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What Are Adrenal Tumors? And What You Should Know About Them

There are parts of your body that you can’t see—and may not even know about—that play a key role in keeping you healthy. Your adrenal glands fall into that category.

The adrenal glands are two small glands that reside above the kidneys. Part of the endocrine system, these glands are intricately involved in hormone production. They help control everything from the body’s stress response, to metabolism, to blood pressure and more.

Like nearly every other organ in the body, the adrenal glands can develop tumors. The vast majority of these growths are benign. Still, even noncancerous adrenal tumors need to be checked by a doctor because they can cause issues that affect hormone production and can impact your overall health.

The problems with adrenal tumors

Adrenal tumors, which can occur in one or both glands, develop when cells in the adrenal glands start to grow out of control and form a mass. They’re more common in people with certain hereditary conditions, like multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, Neurofibromatosis type 1, and Carney complex, but most adrenal masses develop in people for unknown underlying reasons.

Cancerous adrenal tumors are very rare, affecting just a few hundred people in the United States each year. But they also have the potential to increase the production of certain hormones, making it harder for the body to regulate blood pressure and raising the risk for diabetes mellitus, a heart attack or stroke.

Noncancerous adrenal tumors, called adenomas, can be problematic too. Around 10% of these growths secrete hormones in excess that can lead to conditions like Cushing Syndrome or Conn syndrome.

Tumors can also form deep in the center of the adrenal gland and result in high levels of production of the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. These rare tumors are known as pheochromocytoma. With catecholamine excess from a pheochromocytoma, a cardiomyopathy (Takotsubo) and heart failure can develop.

That potential to wreak havoc on the body’s hormonal system means that all adrenal growths should be evaluated. While some go unnoticed until they’re discovered incidentally on an imaging scan, it’s also important to see your doctor if you experience possible signs of an adrenal tumor, like:

  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Increased fat around the neck or shoulders
  • Bruising easily
  • In women, extra/excessive hair growth on the face, chest, or back
  • In women, irregular periods
  • Weak bones and fractures
  • High blood pressure or high blood sugar
  • Low potassium on blood tests

Tests and treatment

Diagnosing an adrenal tumor starts with blood and urine tests to find out whether the growth is affecting hormone function. Imaging tests, like CT scans and MRIs, as well as biopsies can pinpoint the location of the tumor and determine whether it’s cancerous. It is crucial to find an experienced team of specialists who can help navigate this complex diagnosis.

Most adrenal tumors are small and don’t cause problems, so they don’t need to be treated. But larger or cancerous growths and those that interfere with normal hormone function may need to be treated with medication and, in some cases, with surgical removal, either laparoscopically or with traditional surgery.

Regardless of how the tumor is taken out, the procedure should be performed by an experienced adrenal surgeon. This condition is extremely nuanced and individualized care by a team of specialists is critical. If your tumor was cancerous, you’ll need to be monitored for any new or recurring adrenal growths.

Drugs might be a part of the treatment plan too. Certain medications might be needed to block the production or action of excess hormones, and nutritional changes might be required.

Thankfully, the prognosis tends to be good even for malignant tumors. When cancerous adrenal tumors are caught early, before they have spread outside the adrenal glands, the five-year survival rate is quite high.

At Fox Chase Cancer Center, we have specialists who are highly experienced in the treatment of adrenal tumors and, when needed, surgeons with expertise in the delicate task of removing these masses—whether cancerous or not. Our team comprises some of the key opinion leaders in the adrenal disease field.

Learn more about adrenal tumor treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Medically reviewed by Christian A. Koch, MD, PhD, FACP, MACE, Director of the Department of Endocrinology and Alexander Kutikov, MD, FACS, Chief of the Division of Urology and Urologic Oncology.