What Is Adrenal Cancer?

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Adrenal cancer includes tumors and cancers of the adrenal cortex, the outer part of the adrenal glands. The inner part of the adrenal glands, the medulla, is actually part of the nervous system. Adrenal medulla cancers include pheochromocytomas and neuroblastomas. But when calling a cancer “adrenal cancer,” doctors usually refer to tumors and cancers of the adrenal cortex.

Adrenal cortex tumors include benign and malignant types. Most adrenal cortex tumors are benign adenomas but sometimes waiting to see if it spreads is the only way to know whether the tumor is cancerous.

Benign Adrenal Cortex Adenomas

Non-cancerous adrenal cortex adenomas appear as small tumors less than two inches in diameter. These benign tumors usually affect only one adrenal gland.

Adrenal adenomas cause no symptoms. Most people do not know they have a tumor until a doctor discovers them in unrelated abdominal CT or MRI scans. Doctors find these adenomas in about five percent of people undergoing CT scans of the abdomen.

Adrenal Cortical Cancer

Doctors typically find and diagnose cancer of the adrenal cortex, adrenal cortical carcinoma, in one of the following situations:

  • Incidentally on CT or MRI scans for other health concerns
  • Hormone production from the tumor causes weight gain, fluid retention, early puberty or other problems
  • The tumor’s average size of five inches in diameter causes a full or constricting feeling in the abdomen

Most adrenal gland cancers are actually metastases from other cancers, such as lung cancer, breast cancer or melanoma. But doctors do not call these cancers adrenal cancer. They name the cancer according to where it begins.

Treatment for Adrenal Cancer

After an adrenal cancer diagnosis, your doctor goes over treatment options with you. Take time to think about your options, Talk to your doctor about risks, benefits, expectations and side effects of each type of treatment. Some people seek a second opinion for more confident decision-making after their diagnosis and for treatment options.

Treatments for adrenal cancer include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Other drug therapy

Many people need two or more types of treatment, in a combined approach. Your treatment team guides you through your procedures and therapies. Members of this treatment team include:

  • Surgeon
  • Endocrinologist
  • Radiation oncologist
  • Medical oncologist
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurses
  • Psychologists
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Social workers
  • Nutritionists
  • Other healthcare providers