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What is Adrenal Cancer?

Adrenal cancer is a rare form of cancer that develops in the adrenal glands. The adrenals are small, triangle-shaped glands located on top of the kidneys that produce hormones for almost every organ and tissue in the body. A malignant (cancerous) tumor of the adrenal gland is called an adrenal cortical carcinoma, and a benign (noncancerous) tumor is called a benign adenoma.

A benign adenoma usually develops on only one adrenal gland, and symptoms do not typically appear. Adrenal cortical carcinomas, however, can grow large enough to press on the organs and may produce extra hormones that result in symptoms.

Adrenal cancer can occur at any age but tends to develop in children under the age of five and adults in their 40s and 50s.

What are the symptoms of adrenal cancer?

Symptoms of excessive androgen or estrogen (hormones) production are more noticeable in children than in adults due to the fact that physical changes are more evident during puberty. Symptoms in children can include:

  • An enlarged clitoris
  • An enlarged penis
  • Early puberty in girls
  • Excessive pubic, facial, and underarm hair growth
  • Large breasts in boys

In adults, excess levels of the hormones, cortisol and aldosterone, produce the following symptoms:

  • Ability to bruise easily
  • Frequent urination
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Irregular periods
  • Muscle cramps
  • Unexpected weight gain

In approximately half of the cases, symptoms of adrenal cancer do not appear until the tumor has grown large enough to place pressure on other organs in the body. Women with adrenal cancer may notice hair growth on their face and a deepened voice. Men whose tumors produce excess estrogen may notice breast tenderness or enlargement. However, if there is an excessive amount of a hormone associated with their sex (men with excess androgen, women with excess estrogen), diagnosis can be difficult.

How is adrenal cancer diagnosed?

After a physical exam and a discussion of medical history, blood and urine are usually collected for testing. Other tests to confirm a diagnosis may include a/an:

  • Adrenal angiography
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Image-guided fine-needle biopsy (also known as a fine-needle aspiration or FNA)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Ultrasound

How is adrenal cancer treated?

There are three major treatments for adrenal cancer:

  • Surgery will remove the diseased adrenal gland (adrenalectomy), as well as any nearby infected tissues such as the lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy — this may be combined with other types of treatments.

 Other treatments may include:

  • Ablation — an insertion of an image-guided needle in the tumor to deliver radio waves.
  • Clinical trial treatments
  • Drug therapies