Adrenal cancer is a rare malignancy that develops within the adrenal glands. While the exact number of adrenal gland cancer diagnoses is unknown, the American Cancer Society estimates that there are only approximately 200 cases of this malignancy diagnosed each year.
What is an adrenal gland?
Before discussing cancer of the adrenal glands, it may be helpful to explain where these glands are located and what their purpose is. The human body contains two adrenal glands (also referred to as suprarenal glands), with one situated above each kidney. These small, triangular glands produce adrenaline, cortisone and other steroid hormones, which are responsible for helping to keep metabolism, growth, fertility and other complex bodily processes in balance.
What is an adrenal mass?
An adrenal mass (commonly referred to as an adrenal tumor) is a growth that develops on an adrenal gland. This growth may be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). There are two main types of adrenal tumors, each one developing in a different portion of the adrenal gland:
- Adrenal cortex tumors – These masses develop in the gland's outer layer (the cortex).
- Adrenal medulla tumors – These masses develop within the gland’s inner core (the medulla).
There are also several tumor subtypes, including adenomas, adrenocortical carcinomas, neuroblastomas and pheochromocytomas. After discovering cancer in the adrenal gland, a physician will need to determine exactly what type of tumor is present. Certain types spread more quickly than others and thus require a different approach, so this distinction will help inform the course of treatment.
Adrenal cancer symptoms
Cancer in adrenal glands does not always produce symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they are often the result of a tumor that produces its own hormones (a functional tumor). Some of the symptoms caused by hormone-producing tumors include:
- Changes in sexual desire (libido)
- Frequent mood swings
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Unexplained weight gain (particularly in the midsection)
- Muscle weakness and cramping
- Early onset of puberty
- Irregular menstrual cycles (in women)
- Clitoris enlargement (in women)
- Penis enlargement (in men)
If a patient’s tumor produces hormones normally associated with the opposite sex, the resulting symptoms may be especially noticeable. For example, women with androgen-producing tumors may experience voice deepening or excess body hair growth. Conversely, men with estrogen-producing tumors may experience breast tenderness or enlargement.
Excessive levels of cortisone may lead to the development of Cushing syndrome. And if an adrenal tumor begins pressing on a nearby organ, it can cause additional symptoms such as pain and swelling.
Adrenal cancer causes and risk factors
Researchers are still working to determine precisely what causes cancer of adrenal glands. With that being said, studies have identified certain risk factors that make someone more likely to develop this malignancy, such as smoking. Several genetic syndromes have also been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer in an adrenal gland, including:
- Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
- Carney complex
- Familiar adenomatous polyposis
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer)
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia
- Von Hippel-Lindau disease
Adrenal cancer stages
Adrenal cancer is commonly assigned a stage using the TNM staging system, which takes into account the size and extent of the tumor (T), whether the malignancy has reached nearby lymph nodes (N) and whether it has spread (metastasized) to other organs within the body (M). Adrenal gland cancer staging ranges from 1 to 4, with stage 4 being the most severe.
Adrenal cancer diagnosis and treatment at Moffitt
Patients with adrenal carcinoma can come to Moffitt Cancer Center for a comprehensive scope of diagnostic, therapeutic and supportive care services, all of which are provided in a single location. Diagnosing and treating adrenal carcinoma often requires a collaborative effort from several medical professionals, and at Moffitt, we have a team of endocrinologists, pathologists, radiologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons and other medical professionals who specialize in treating adrenal cancer and other tumors involving the endocrine system.
When it comes to treating cancer, we believe that a one-dimensional approach simply isn’t good enough. Our patients benefit from tailored treatment plans that are individually created and may include:
Clinical trials are also available to our patients who would like to try new adrenal gland tumor therapies before those treatments are offered for use in other settings. This gives our patients opportunities to access novel options, such as biological therapies and stem cell-based treatments, while helping our researchers gain invaluable insight into the possible causes of adrenal system cancers and the best ways to treat them.
To learn more about Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to adrenal carcinoma treatment or schedule a consultation with one of our experienced oncologists, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. We know how stressful it can be to wait for a cancer diagnosis, so we’ve made it our goal to connect each new patient to a cancer expert within one day, faster than any other cancer hospital in the country. A referral is not required.
National Cancer Institute: Adrenal Gland
American Cancer Society: Key Statistics for Adrenal Cancer
American Cancer Society: Adrenal Cancer Risk Factors
American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancers
American Cancer Society: Adrenal Cancer Stages