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What is Adrenal Cancer?

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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 is a condition that occurs when abnormal cells form in or travel to the adrenal glands. Your body has two adrenal glands, one located above each kidney. Adrenal cancer usually occurs in the outermost layer of the glands, or the adrenal cortex. It generally appears as a tumor.

A cancerous tumor of the adrenal gland is called an adrenal cortical carcinoma. A noncancerous tumor of the adrenal gland is called a benign adenoma.

If you have cancer in the adrenal glands, but it didn’t originate there, it’s not considered an adrenal cortical carcinoma. Cancers of the breast, stomach, kidney, skin, and lymphoma are most likely to spread to the adrenal glands.

Symptoms of adrenal cancer

Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer include:

  • Weight gain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin
  • Hormone changes in women that might cause excess facial hair, hair loss on the head and irregular periods
  • Hormone changes in men that might cause enlarged breast tissue and shrinking testicles
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Back pain
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight without trying

Causes of adrenal cancer

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.

How is adrenal cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosing adrenal cancer usually begins with your medical history and a physical exam. Your doctor will also draw blood and collect a urine sample for testing.

Your doctor may order further tests such as:

  • an image-guided fine needle biopsy
  • an ultrasound
  • a CT scan
  • a positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • an MRI scan
  • an adrenal angiography

Treatments Options for adrenal cancer

Early treatment can sometimes cure adrenal cancer. There are currently three major types of standard treatment for adrenal cancer:

Surgery

Your doctor may recommend a procedure called an adrenalectomy, which involves removing the adrenal gland. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, your surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes and tissue.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and stop new cancer cells from growing.

Chemotherapy

Depending on the stage of your cancer, you may need to undergo chemotherapy. This form of cancer drug therapy helps stop the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered orally or injected into a vein or muscle.

Your doctor may combine chemotherapy with other types of cancer treatments.

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