The adrenals are small glands that sit just above each of your kidneys which are located deep inside the upper part of the abdomen. Each of your two adrenal glands has two different parts and produce hormones that give instructions to almost every organ and tissue in your body. The outer part, known as the cortex, is where most tumor associated with adrenal cancer form.
Adrenal cancer is one of the more rare types of cancer that a patient can develop. It begins in one or both of the adrenals and is most likely to affect children younger than five years old and adults in their 40s and 50s. Often referred to as adrenocortical carcinoma, this form of cancer develops when malignant cells form in the outer layer of the adrenal gland.
When detected early on, the chances for a cure are much greater, as with many forms of cancer. Although, if the cancer has begun to spread to areas beyond your adrenal glands, your chances for a cure becomes less and less likely. Treatment can be used to delay the progression of adrenal cancer or the recurrence.
It is important to note that most growths that form within the adrenal glands are noncancerous (benign). These benign adrenal tumors, such as adenoma or pheochromocytoma, also develop in the adrenal glands.
Causes of Adrenal Cancer
The causes of adrenal cancer are not clear to medical professionals. That said, there is information on how the cancer forms. Adrenal cancer develops when a change occurs (mutations) in the DNA of an adrenal gland cell. That cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do and when to do it. These mutations could deliver instructions for the cell to multiply uncontrollably and could continue to live while the healthy cells die off. When a situation like this occurs, the abnormal cells that originated in the mutation accumulate and form an adrenal tumor within the gland. The tumor cells can break away and spread, also known as metastasize, to other parts of the body.
Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer
Like many forms of cancer, adrenal cancer comes with several signs and symptoms that may make you aware of the cancer’s presence. Those may include:
- Muscle weakness
- Weight gain
- Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin
- Hormone changes in women that may cause excessive facial hair, hair less on the head, and irregular periods
- Hormone changes in men that might cause enlarged breast tissue and shrinking testicles
- Back pain
- Abdominal bloating
- Loss of weight without trying
- Loss of appetite
Diagnosing and Treating Adrenal Cancer
To determine if adrenal cancer is present in the body, your physician may want to administer several tests and procedures to diagnose adrenal cancer. Some of those may include:
- Imaging tests – These could range from an MRI, CT, or positron emission tomography (PET) scans to allow your doctor a better understanding of the situation within your adrenal glands and to determine if the cancer has spread
- Blood and urine tests – Lab tests of your blood and urine may reveal unusual levels of hormones produced in the adrenal glands, which may include cortisol, aldosterone, and androgens
- Lab analysis of the adrenal gland – If your healthcare provider believes that you may have adrenal cancer, they may recommend removing the affected adrenal gland. The gland would then be analyzed in a pathology lab to confirm the presence of cancer and exactly what types of cells are involved.
Treating adrenal cancer usually involves surgery to remove the affected adrenal gland to eliminate the cancer. Different treatment options may be used to prevent the cancer from recurring or if the patient is not able to undergo surgery.
If surgery is the best option, the goal is to remove the entire adrenal gland. If the surgeon finds signs that the cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the liver or kidney, parts or all of those organs may also be removed during the operation.
Other treatment options such as medication to reduce the risk of recurrence after surgery, radiation therapy to kill cancer cells, and chemotherapy to kill cancer cells are available as well.
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the signs or symptoms related to adrenocortical carcinoma, otherwise known as adrenal cancer, it is recommended that you seek medical attention as soon as possible to avoid the risk of cancer cells spreading and lowering the likelihood of stopping its progression.