Adrenal Gland Cancer

The cancer of the adrenal gland is a grave disease, which can spread to other parts of the body. However, adrenal gland cancer is an extremely rare disease. Find out more about this cancer, and its symptoms and treatment, through this article.
Adrenal gland cancer is an extremely rare disease affecting 1 or 2 individuals in the population of a million. The triangular-shaped adrenal glands are located on the top of each kidney. The adrenal gland can be divided into two parts - the outer region or the 'adrenal cortex', and the inner region called 'adrenal medulla'. Both the regions are concerned with the production of some important hormones.

These hormones play a vital role in several metabolic processes. When the cells of the adrenal glands proliferate uncontrollably to form a mass, it results in the development of a tumor. Tumors can be of two types - benign tumors and malignant tumors. Benign tumors are non-cancerous, as they do not spread to other parts of the body, while malignant tumors are cancerous that can affect other parts of the body. What causes this cancer is still not known with certainty, though heredity is suspected to play an important role in triggering this condition.

Types of Adrenal Cancer

Adrenocortical carcinoma: This is the most common type of adrenal cancer that develops in the cortex region of the adrenal gland. It is mainly found in adults older than 40 years.

Pheochromocytoma: This is a rare disease that begins in the adrenal medulla, especially in the cells that produce epinephrine and norepinephrine. This cancer usually affects adults in their 30s or 40s.

Neuroblastoma: This cancer develops in the medulla region of the adrenal gland, mainly in the undeveloped nerve cells. Neuroblastoma is prevalent among children and infants, and it can produce symptoms like bone and abdominal pain.

Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer

The symptoms of this cancer can vary depending on the type of the tumor, i.e, whether the tumor is functional or non-functional. A functional tumor can cause the excessive production of adrenal hormones, while a non-functional tumor does not produce hormones. So, the symptoms produced by the functional tumors can be quite different from the symptoms produced by the non-functional tumors.

If the tumors overproduce the hormone cortisol, the affected individual can develop Cushing's syndrome, which is characterized by glucose intolerance, central body obesity, high blood pressure, excessive growth of hair, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. Women can experience menstrual irregularities due to this syndrome.

On the other hand, an overproduction of the female hormones may cause early puberty, and the return of vaginal bleeding in menopausal women. If a tumor causes an excessive secretion of the male hormones or androgens in a woman, then she can develop male traits, like excessive growth of body hair and deepening of voice. Similarly, an overproduction of estrogen in men can cause the development of female traits like the enlargement of breasts.

Non-functional tumors do not produce these symptoms. Rather, they can cause pain in the abdomen and flank. Some other symptoms of adrenal cancer are, fever, abdominal mass, unexplained weight gain or weight loss, severe acne, and high blood pressure. But sometimes, symptoms may not be present in individuals suffering from adrenal cancer.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Adrenal Cancer

Sometimes, adrenal tumors can cause an overproduction of certain hormones, as mentioned already. So, the diagnosis usually begins with blood tests that help determine the level of adrenal hormones in the blood. But sometimes, non-cancerous benign tumors can also cause the production of excessive adrenal hormones. Therefore, a physician may employ certain other tests, such as X-rays and CT (computed tomography) scan, which can give a detailed image of the adrenal glands.

Sometimes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also used for diagnosing this cancer. MRI gives a detailed image of the adrenal glands. Usually, these tests are sufficient to diagnose the cancer of the adrenal glands. But sometimes, biopsy may also be required for diagnosing this condition.

The treatment of this cancer depends on the size, as well as the location of the cancerous tumors. If the tumor is small in size, i.e., less than 5cm, and non-cancerous, then it can be removed with the help of laparoscopic surgery. If the tumor is large and there is ground to believe that it is cancerous, then a large incision is made either in the abdomen or in the back for carrying out the surgery.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also a part of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy involves the use of certain drugs to destroy the cancerous cells, while in radiation therapy, X-ray or other particles are used to kill the malignant cells.

Adrenal cancer is hardly diagnosed in the early stage. The cancer is usually diagnosed, when it has already spread to nearby areas, and affected different organs like the liver, bone, and the abdominal cavity. Since heredity is supposed to be an important factor, people having a family history of adrenal cancer should go for regular medical examination to detect the presence of adrenal tumors.

Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.
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