What is adrenal cancer?
A rare type of cancer forms in the adrenal glands, which is small, triangle-shaped and sits on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands produce hormones for almost every organ and tissue in the body and are especially active when in stressful situations. A non-cancerous or benign adrenal tumor is called a benign adenoma. An adrenal gland tumor that is cancerous or malignant is called an adrenal cortical carcinoma.
Symptoms do not usually appear with a benign adenoma and it usually only forms on one adrenal gland. By contrast, adrenal cortical carcinomas produce extra hormones that lead to symptoms and can grow large enough to press on organs.
Adrenal cancer can develop at any age. However, it’s most common in children younger than 5 years old and adults in their 40s and 50s.
What are the symptoms of adrenal cancer?
Because physical changes are more obvious in children than adults it’s easier to spot symptoms of excessive androgen or estrogen hormone production in children. Symptoms in children can include:
- Early puberty in girls
- Excessive pubic, facial and underarm hair growth
- Large breasts in boys
- An enlarged clitoris
- An enlarged penis
In adults, two different hormones – cortisol and aldosterone – can create the following symptoms when produced in excessive amounts.
- Tendency to bruise easily
- Irregular periods
- Frequent urination
- High blood pressure
- Unexplained weight gain
- High blood sugar
- Muscle cramps
Unfortunately, adrenal cancer symptoms do not appear in about half of the cases until a tumor has grown big enough to apply pressure to other organs. In some cases women with adrenal cancer may have a deepened void and develop excessive hair on their face from excessive androgen. Men with adrenal cancer that produces excessive estrogen may develop enlarged or tender breasts. However, when the adrenal cancer produces an excessive amount of the hormone associated with their gender, such as women with excessive estrogen and men with excessive androgen, it’s much harder to diagnosis.
How is adrenal cancer diagnosed?
In addition to a physical exam and discussion of medical history and symptoms, blood and urine samples are tested. Additional tests may be required to confirm a diagnosis such as:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Adrenal angiography
- Image-guided fine-needle biopsy, which is also known as a fine-needle aspiration (FNA)
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
How is adrenal cancer treated?
Adrenal cancer is most commonly treated by:
- Surgery to remove the cancerous adrenal gland (adrenalectomy) and any affected tissues, such as the lymph nodes.
- Radiation therapy
Additional treatments may include:
- Ablation, which uses an image-guided needle inserted in the tumor to deliver radio waves
- Drug therapies
- Clinical trial treatments.