Adrenal cancer

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 24, 2016
StartDiseasesAdrenal cancer

Adrenal cancer is a rare form of cancer that occurs in the adrenal glands. These small glands are located above the kidneys. If treatment is started in the early stages, the outlook for patients is good.


Definition & Facts

While adrenal cancer is rare, patients have a great chance of survival if the disease is caught in the early stages. However, it is difficult to catch before it progresses. Most often, this cancer shows up in the form of a malignant tumor known as an adrenal cortical carcinoma. Although it isn't rare for tumors to form on the adrenal glands, most are benign.

Symptoms & Complaints

The adrenal glands produce the body's hormones; therefore, the symptoms that are present will depend on which hormones the tumor secretes. Hair growth is a common symptom, but because men typically grow a great deal of hair all over their bodies, it can be difficult to detect those changes. Some men, however, may develop an increase in estrogen, leading to a decrease in muscle mass and male breast enlargement.

Since women tend to deal with a lot of hormone related issues, symptoms usually go undetected. It's possible for women to have an increase in testosterone. If this occurs, female patients my notice an increase in facial hair and hair growth on other areas of the body. Other symptoms of excess testosterone in women may include deepening of the voice as well as an increase in sex drive.

Children have the best chance of noticing any problems, including fever, lumps in the abdomen, persistent abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, and a feeling of being full. They may also experience puberty at an early age, depending on the type or hormones that are present.

Depending on the hormones being secreted by the tumor, symptoms of other adrenal gland disorders may be present, such as Conn's syndrome and Cushing syndrome. Those symptoms are as follows:


Although the exact cause of adrenal cancer is unknown, there are certain factors that put people at higher risk of developing the disease. Approximately 15 percent of risk factors are genetic disorders which include:

Additionally, certain activities and behaviors such as smoking, high fat diets, leading a primarily sedentary lifestyle, and exposure to substances known to cause cancer are thought to put individuals at a higher risk of developing cancer.

Diagnosis & Tests

Adrenal cancer is usually found as a result of tests that are performed for other reasons. There are, however, specific tests for the disease. First, the doctor will review the patient's complete medical history, including the history of family members, especially those with cancer. He/she will also ask an array of questions about symptoms the individual may be experiencing and the current state of the patient's sexual function and menstrual cycles.

The physician will do a thorough abdominal exam to check for possible tumors. If a tumor is found or suspected, he/she will then run several imaging tests. Blood tests and urine tests will also be performed, but most doctors do not recommend taking biopies of adrenal tumors.

Treatment & Therapy

Since not all cases of cancer are the same, each person will have his/her own treatment plan based on specific needs. If it is detected in the early stages, the tumor will likely be removed before any cancerous cells have the chance to spread. If the cancer has already spread outside the adrenal glands, patients will need to undergo radiation and possibly chemotherapy.

Some tumors may be too large to be safely removed. If this is the case, doctors will attempt to remove it with a procedure known as cryoablation. It is the process of freezing the tumor until the cells die. Additionally, some patients may be directed to take mitotane which is a medication used to help prevent the adrenal glands from producing steroid hormones.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The best preventative measure a person can take is to avoid behaviors that could possibly lead to adrenal disease, such as smoking, eating a high fat diet, and exposure to carcinogens. Also, leading an active lifestyle is important. Men and women who have jobs that cause them to be sedentary most of the day should make it a point to exercise regularly and make healthy dietary choices. Yearly health screenings are important for all individuals to help catch any abnormalities before it's too late.