What is adrenal cancer?
Adrenal cancer is a rare malignancy. In the United States, there are only about 500 new cases each year. At diagnosis, most individuals are between 30 and 50 years of age or are younger than 5 years of age (Source: OncoLink).
The causes of adrenal cancer are not known, but it is more likely to occur in the cortex, the outer portion of the adrenal gland, than in the medulla, the central portion of the gland. The adrenal glands produce several hormones, which can be produced in excess when cancer is present. Abnormal hormone levels can cause certain symptoms of adrenal cancer, but people who have early adrenal cancer may not have any symptoms at all.
If caught early, adrenal cancer has the potential to be cured with surgical treatment. Surgery may also be an option for patients whose cancer is in a later stage, but chemotherapy is commonly used in such cases. Chemotherapy can help to treat cancer that has spread to other areas of the body. Radiation therapy may also be useful.
In some cases, hormonal imbalances resulting from adrenal gland cancer can lead to an emergency situation. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for symptoms such as severe abdominal pain or headache, high fever, irregular or fast heart rate, shortness of breath, seizures, changes in level of consciousness, loss of consciousness, or anxiety.
It is important to diagnose and start treatment for adrenal cancer as soon as possible. Seek prompt medical care for symptoms such as unexpected weight gain, abnormal hair growth, irregular menstrual bleeding, easy bruising and bleeding, feeling very thirsty, frequent urination, feeling full early in a meal, and the sense of fullness or pain in the abdomen.
What are the symptoms of adrenal cancer?
Adrenal cancer may not cause any symptoms until it has grown large enough to press on other structures in the body. Due to the glands’ location deep within the abdomen no mass is felt on physical examination, so symptom recognition becomes even more important. When adrenal cancer does cause symptoms, they are usually related to overproduction of hormones. The adrenal cortex, where the majority of adrenal cancers occur, produces hormones known as aldosterone, cortisol and androgens (male sex hormones). Tumors of the adrenal medulla, called pheochromocytomas, are very rare, and most are not cancerous..
Common symptoms of adrenal cancer
A variety of symptoms can occur with adrenal cancer including:
Abdominal pain, cramping or fullness (typically localized to the upper abdomen)
Changes in sexual desire and function
Easy bleeding or bruising
Excess hair growth
Feeling very thirsty
Irregular menstrual periods
Weakness (loss of strength)
Weight gain, especially in the abdomen, chest and face
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, adrenal cancer can cause life-threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Severe abdominal pain
What causes adrenal cancer?
The cause of adrenal cancer is not known, although occasionally it occurs in families and individuals who have certain syndromes that increase their risk of developing this cancer.
No modifiable risk factors have been identified for the development of adrenal cancer. It can occur in people who have certain syndromes that increase their risk of developing cancer and is more common in some age groups than others. Risk factors for adrenal cancer include:
- Age between 30 and 50 years, or age less than 5 years
- Certain familial syndromes that increase the general risk of developing adrenal cancer
How is adrenal cancer treated?
Goal of cancer treatment
The goal of adrenal cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.
Common treatments of adrenal cancer
Common treatments of adrenal cancer include:
- Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells
- Corticosteroid medications to help the body recover from surgery
- Medications to block cortisol production when levels are too high
- Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells
- Surgery to remove the cancer and evaluate how far it has spread
- Participation in a clinical trial that is testing promising new therapies and treatments for adrenal cancer
Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with adrenal cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.
Complementary treatments may include:
- Massage therapy
- Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
In cases in which adrenal cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.
Many complications of adrenal cancer are related to excess hormone production. Complications of untreated adrenal cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of adrenal cancer include:
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and diabetes
- Hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke
- Permanent masculinization in females, including voice deepening, clitoral enlargement, and coarsening of facial features
- Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
- Spread of cancer