Everything to Know About Adenocarcinoma

Medically Reviewed By Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP
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Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that can form in some organs, including your lungs, pancreas, prostate, and stomach. This cancer grows in the tissue that contains your glands. Your glands help release hormones, digestive juices, and other substances. Your doctor may treat your adenocarcinoma with surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy

This article will explain adenocarcinoma, including its symptoms, causes, outlook, and treatment options.

What is adenocarcinoma, and how does it affect your body?

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Cancer starts because of changes to the DNA inside a cell. Each healthy cell grows, divides, and dies in a predictable pattern. When the DNA in a cell changes and the cell becomes cancerous, the patterns of cell division and cell death change as well.

Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that can start in the tissue that lines many of your organs. This tissue, called glandular tissue, releases important substances for your body.

 Glandular tissue releases:

  • breast milk
  • hormones 
  • mucus 
  • digestive juices

Is adenocarcinoma common?

Adenocarcinoma is not rare. It is a common cancer of organs that have glandular tissue and is a leading cause of many types of cancer.

Adenocarcinoma causes:

  • about 90% of bowel cancers
  • about 90% of kidney cancers
  • most breast cancers
  • almost all prostate cancers
  • about 25% of cervical cancers

Adenocarcinoma vs. carcinoma

Carcinoma is the most common type of cancer. Adenocarcinoma is a type of carcinoma. Carcinoma begins in your epithelial tissue, which covers your internal organs and lines the cavities of your hollow organs. Epithelial tissue even covers the outside of your body — your skin is epithelial tissue. 

Adenocarcinoma develops from the portion of your epithelial tissue that has glands. The glandular tissue uses glands to keep your organs well lubricated. It also supplies your body with substances to help it function.

All adenocarcinomas are cancerous. You will not experience a benign, or noncancerous, adenocarcinoma. 

Causes of adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma has many types and several possible causes. 

Common causes of adenocarcinoma include:

  • smoking
  • radon exposure
  • air pollution
  • chronic inflammation of the pancreas 
  • consumption of lots of processed foods
  • tobacco use
  • obesity 
  • physical inactivity
  • diesel exhaust
  • exposure to other chemicals

Some people have a genetic background that makes adenocarcinomas more common. 

Signs and symptoms of adenocarcinoma types

The symptoms of adenocarcinoma vary depending on the organ the cancer affects. In many cases of adenocarcinoma, a tumor will develop.

You may not notice symptoms of adenocarcinoma until it progresses.

Prostate adenocarcinoma

The prostate is a gland that surrounds the urethra — the tube that empties your bladder — in males. Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in males in the United States. After you turn 50, your risk of developing this cancer is much higher

Adenocarcinoma in your prostate can cause the following symptoms:

Learn more about prostate cancer here.

Breast adenocarcinoma

While breast cancer is more common in females, males can also develop it.

You may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer if you have a family history of breast cancer, prostate cancer, or ovarian cancer. Some genes contribute to familial cancer risk, but researchers have not yet identified them all.

If you have adenocarcinoma in your breast, you may notice:

Learn more about breast cancer here.

Colorectal adenocarcinoma

Colorectal cancer begins in your colon or rectum. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer can begin as a polyp, or a small growth. Not all polyps are cancerous. 

Colorectal adenocarcinoma may cause:

Learn more about colorectal cancer here.

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma starts in the duct of your pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of all cancer deaths in the U.S. 

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma may cause symptoms such as:

Learn more about pancreatic cancer here.

Lung adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma in the lungs is the most common primary lung cancer in the U.S. Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of this type of adenocarcinoma. 

If you have adenocarcinoma in your lungs, you may notice:

Learn more about lung cancer here.

Esophageal adenocarcinoma

Esophageal cancer is more common in males than in females. If you have Barrett’s esophagus, you have a higher risk of developing this type of cancer. Esophageal adenocarcinoma is a less common type of adenocarcinoma. 

Esophageal adenocarcinoma may cause:

  • pain or choking while swallowing
  • coughing
  • vomiting
  • a burning sensation in your chest
  • pain in your throat

Learn more about esophageal cancer here.

Stomach adenocarcinoma

According to the American Cancer Society, 90–95% of all stomach cancers are adenocarcinomas. The two main types of stomach cancer are intestinal and diffuse. Diffuse stomach cancer is harder to treat because it may grow more quickly.

Stomach adenocarcinoma may cause symptoms such as:

  • stomach pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • bloating
  • reduced appetite
  • skin yellowing

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to contact a doctor. They may recommend diagnostic testing. 

Learn more about stomach cancer here.

Diagnosing adenocarcinoma

If you have any of these symptoms, your doctor may recommend follow-up testing to establish a diagnosis. The diagnostic testing for adenocarcinoma varies based on the affected tissue. 

Your doctor may recommend:

If your doctor finds a tumor, they may perform a biopsy. In this procedure, your doctor will take a small tissue sample of the tumor, which they will send to a lab to determine whether it is cancerous. 

Learn what to expect after a diagnosis of early lung cancer here.

Treating adenocarcinoma

Your doctor may treat your adenocarcinoma differently depending on the type of tissue the cancer affects. They may recommend a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

A surgeon may be able to remove the cancerous tumor. Surgery is effective at earlier stages, before your cancer spreads to different parts of your body. If your cancer spreads, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy or radiation.

Outlook for adenocarcinoma

The outlook for adenocarcinoma will depend on many factors, including the type and severity of the cancer and your overall health.

If you choose to decline treatment measures, your adenocarcinoma will lead to death.

An early diagnosis will allow you to start treatment sooner. That is why it is important to contact a doctor when you notice anything that does not feel right to you.


Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that affects your glandular tissue. Your glands are responsible for releasing hormones, digestive juices, and other substances. Many organs have glandular tissue. You can develop adenocarcinoma in your lungs, breasts, stomach, prostate, and other places.

The symptoms of adenocarcinoma depend on which organ the cancer affects. It is important to contact a doctor if you notice symptoms, such as a hard, painless lump. They may recommend a CT scan, a biopsy, an MRI, or other imaging studies to help them diagnose your adenocarcinoma.

Once you receive a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma, your doctor may recommend surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Your outlook will vary depending on the specifics of your adenocarcinoma.

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Medical Reviewer: Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 19
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