Adrenal cancer is a rare, aggressive cancer that affects about 200 people in the United States every year. If it’s diagnosed early, a cure is possible. But it’s most often diagnosed in a later stage, when survival rates are low.

Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer that can occur at any age. If doctors find the cancer early, there is a good chance for a cure. However, adrenal cancer is often not discovered until its later stages, when it has spread to other areas of the body.

Survival rates for adrenal cancer depend on several factors, including the stage at diagnosis and the cancer’s response to treatment.

In this article, we take a look at survival rates for all stages of adrenal cancer, as well as the factors that influence those survival rates.

Fast facts about adrenal cancer

  • You have two adrenal glands in your body: one on top of each kidney.
  • Your adrenal glands make the hormones cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. They also make hormones your body uses to create sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone).
  • Adrenal cancer is very rare, likely affecting only around 200 people in the United States each year.
  • The average onset age of adrenal cancer is around 46 years, but it can affect people of all ages.
  • Up to 15% of adrenal cancers may be caused by a genetic irregularity, but this is more common in children.
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Survival rates for adrenal cancer depend on the stage at diagnosis. Because adrenal cancer is often diagnosed in the later stages, the overall 5-year relative survival rate is low.

However, many factors influence the survival rates for adrenal cancer, and the survival rates are much higher for adrenal cancer that has not yet spread.

The American Cancer Society uses statistics from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program to track relative survival rates. This database groups cancer into three categories based on how far it has spread:

  • Localized: Cancer has not spread beyond the adrenal gland.
  • Regional: Cancer has spread from the adrenal gland to nearby lymph nodes or other structures.
  • Distant: Cancer has spread to further areas of the body, such as the lungs or liver.

Based on these categories, here are the 5-year relative survival rates for adrenal cancer in the United States between 2012 and 2018:

Cancer stageSurvival rate
all SEER stages combined50%

Keep in mind that these numbers apply only to the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not account for individual factors such as age, overall health, and response to treatment.

What is a relative survival rate?

A relative survival rate gives you an idea of how long someone with a specific condition may live beyond their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.

For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 73% means that someone with that condition is 73% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

Many factors will influence a relative survival rate, such as the cancer stage at diagnosis, a person’s overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment.

Often, people who receive a cancer diagnosis today will have a better outlook than these numbers show. This is due to ongoing improvements in the treatment and understanding of cancer.

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Several factors can affect the treatment outcomes for someone with adrenal cancer, including:

  • Age at diagnosis: Younger people generally have better treatment outcomes.
  • Overall health: People in better overall health often have better treatment outcomes.
  • Cancer stage: Treatment is often more successful when adrenal cancer has not spread and is diagnosed at an early stage.
  • Treatment response: The way cancer responds to certain treatments greatly affects the survival rate for people with adrenal cancer.

Is adrenal cancer curable?

If adrenal cancer is found early, there’s often a good chance it can be cured. However, early detection is difficult because adrenal cancer is rare and does not have specific screening guidelines. Treatment options for adrenal cancer based on its stage at diagnosis include:

  • Stages 1 and 2: Surgery can usually remove the adrenal gland. Often, no further treatment is needed, but radiation therapy or a drug called mitotane (Lysodren) may be used to prevent recurrence.
  • Stage 3: Surgery plus radiation therapy or mitotane is the standard treatment.
  • Stage 4: Depending on how far the cancer has spread, surgery may be an option. Radiation and mitotane may also be used, but a cure is unlikely at this point. Treatment will aim to slow the cancer’s progress and minimize symptoms.
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Adrenal cancer is often aggressive and spreads quickly. This is because the adrenal gland is one of the most vascular organs in the body. This means it has many blood vessels that can move cancerous cells throughout the body.

Because of the gland’s position in the body, an adrenal tumor can grow to a large size before causing any symptoms. This is why adrenal cancer is not usually identified in its early stages and has often spread to other regions by the time of diagnosis.

The most common areas for adrenal cancer to spread are to nearby lymph nodes and then organs such as the liver and lungs.

Symptoms of adrenal cancer

Symptoms of adrenal cancer can be hard to identify. If symptoms are present, they may be due to hormones the tumor releases, or they may occur because the tumor has grown large enough to affect nearby organs. These symptoms might include:

  • muscle weakness
  • unexplained weight gain or loss
  • stretch marks on the skin
  • hormone changes in females, which may cause irregular periods, hair loss, or excess facial hair
  • hormone changes in males, which may cause shrinking of testicles or enlargement of breast tissue
  • abdominal bloating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • back pain
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
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Adrenal cancer is an aggressive cancer that’s usually not diagnosed until its later stages. If diagnosed early, adrenal cancer has a good chance of being curable. However, the overall survival rate for adrenal cancer is around 50%.

Survival rates for adrenal cancer depend on many factors, including the cancer’s stage at diagnosis, a person’s overall health, and the cancer’s response to treatment.

A person who receives a diagnosis of adrenal cancer now may have a better outlook than the numbers show, because treatments improve over time and available statistics are based on data from at least 5 years earlier.