In this article, learn about the symptoms of adrenal cancer, as well as the possible risk factors and treatment options.
What is adrenal cancer?
Adrenal cancer can cause a range of symptoms that affect sex hormones.
Adrenal cancer is a condition in which abnormal cells form tumors on the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are small glands that sit on top of each kidney. They play an essential role in the endocrine system by producing cortisol, aldosterone, and sex hormones.
Most adrenal tumors affect the adrenal cortex, which is the outside of the adrenal gland.
Types of adrenal cortex tumors include:
- adenomas, or benign tumors called adrenocortical adenoma (ACA)
- carcinomas, or malignant (cancerous) tumors called adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC)
Adrenal tumors are relatively common, affecting 3–10 percent of the human population. Most of these are ACA.
On the other hand, ACC is quite rare. Experts estimate that medical professionals diagnose adrenal cancer in roughly 1–2 people per million every year.
Most of the time, people with adrenal cancer experience symptoms that result from excess hormone production. These hormones can be cortisol or sex hormones.
Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body handle stress. Too much cortisol can produce symptoms such as:
- facial fullness
- uncontrolled blood sugar
- muscle weakness
- abnormal or unexpected weight gain
- easy bruising
Sex hormones include the female hormone estrogen and the male hormones androgens. Symptoms of excess sex hormones include:
- change in sex drive
- unusual acne
- rapid onset of male pattern baldness
- excessive hair growth on the body
- menstrual irregularities
- changes in genitals or breasts
Some people with adrenal cancer also have symptoms related to tumor growth, such as:
- abdominal pain
- abdominal fullness
- feeling full after eating very little
Causes and risk factors
Some conditions that affect children can raise the risk of devloping an adrenal tumor.
Doctors do not currently know why adrenal tumors form. There are no known preventable risk factors.
However, people with certain genetic conditions have a higher chance of developing an adrenal tumor. These conditions include:
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1. This causes tumors of the endocrine system, including the parathyroid, pituitary, and pancreas.
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome is a rare condition occurring mostly in children that increases the risk of several different types of cancer.
- Beckwith–Wiedemann syndrome, a rare condition that occurs only in children, is characterized by abnormal growth.
- Lynch syndrome is a genetic disorder most commonly associated with the development of colon cancer as well as some other types of cancer.
- Neurofibromatosis type 1 is a hereditary condition associated with the development of both benign and cancerous tumors. Other features include high blood pressure, learning disabilities, and bone problems.
- Carney complex is a very rare hereditary condition associated with skin pigmentation, benign tumors of connective tissue, and tumors of the endocrine glands.
- Familial adenomatous polyposis is a syndrome that causes a person to develop many polyps in the large intestine. It can increase the risk of adrenal cancer, although most adrenal tumors in people with this condition are noncancerous.
A doctor will take a thorough medical history and perform a physical examination before diagnosing adrenal cancer.
Evaluation for adrenal cancer can include a variety of tests, which may include:
- blood and urine tests to look for excess adrenal hormones
- an image-guided biopsy of the adrenal gland
- a CT scan
- an MRI scan
- a positron emission tomography scan
- yadrenal vein sampling
A doctor may recommend surgical removal of the adrenal gland.
There are multiple treatment options that a doctor may use to treat adrenal cancer.
Surgical removal of the adrenal gland is the primary treatment for adrenal cancer. The medical term for this procedure is adrenalectomy.
During the surgery, the surgeon will be able to see whether the tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs and tissues.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells. Doctors may choose to use radiation in combination with other therapies because adrenal cancer cells are difficult to kill with X-rays alone.
Radiation may also help prevent the cancer from recurring.
Chemotherapy uses specific drugs to help destroy cancer cells. Adrenal cancer is difficult to treat with chemotherapy alone, but doctors may recommend it in combination with other treatment strategies.
Mitotane is a common chemotherapy drug for treating adrenal cancer. It works to block the adrenal gland’s hormone production while also destroying cancerous and healthy adrenal cells.
A doctor will need to monitor a person’s hormone levels closely while they are taking mitotane.
Other medications may help block the hormonal effects of the tumor. These drugs decrease the effects of aldosterone, cortisol, and estrogen.
A person can also speak with their doctor about taking part in a clinical trial to help researches find new ways to treat adrenal cancer.
Adrenal cancer is a rare type of cancer that can be difficult to treat. It is vital for a person with adrenal cancer to work together with a medical team to coordinate their care.
After treatment, they will likely continue to see a doctor for follow-up appointments to ensure the cancer remains in remission.