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Adrenal Tumors

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The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system, the system that produces hormones that regulate and manage the body’s growth, metabolism and sexual function. Located on top of the kidneys, the adrenal glands are divided into to regions that produce different hormones. The outer region (the cortex) produces the steroid hormones cortisol, aldosterone and testosterone. The inner region (the medulla) produces hormones called catecholamines, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones are released into the blood in response to physical or emotional stressors.

What are adrenal tumors?

A tumor in the adrenal glands may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (non-malignant), and may or may not cause the gland to overproduce certain hormones.

Malignant tumors include:

  • adrenocortical carcinoma: the most common form of adrenal gland cancer that may or may not cause the gland to overproduce hormones (these tumors are relatively rare)
  • metastases: occasionally, tumors from other sites may metastasize (or spread) to the adrenal gland.
  • neuroblastoma: cancer that develops in nerve tissue in the adrenal gland

Non-malignant masses include:

  • aldosteronoma (Conn’s syndrome): non-malignant masses often associated with elevated blood pressure
  • adenomas: adrenal adenomas are frequently found incidentally on X-rays (treatment depends on size and growth rate; often these masses can be observed and don’t need treatment)
  • pheochromocytoma: a rare cancer that causes the gland to produce too much epinephrine and norepinephrine, resulting in imbalances and irregularities in metabolism, heart rate and blood pressure
  • Cushing syndrome: adrenal masses, one cause of Cushing’s syndrome, can overproduce steroids, which lead to weight gain and diabetes, among other symptoms and signs.

Who develops adrenal tumors?

The average age of patients with adrenal cancer is around 45 to 50, but it can occur at any age. Neuroblastoma is typically a childhood cancer, most commonly affecting children ages 5 or younger.

What are the symptoms of adrenal tumors?

In about half of people with adrenal cancer, the hormones made by the tumor cause symptoms such as early puberty or excess hair. In the other half, symptoms result from the tumor pressing on nearby organs, such as weight gain, fat deposits behind the neck and shoulders, bruising easily and high blood sugar, among others.

How are adrenal tumors diagnosed?

Testing may include blood and urine tests and imaging tests such as X-rays, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. If your symptoms and imaging test results suggest cancer, a sample of the tumor may be removed (called a biopsy) and examined under the microscope to determine if the tumor is cancerous.

How are adrenal tumors treated?

Many noncancerous tumors that don’t cause the gland to overproduce hormones don’t require treatment. Treatment for noncancerous tumors that cause the gland to overproduce hormones may include medication management often followed by surgery to remove either the tumor or the symptomatic adrenal gland. Treatment for cancerous tumors may include a combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and other drug treatments.

If you’ve been diagnosed with an adrenal tumor and need surgery, learn more about Valley’s Institute for Robotic and Minimally Invasive Surgery.

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