Adrenal Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

Adrenal Cancer

What Is Adrenal Cancer?

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 usually 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.

Benign adenomas are relatively small, usually less than 2 inches in diameter. Most people with this type of tumor have no symptoms. These benign tumors usually occur on only one adrenal gland, but they can appear on both glands in rare instances.

Adrenal cortical carcinomas are usually much larger than benign adenomas. If a tumor is more than 2 inches in diameter, it’s more likely to be cancerous. Sometimes, they can get large enough to press on your organs and cause more symptoms. They can also sometimes produce hormones that cause changes in the body.

If you have cancer in the adrenal glands, but it didn’t originate there, it’s not considered an adrenal cortical carcinoma.

What Are the Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?


Most of the symptoms of adrenal cancer are caused by excess production of the hormones androgen and estrogen. Symptoms may also arise from large tumors pressing on organs of the body.

Symptoms of excessive hormone production are easier to spot in children than adults because physical changes are more active and visible during puberty. Some signs of adrenal cancer in children are:

  • excessive pubic, underarm, and facial hair growth
  • an enlarged penis
  • an enlarged clitoris
  • large breasts in boys
  • early puberty in girls

The symptoms of adrenal cancer in adult women are usually harder to detect. They usually don’t appear until the tumor is large enough to press on the organs. Women with tumors that cause increases in androgen may notice facial hair growth or deepening of the voice.

In men, if the adrenal tumor causes an increase in estrogen production. This may cause some enlargement of the breasts and noticeable tenderness.

Some other symptoms of adrenal cancer in adults can include:

  • high blood pressure
  • weight gain
  • irregular periods
  • easy bruising
  • depression
  • frequent urination
  • muscle cramps

What Are the Risk Factors for Adrenal Cancer?

Risk Factors

At this point, scientists don’t know what causes adrenal cancer. However, certain conditions can put you at an increased risk of developing adrenal cancer.

These include:

  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which is an abnormal growth disorder marked by a large body and organs
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is an inherited disorder that causes an increased incidence of cancers
  • familial adenomatous polyposis, which is an inherited condition characterized by many polyps in the large intestines
  • multiple endocrine neoplasia, which is an inherited condition that causes many tumors to develop, both benign and malignant, in glands that produce hormones

Smoking likely also increases the risk of adrenal cancer, but there’s no conclusive proof yet.

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:

  • a biopsy
  • a CT scan
  • a positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • an MRI scan
  • an adrenal angiography

What Are the Treatments for Adrenal Cancer?


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


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

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


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.

Other Treatments

Cryoablation, or the destruction of tumor cells with freezing, may be necessary for tumors that are too big for safe removal. You may also receive medication to prevent the adrenal glands from producing steroid hormones, such as mitotane, if you have stage 2, 3, or 4 adrenal cancer.

You can also discuss clinical trial treatments with your doctor, such of biologic therapy, which uses the immune system to fight cancer cells. Another option is targeted therapy, which uses drugs to attack specific cancer cells.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?


Follow-up appointments with your doctor are very important if you’ve had adrenal tumors in the past. Adrenal cancer can come back at any time.

If you took mitotane as part of your treatment, your doctor might prescribe hormones to compensate for the hormone suppression caused by mitotane.

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