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Adrenal cancer

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Apr 26, 2023.

Overview

Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer that begins in one or both of the small, triangular glands (adrenal glands) located on top of your kidneys. Adrenal glands produce hormones that give instructions to virtually every organ and tissue in your body.

Adrenal cancer, also called adrenocortical cancer, can occur at any age. But it's most likely to affect children younger than 5 and adults in their 40s and 50s.

When adrenal cancer is found early, there is a chance for cure. But if the cancer has spread to areas beyond the adrenal glands, cure becomes less likely. Treatment can be used to delay progression or recurrence.

Most growths that form in the adrenal glands are noncancerous (benign). Benign adrenal tumors, such as adenoma or pheochromocytoma, also can develop in the adrenal glands.

Adrenal glands

Located on top of each kidney, the adrenal glands make hormones that help regulate metabolism, the immune system, blood pressure and other important functions. Although small, these glands control much of what happens in the body.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer include:

Causes

It's not clear what causes adrenal cancer.

Adrenal cancer forms when something creates changes (mutations) in the DNA of an adrenal gland cell. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The mutations can tell the cell to multiply uncontrollably and to continue living when healthy cells would die. When this happens, the abnormal cells accumulate and form a tumor. The tumor cells can break away and spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Risk factors

Adrenal cancer happens more often in people with inherited syndromes that increase the risk of certain cancers. These inherited syndromes include:

Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose adrenal cancer include:

Treatment

Adrenal cancer treatment usually involves surgery to remove all of the cancer. Other treatments might be used to prevent the cancer from coming back or if surgery isn't an option.

Surgery

The goal of surgery is to remove the entire adrenal cancer. To achieve this, doctors must remove the all of the affected adrenal gland (adrenalectomy).

If surgeons find evidence that cancer has spread to nearby structures, such as the liver or kidney, parts or all of those organs might also be removed during the operation.

Medication to reduce the risk of recurrence

An older drug that has been used to treat advanced adrenal cancer has shown promise in delaying the recurrence of the disease after surgery. Mitotane (Lysodren) may be recommended after surgery for people with a high risk of cancer recurrence. Research into mitotane for this use is ongoing.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is sometimes used after adrenal cancer surgery to kill any cells that might remain. It can also help reduce pain and other symptoms of cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bone.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. For adrenal cancers that can't be removed with surgery or that return after initial treatments, chemotherapy may be an option to slow the progression of the cancer.

Coping and support

With time, you'll find what helps you cope with the uncertainty and distress that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Until then, you may find it helps to:

Preparing for an appointment

Start by making an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as fasting before having a specific test. Make a list of:

Bring a family member or friend with you, if possible, to help remember the information you're given.

For adrenal cancer, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

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