There are two adrenal glands in the body, located just above the kidneys. They produce steroid hormones that affect virtually all organs and tissues. One of many genitourinary cancers, adrenal cancer is a rare condition affecting one or both of the steroid-producing glands.
But what is adrenal cancer, exactly, and what are the risk factors and treatment options? Immunity Therapy Center is here to answer questions about adrenal gland cancer survival rate and offer other helpful insight into the disease. Here’s what you should know.
Adrenal Cancer: What to Know
What is adrenal cancer? Sometimes called adrenocortical cancer or adrenocortical carcinoma, the condition is characterized by tumors in one or two adrenal glands. It’s important to note, though, that most growths found in the adrenals are benign.
This type of cancer is most often detected in young children (under the age of 5) and adults between 40 and 60. Having said that, it can be diagnosed at any age. As we mentioned, adrenal gland cancer is rare, affecting roughly 200 patients in the U.S. each year and accounting for under 12 cases per 1 million worldwide.
Adrenal Cortex Tumors
There are two main types of adrenocortical tumors. Often called adrenal cortex tumors, this includes benign adrenocortical adenomas and cancerous carcinoma. Read on for a breakdown of each type.
Benign Adrenal Tumors
Adrenal cortex adenomas are benign, meaning they’re non-cancerous. The growths are typically smaller than 2 inches across and most often occur in one gland, though it’s possible to have adenomas in both.
Adrenal nodules (growths) are often discovered inadvertently through MRIs or CT scans conducted for unrelated health concerns. According to the American Cancer Society, adrenal gland tumors show up unexpectedly in roughly 5% of CT abdominal scans.
Benign vs. Cancerous Tumors
Those with adrenal cortex adenomas usually don’t experience symptoms and may not even know they have a tumor. In some cases, however, adrenal adenomas can lead to excess steroid hormones, an effect associated with some of the same adrenal gland cancer symptoms.
Functional tumors are a type of benign adenoma. They’re functional, as in they produce hormones, but typically in excess. Both benign tumors and adrenal carcinomas (malignant tumors) may cause Cushing’s syndrome (also called Cushing syndrome), a disorder in which the body produces too much cortisol.
For these reasons, it can be hard to determine whether a growth is cancerous, and devastatingly, it may not be apparent until the tumor spreads to other areas of the body.
Adrenal Cancer Causes
Adrenocortical carcinomas are believed to be caused by a mutation that triggers uncontrollable growth of the adrenal glands. As a result, cancerous tumors can form and thrive while normal cells die off.
As for the mutation, the cause is unclear. It may be genetic, as some hereditary factors have been linked to the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, around 15% of cancerous adrenal tumors are caused by genetic disorders. However, most cases appear to be triggered by a sporadic change in DNA.
Adrenal Cancer Risk Factors
While the cause of adrenal cancer isn’t always clear, there are some known risk factors. This includes smoking cigarettes, exposure to carcinogens, and genetic disorders.
Genetic conditions associated with an increased risk of adrenal cancer include:
- Carney complex
- Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia
- Lynch syndrome
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Von Hippel-Lindau disease
In addition to adrenal cancer, these inherited conditions increase a person’s risk of liver cancer, kidney cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.
Adrenal Cancer Staging
After diagnosis, doctors try to determine whether the cancer has spread, and if so, how far. Known as staging, the process involves measuring the adrenal mass and checking if it has spread to other organs, tissues, or lymph nodes.
This helps identify the stage of an adrenocortical carcinoma, as well as the patient’s treatment options. Adrenal cancer staging may include a physical exam, imaging tests, or a biopsy.
Adrenal Cancer Stages
There are four stages of adrenocortical cancer, which indicate the size of a tumor and how far the cancer has spread.
Stage 1 of adrenal cancer is characterized by a carcinoma measuring 2 inches or smaller. Additionally, the growth is confined to the adrenal gland and hasn’t spread to distant sites or nearby lymph nodes.
In stage 2 of adrenal cancer, the tumor is larger than two inches, but the cancer cells still haven’t grown into tissues outside the gland, reached lymph nodes, or spread to distant sites.
With stage 3 of adrenal cancer, there are a few possible scenarios. The tumor could still be about 2 inches in size, with cancer cells having reached nearby lymph nodes but not distant areas of the body.
Alternatively, a tumor of any size could be spreading in the fatty tissue surrounding the adrenal glands, with or without reaching the lymph nodes. Stage 3 could also mean a carcinoma of any size is growing into nearby organs, like the kidneys, pancreas, or spleen, with or without reaching the lymph nodes.
When adrenal cancer progresses to stage 4, it has reached distant organs, such as the lungs, heart, and liver. The tumor could be any size and hasn’t necessarily spread to the lymph nodes or nearby tissues.
Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer
The symptoms of adrenocortical cancer vary among individuals and depend on the stage, size, and severity of the tumor. And as we mentioned, most people don’t notice any signs until it spread outside the adrenals.
That said, some of the most common indicators include unexplained weight gain or weight loss, muscle weakness, back pain, abdominal bloating, fever, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, and stretch marks.
The signs are often different between men and women. For women, adrenal cancer can lead to hormonal shifts, resulting in irregular periods, hair loss, a deepened voice, or abnormal hair growth on the face. Men might notice enlarged breast tissue, tenderness in the breast tissue, or shrunken testicles.
Explore Alternative Cancer Treatments
When adrenocortical carcinomas are detected early on and treated accordingly, full recovery is possible. Some treatments can also slow the progression of a tumor or prevent a recurrence.
Adrenal cancer treatment often involves surgical removal, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, anti-cancer medications, or a combination of approaches. While these methods can be effective, they’re also associated with a range of uncomfortable side effects and a suppressed immune system.
With this in mind, Immunity Therapy Center is proud to offer a full range of alternative treatments to help individuals manage various types of cancer. This includes stem cell therapy, biomagnetic therapy, immunotherapy treatment, enzyme therapy, laser treatment, and regenerative cell therapy. For adrenal cancer, we offer chelation therapy. A procedure usually conducted for metal poisoning, chelation therapy benefits include eliminating toxic substances that weigh down the adrenal glands.
We’re committed to providing each patient with a customized cancer care plan structured around their diagnosis and unique health needs. Get in touch with us at Immunity Therapy Center for more information or to schedule a free consultation.
- American Cancer Society. What Is Adrenal Cancer? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/about/what-is-adrenal-cortical-cancer.html
- NIH. Adrenocortical carcinoma. https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/558/adrenocortical-carcinoma
- NIH. Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancers. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html
- American Cancer Society. Adrenal Cancer Stages. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/staging.html
- Almeida MQ, Bezerra-Neto JE, Mendonça BB, Latronico AC, Fragoso MCBV. Primary malignant tumors of the adrenal glands. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2018;73(suppl 1):e756s. Published 2018 Dec 10. https://www.doi.org/10.6061/clinics/2018/e756s
- National Cancer Institute. Adrenocortical Carcinoma Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. https://www.cancer.gov/types/adrenocortical/patient/adrenocortical-treatment-pdq
- Medline Plus. Adrenal Gland Cancer. https://medlineplus.gov/adrenalglandcancer.html
- American Cancer Society. Treatment Choices by Stage of Adrenal Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/treating/by-stage.html
- Konda B, Kirschner LS. Novel targeted therapies in adrenocortical carcinoma. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2016;23(3):233-241. https://www.doi.org/10.1097/MED.0000000000000247
- Schteingart DE, Doherty GM, Gauger PG, et al. Management of patients with adrenal cancer: recommendations of an international consensus conference. Endocr Relat Cancer. 2005;12(3):667-680. https://www.doi.org/10.1677/erc.1.01029
- Gundgurthi A, Kharb S, Dutta MK, et al. Childhood adrenocortical carcinoma: Case report and review. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2012;16(3):431-435. https://www.doi.org/10.4103/2230-8210.95699
- Mei M, Twardowski P. Metastatic Genitourinary Malignancies. In: Madame Curie Bioscience Database [Internet]. Austin (TX): Landes Bioscience; 2000-2013. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK153873/
- Angle Longevity Medical Center. Adrenal Fatigue. https://www.angellongevity.com/bioidentical-hormones/adrenal-fatigue/#:~:text=Chelation%20Therapy%20can%20rid%20the,kidney%20and%20adrenal%20gland%20functioning.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.