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Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Adrenal cancer is cancer that occurs when abnormal cells form or spread to the adrenal glands. Check out the full explanation of the symptoms, causes, and how to treat it below.

Adrenal Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

What is Adrenal Cancer?

Adrenal cancer is a type of cancer that forms or spreads to the adrenal glands. Please note, the body itself has two adrenal glands.

This condition usually occurs in the outermost layer of the adrenal gland or cortex, and usually appears as a tumor.

Cancerous tumors of the adrenal glands are referred to as adrenal cortical carcinomas. While non-cancerous tumors of the adrenal glands are called benign adenomas.

Adrenal Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms that appear can be caused by excess hormone production androgens, estrogens, cortisol, and aldosterone. In addition, symptoms can also arise from a large tumor pressing on an organ.

Symptoms of androgen or estrogen overproduction are easier to see in children than adults, especially since the physical changes are more active and visible during puberty.

Here are some symptoms of adrenal cancer in children, including:

  • Excessive growth of pubic, axillary, and facial hair.
  • Enlarged penis.
  • Enlarged clitoris.
  • Enlarged breasts in boys.
  • Early puberty in girls.

Women with tumors that cause increased androgens may have facial hair growth or deep voices.

While men with tumors that cause increased estrogen may experience breast enlargement or breast tenderness.

Diagnosing tumors becomes more difficult for women with excess estrogen and for men with excess androgens. Symptoms of adrenal cancer, which produces excess cortisol and aldosterone in adults, include:

  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood sugar.
  • Weight gain
  • Irregular menstruation.
  • Easy bruising.
  • Depression
  • Frequent urination.
  • Muscle cramp.

When is the Right Time to See a Doctor?

Here are some conditions where you should get treatment from a doctor, including:

  • New symptoms or symptoms that are getting worse.
  • Signs of infection, such as fever.
  • Medication side effects that affect daily functioning or do not improve with treatment.

Ask your doctor about what signs to watch for, and when to get treatment.

Also Read: Differences in Lymph Nodes Affected by Cancer and Infection

Adrenal Cancer Causes

It’s not clear what causes this condition. However, this cancer forms due to changes (mutations) in the DNA of adrenal gland cells.

The cell’s DNA contains instructions that tell the cell what to do. Mutations can tell cells to grow uncontrollably and continue living when healthy cells would otherwise die.

When this happens, abnormal cells accumulate and form a tumor. Tumor cells are prone to rupture and spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Risk Factors

Adrenal cancer tends to occur in people with inherited syndromes that can increase the risk of certain cancers. These inherited syndromes include:

  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Carney complex.
  • Lynch syndrome.
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome.
  • Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 1 (MEN 1).

Adrenal Cancer Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose this condition include:

1. Blood and Urine Test

Blood and urine laboratory tests can reveal unusual levels of hormones being produced by the adrenal glands. These include cortisol, aldosterone, and androgens.

2. Imaging test

The doctor may recommend a CT scan, MRI, or positron emission tomography (PET) scan to better understand any growths on the adrenal glands. This test is useful to see if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs or liver.

3. Adrenal Gland Laboratory Analysis

If the doctor suspects that the patient has adrenal cancer, the doctor may recommend removing the affected adrenal gland.

The gland is analyzed in a laboratory by a doctor (pathologist). This analysis can determine whether you have cancer and what types of cells are involved.

Also Read: Important for the body, this is the function of the exocrine and endocrine glands

Adrenal Cancer Types

Basically, the type of cancer is based on where the tumor starts, including:

  • Adrenocortical carcinoma. This type starts in the outer layer (cortex) or adrenal glands.
  • Malignant adrenal pheochromocytoma. Tumors that start in the medulla. This type is very rare.
  • Neuroblastoma. This type can also start in the medulla, usually occurring in children.
  • Malignant paraganglioma. Tumors that grow inside or outside the adrenal glands.
  • Adenomas. This can produce extra cortisol, leading to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome.

Adrenal Cancer Treatment

Treatment for these cancers is usually surgery or surgery to remove all of the cancer. Other treatments may be used to prevent the cancer from recurring or if surgery is not an effective option.

The following are some of the treatments that can be done, including:

1. Operation

The goal of surgery is to remove all of the adrenal cancer. The doctor must remove all of the affected adrenal glands (adrenalectomy).

If the surgeon finds evidence that the cancer has spread to nearby structures—such as the liver or kidneys—part or all of these organs may also be removed during the operation.

2. Drugs to Reduce the Risk of Recurrence

Doctors usually prescribe a drug called mitotane (lysodren), which blocks the adrenal glands from making hormones. This drug also works to destroy cancer cells.

Doctors may recommend this drug after surgery if there is a risk that the tumor may return.

3. Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells.

Radiation therapy is sometimes used after adrenal cancer surgery to kill any cells that may remain. This therapy also helps reduce pain and other symptoms of cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones.

4. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. For adrenal cancer that can’t be removed surgically or that comes back after initial treatment, chemotherapy may be an option to slow the cancer’s progress.

  1. Anonymous. 2022. Adrenal cancer. (Accessed November 22, 2023)
  2. Anonymous. 2022. Adrenal Cancer. (Accessed November 22, 2023)
  3. Anonymous. Adrenal Cancer: Overview. (Accessed November 22, 2023)
  4. Johnson, Shannon. 2018. Everything you need to know about adrenal cancer. (Accessed November 22, 2023)
  5. Wint, Carmella. 2018. Adrenal Cancer. (Accessed November 22, 2023)

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