Understand the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Adrenal Cancer

Understand the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Adrenal Cancer

Adrenal cancer, or adrenocortical cancer, is a rare type of cancer that originates in the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney and are responsible for producing hormones that regulate various bodily functions, including metabolism, blood pressure, and the body's response to stress.

Adrenal cancer typically arises in the outer layer of the adrenal glands, called the adrenal cortex, which produces hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, and androgens. The majority of adrenal tumors are noncancerous (benign), but when they become cancerous (malignant), they can lead to adrenal cancer.

What Is the Prognosis for Adrenal Cancer Patients?

Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC), the most common form, typically leads to hormone overproduction or tumor-size symptoms. Diagnosis often occurs when symptoms manifest or through incidental imaging.

Prognosis statistics can change as diagnosis and treatment methods improve. Survival rates are based on the cancer's stage at diagnosis:

  • Localized (limited to adrenal glands): 73% 5-year survival rate.
  • Regionalized (spread to nearby areas): 53% 5-year survival rate.
  • Distant (spread to distant areas): 38% 5-year survival rate.

While a cure is possible, 50-80% of patients who have their tumor surgically removed may experience metastatic or recurrent disease, making the situation more complex. Early detection and timely treatment are crucial for improving outcomes in adrenal cancer.

What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?

The signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer can vary depending on the type of tumor, whether it is functional (producing hormones) or non-functional, and the stage of cancer. Here are some common signs and symptoms associated with adrenal cancer:

Abdominal Pain or Mass

Adrenal tumors can sometimes cause pain in the abdomen, mainly if the tumor is large. A noticeable mass or swelling may also be present.

    Hormonal Imbalances

    Functional adrenal tumors can lead to overproduction of certain hormones, resulting in specific symptoms:

    • Cushing's Syndrome: Excess cortisol can cause weight gain, stretch marks, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, and skin changes.
    • Conn's Syndrome: Excess aldosterone causes high blood pressure, muscle weakness, cramps, and low potassium levels.
    • Virilization: Androgen excess can cause excessive hair growth, deepening of the voice, and menstrual changes in females.

      Pheochromocytoma Symptoms

      Pheochromocytomas, which can be associated with adrenal cancer, may cause symptoms such as:

      • High blood pressure
      • Rapid heartbeat
      • Sweating
      • Headaches
      • Tremors
      • Anxiety or panic attacks

      Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss may occur in some cases of adrenal cancer.

      • Fatigue: Chronic fatigue or weakness can be a symptom, especially if the cancer leads to hormonal imbalances.
      • Digestive Issues: Adrenal tumors may cause digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, or changes in bowel habits.

      If you experience persistent or concerning symptoms, especially those related to hormonal imbalances, seek medical attention for an evaluation. Early detection is crucial for the effective management of adrenal cancer, so don't ignore any unusual symptoms and seek professional medical help promptly.

      Are There Different Types of Adrenal Cancer, and How Are They Diagnosed?

      Different types of adrenal cancer are generally classified based on the specific cells within the adrenal glands where the cancer originates. The two main types of adrenal cancer are:

      Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC)

      This type of cancer begins in the adrenal glands' cortex or outer layer. The adrenal cortex produces hormones, and ACC can lead to overproduction. This cancer is relatively rare.


      Pheochromocytomas are tumors that develop in the adrenal glands, which can be benign or malignant. They cause symptoms like high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and sweating due to excessive hormone production.


      • Imaging Studies: CT scans and MRIs can provide detailed images of the adrenal glands to identify tumors.
      • Blood and Urine Tests: Blood and urine tests can identify hormone imbalances in adrenal tumors.
      • Biopsy: Doctors may perform a biopsy to obtain a definitive diagnosis before adrenal gland surgery. Although they can provide accurate diagnoses, adrenal biopsies carry a risk of complications and may spread tumor cells. Doctors only recommend them when imaging and hormonal tests are inconclusive.
      • Functional and Non-functional Tumors: Adrenal tumors can be functional, producing hormones, or non-functional, meaning they do not. Associated symptoms and hormone-level testing can identify functional tumors.

      A team of specialists, including endocrinologists, oncologists, surgeons, and radiologists, collaborate to diagnose and manage adrenal cancer. Early detection and accurate diagnosis are crucial for effective treatment and better outcomes.

      The Risk Factors for Developing Adrenal Cancer

      Adrenal cancer is a form of cancer that generally does not have risk factors. However, some factors may contribute:

      • Hereditary Disorders: Genetic syndromes like Li Fraumeni and Beckwith Wiedemann syndromes increase the risk.
      • Tobacco Use: Research has connected the use and smoking of tobacco to the formation of many types of tumors and cancer.

      Early detection can significantly affect how adrenal cancer is managed.

      How Is Adrenal Cancer Treated and What Are the Available Options?

      In cases of cancer, surgery is the primary approach for treating cancer. If surgery is not feasible or to prevent recurrence, alternative treatments are considered.


      To remove the adrenal cancer, the surgeon removes the affected adrenal gland. However, if the cancer has extended to other organs, like the liver or kidney, there might be a need to remove portions or even the entirety of those organs.

      Medication to Prevent Recurrence

      For those at high risk of cancer returning after surgery, Mitotane (Lysodren) may be recommended. Ongoing research is exploring its potential to delay disease recurrence.

      Radiation Therapy

      Radiation therapy employs powerful energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to target and eliminate cancer cells. It's sometimes used post-surgery to address any remaining cancer cells and can also help manage pain and symptoms when cancer has spread to other body parts.


      Chemotherapy uses drugs to combat cancer cells. When surgery isn't an option or when cancer returns after initial treatments, chemotherapy may be used to slow the cancer's progression.

      Far North Surgery: Pioneering Excellence in Adrenal Cancer Care in Anchorage, AK

      When facing the challenges of adrenal cancer, the importance of selecting the right treatment center cannot be overstated. Far North Surgery emerges as a beacon of hope and expertise in adrenal cancer treatment. With a commitment to cutting-edge medical advancements, a multidisciplinary approach, and a compassionate team, Far North Surgery provides a comprehensive, patient-centered strategy for tackling adrenal cancer.

      We are proud to have Dr. Madhu Prasad on our team, who has been honored with several awards and accolades, including the prestigious Best of Anchorage Awards for Cancer Treatment. With his exceptional skills as a surgical oncologist for over 30 years, Dr. Prasad offers unparalleled expertise in adrenal cancer treatment.

      Schedule a consultation today to discuss personalized solutions tailored to your specific needs. Don't settle for anything less regarding your health - trust in the best surgeons at Far North Surgery in Anchorage, AK. Call us at 907-276-3676 to start your journey towards better health.

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