Adrenal tumors can grow slowly or quickly depending on whether they are cancerous or noncancerous. Cancerous types tend to grow faster than noncancerous types.

Approximately 75% of all adrenal tumors are adenomas, which are usually slow growing and noncancerous.

Tumors can form in any part of the body where the cells start growing uncontrollably and abnormally, crowding out the regular healthy cells. The adrenal glands are no exception.

These small glands sit directly above the kidneys, which are in the upper part of the abdomen. Their main purpose is hormone production. For instance, to regulate the stress response and blood pressure, or to develop the sex organs and control puberty.

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How fast adrenal tumors grow depends on the type of growth a person has.

Tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous. Doctors call cancerous growths “malignant,” while noncancerous growths are called “benign.”

According to estimates, 75% of all adrenal tumors in people without known cancer are adenomas, which are benign. They also tend to grow more slowly than malignant tumors.

A 2019 study examined 105 adenomas and 26 malignant nodules in people with adrenal tumors. For the noncancerous adenomas, researchers reported an average growth rate of between 0.3 and 2.8 millimeters (mm) over a year.

This was much lower than the growth rate for malignant nodules, which was between 5.8 and 395.4 mm a year.

Yes, people can have adrenal tumors without knowing. Adrenal tumors do not always cause symptoms, so people may not realize they have one.

For instance, a pheochromocytoma is a rare type of adrenal tumor that is usually benign. Some people never find out that they have a pheochromocytoma because they never get any symptoms.

Doctors sometimes find benign tumors on a person’s adrenal glands by chance, such as when performing medical scans for another condition.

Not all adrenal tumors cause symptoms. When they do, they can occur for several reasons. For example, the tumor may affect how the adrenal glands work, causing hormonal changes. Alternatively, it could press on nearby organs.

As a result, the symptoms of adrenal tumors can range widely. They may include:

While malignant tumors are cancerous, people with these growths do not always receive a diagnosis of adrenal cancer. Cancerous cells can spread around the body, and in many cases, cancer in the adrenal glands does not originate there.

If this is the case, the diagnosis will refer to where the cancer started. For instance, if it spreads from the lung, doctors will diagnose lung cancer rather than adrenal cancer.

If the cancer did start in the adrenal glands, a person may have an adrenal cortical carcinoma or adrenocortical cancer.

The stages of adrenal cancer describe how big cancerous tumors have become or how far the cancer has spread.

There are four adrenal cancer stages. Stage 1 is localized and the least advanced. Stage 4 is the most advanced and far-reaching.

Another system of cancer staging is the TNM staging system:

  • T describes the size of the first or main tumor and whether it has grown in nearby areas.
  • N describes whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • M describes whether the cancer has spread to distant structures within the body.

Treatment for adrenal tumors depends on the type, size, and severity.

Noncancerous tumors

Benign adrenal tumors may not require treatment if they do not cause symptoms. If they do, the treatment is surgery.

To remove benign tumors, a surgeon has to remove the entire adrenal gland. They may do this via laparoscopy. Laparoscopy involves a surgeon making small incisions in the abdomen and inserting a thin, tube-like instrument to remove the gland.

If the tumor is large or laparoscopy is not possible, a surgeon may use open surgery instead. It involves making a larger incision.

Another situation in which a doctor may recommend treating a benign growth is if there are signs it is precancerous. This means it could become malignant later on.

Cancerous tumors

Treatment for adrenal cancer typically involves one or more of the following:

The treatment plan a doctor recommends depends on a range of factors, such as the stage of a person’s cancer, their age, and whether they have other health conditions.

Similarly to noncancerous adrenal tumors, surgery for cancerous growths involves removing the adrenal gland. This can occur via laparoscopy or open surgery. According to the Urology Care Foundation, some experts recommend open surgery for adrenal cancer.

Other treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can destroy the remaining cancer cells. However, the American Cancer Society states that chemotherapy tends not to be very effective in treating adrenal cancer.

After surgery, people may need to take hormones that replace the ones the adrenal glands typically produce.

Doctors use a statistic known as the 5-year relative survival rate to measure how long people live after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Specifically, it measures what proportion of people with adrenal cancer live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis compared with people who do not have the condition.

According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year survival rate for any type or stage of adrenal cancer is 50%.

Progression has a significant impact on this, though. The survival rates for each stage are as follows:

  • 73% for localized cancer
  • 53% for regional cancer, which has spread to nearby body parts or lymph nodes
  • 38% for distant cancer, which has spread to far away parts of the body

This data came from people who received their diagnosis between 2012 and 2018. Cancer treatment tends to improve over time.

These numbers also do not record other factors that influence a person’s outlook, such as a person’s age or health status. This also affects survival. In some cases, people live for more or less time than doctors predict.

Adrenal tumors can grow quickly or slowly, depending on the type of tumor a person has.

The vast majority of all adrenal tumors in people without any known cancer are adenomas, which are benign. They grow more slowly than malignant tumors.

Research suggests the growth rate is between 0.3 and 2.8 mm a year, whereas malignant adrenal tumors may grow between 5.8 and 395.4 mm a year.

Receiving an early diagnosis gives treatment, such as surgery, radiation, or medications, the best chance of working.

If a person has any concerns about their symptoms or questions about the findings of a medical scan, they can talk with a doctor.