heart pounding
Full feeling in the belly or feeling full after eating only a small amount
Enlarged breasts or sex organs
Extra facial and body hair, often in women
Fatty areas on the shoulders and the back of the neck
Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
Low potassium levels
Anxiety or new panic attacks
High blood pressure
Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it's important to see your
healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell
if you have cancer.
How is adrenal cancer diagnosed?
If your healthcare provider thinks you may have adrenal cancer, you will need certain
exams and tests to be sure. Your provider will ask you about your health history,
your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. A physical exam will be
done. You may also have some tests done, like blood and urine tests.
After a diagnosis of adrenal cancer, you’ll likely need more tests. These help your
healthcare providers learn more about your overall health and the cancer. They can
help find the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much cancer there is and how far
it has spread (metastasized) in your body. It's one of the most important things to
know when deciding how to treat the cancer.
Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what
the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your provider to explain the details
of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.
How is adrenal cancer treated?
Your treatment choices depend on the type of adrenal cancer you have, test results,
and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the
cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team
about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side
effects may be.
Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove,
destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments.
Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled
around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy and hormone therapy
are systemic treatments. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.
Type of treatments for adrenal cancer include:
Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options. Make a list of questions.
Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your
concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.
What are treatment side effects?
Cancer treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy, can damage normal cells. This
can cause side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting. Talk with your
healthcare provider about side effects you might be linked to your treatment. There
are often ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can
take to help prevent or control side effects.
Coping with adrenal cancer
Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting
treatment for cancer can be tough on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare
team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effect of
cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.
Here are tips:
Talk with your family or friends.
Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.
Speak with a counselor.
Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.
Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.
Keep socially active.
Join a cancer support group.
Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:
Eat a healthy diet, with as many protein foods as possible.
Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.
Keep physically active.
Rest as much as needed.
Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.
Take your medicines as directed by your team.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to
call if you have any of the below:
New symptoms or symptoms that get worse
Signs of an infection, such as a fever
Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don’t get better with
Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to call. Know how to
get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.