Pituitary Cancer

Written by Ann Pietrangelo
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What is Pituitary Cancer?

The pituitary gland is a very small gland of major importance to the functioning of the human body. It is located directly behind the eyes and below the front of the brain. It is about the size of a pea.

Despite its size, the pituitary gland is responsible for producing hormones that regulate very critical body organs and glands. Some of these include the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands, the ovaries, and the testicles. It is because of this control of other body systems that the pituitary gland is known as the “master” gland.

Most tumors of the pituitary gland are noncancerous (benign). Most are also functioning. This means they produce hormones. Those that do not produce hormones are called nonfunctioning tumors.

If you have a tumor of the pituitary gland, it is unlikely to be cancerous. Cancerous pituitary tumors are extremely rare.

Who Gets Pituitary Cancer?

Cancer of the pituitary gland is very rare. Only a few hundred pituitary cancers have ever been recorded, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Most of those were diagnosed in older people.

Signs and Symptoms of a Pituitary Tumor

There are many possible signs and symptoms of a pituitary tumor, including:

  • extra hormones in the blood
  • flushing of the face
  • weak muscles and bones
  • high blood pressure
  • irregular heartbeat
  • headache
  • vision loss
  • large hands and feet (acromegaly)
  • breast milk even if not pregnant
  • lack of milk when breastfeeding
  • menstrual cycle changes
  • lower sex drive
  • impotence
  • loss of body hair
  • delayed sexual development and growth in children
  • weight gain
  • bruising easily
  • irritability, anxiety, depression
  • nausea, vomiting
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • runny nose due to cerebrospinal fluid leaking into the nose

Diagnosing Pituitary Cancer

Blood and urine tests can be used to determine hormone levels. MRI or CT scans can detect tumors in the pituitary gland.

Even under a microscope, it is difficult to recognize the difference between a cancerous and a noncancerous pituitary tumor. A cancerous tumor may not be recognized until it spreads into another part of the body.

Pituitary cancer is most likely to spread to the:

  • brain
  • spinal cord
  • meninges (brain and spinal cord covering)
  • nearby bone

It is very rare for pituitary cancer to spread to the lungs, heart, or liver.

With most cancers, tumors are staged at the time of diagnosis. The stage is determined by how large the cancer is and if it has spread. This information is used to formulate a treatment plan. It can also help determine prognosis. However, pituitary cancer is so rare that there are no guidelines for staging.

Treatment for Pituitary Cancer

Treatment for pituitary cancer depends on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread.

Since there is no staging system, doctors must try to determine whether the tumor:

  • is a microadenoma (less than 10 mm) or a macroadenoma (more than 10 mm)
  • produces hormones
  • has spread to other sites

Surgery to remove the pituitary gland is usually the treatment of choice for this cancer. This is generally followed by radiation therapy. Radiation kills microscopic cells that may have been left behind. In some cases, drug therapy is used to shrink or destroy the tumor.

Early diagnosis and treatment is essential.

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