Adrenal Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is adrenal cancer?

Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer that starts in the adrenal glands.

Anatomy of the adrenal glands

adrenal gland
Adrenal Gland

There are 2 adrenal glands. One sits on of each kidney. The 2 kidneys are located deep in the upper part of the belly (abdomen). The outer part of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal cortex. Most adrenal cancers start in this area. The inner part is called the adrenal medulla.

The adrenal glands make important hormones that:

  • Control how much sodium and potassium is in body fluids

  • Make small amounts of the male and female sex hormones

  • Help control heart rate, blood pressure, and the digestive and respiratory systems

  • Control how the body gets energy from (metabolizes) protein, fat, and carbohydrates

  • Help the body react to stress

Types of adrenal gland tumors

Cancer that starts in the adrenal glands is rare. Most tumors in the adrenal glands are not cancer (they're benign). It is often hard to tell if an adrenal tumor is cancer. If the tumor grows and spreads to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, it is cancer(malignant). Benign tumors don’t spread.

Tumors that start in the adrenal glands include:

  • Adenoma. This is the most common kind of adrenal gland tumor. It is not cancer. These tumors are often small. In most cases, they cause no symptoms or problems. They are often found when a scan of the belly is done for a different health problem.

  • Adrenal cancer (adrenal cortical carcinoma). This kind of tumor is rare. But it is the most common type of cancerous adrenal gland tumor. It may be a functioning tumor. This means it makes adrenal hormones. Or it may not function, so it does not make hormones.

  • Pheochromocytoma. This is a growth that makes hormones inside the adrenal glands. In most cases it is not cancer. This growth can also start in other parts of the body. But it occurs most often in the adrenal gland.

  • Neuroblastoma. This cancer tumor most often begins in the adrenal glands. But it can also start in the neck, chest, or spinal cord. The tumor is often formed during early childhood. But it may not be found until later, when it grows and causes symptoms.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about adrenal cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer.

© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.

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