Adrenal cancer

Book an Appointment

Overview

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 tumor.

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.


Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer include:


Weight gain

Muscle weakness

Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin

Hormone changes in women that might cause excess facial hair, hair loss on the head and irregular periods

Hormone changes in men that might cause enlarged breast tissue and shrinking testicles

Nausea

Vomiting

Abdominal bloating

Back pain

Fever

Loss of appetite

Loss of weight without trying

Causes

It's not clear why some people get these tumors. But they may be more common if you have one of these diseases that’s tied to your genes:


Li-Fraumeni syndrome

Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome

Carney complex

Multiple endocrine neoplasia

Familial adenomatous polyposis

Lynch syndrome

Risk factors

At this point, scientists don’t know what causes adrenal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 15 percent of adrenal cancers are caused by a genetic disorder. Certain conditions can put you at an increased risk of developing adrenal cancer.

These include:

Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which is an abnormal growth disorder marked by a large body and organs. Individuals with this syndrome are also at risk for cancer of the kidney and liver.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is an inherited disorder that causes an increased risk for many types of cancers.

Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), which is an inherited condition characterized by high numbers of polyps in the large intestines that also carries a high risk of colon cancer.

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1), which is an inherited condition that causes many tumors to develop, both benign and malignant, in tissues that produce hormones like the pituitary, parathyroid, and pancreas.

Smoking likely also increases the risk of adrenal cancer, but there’s no conclusive proof yet.


Calendar Schedule

Have a medical question?

We are available to help you with all your questions and concerns.

Complications

Tumors in your pituitary gland most often cause Cushing's syndrome, but adrenal tumors can also lead to Cushing's syndrome. Symptoms include high blood pressure, weight gain (especially around your middle) and sexual dysfunction. It can increase your likelihood of diabetes.

Prevention

Adrenal gland tumors, including adrenal adenoma, can't be prevented. The risk factors for adrenal adenoma often depend on your genes. Still, you can develop an adrenal adenoma even if no one in your family has a history of adrenal gland tumors.