Adrenal gland tumors may be cancerous or benign. Most adrenal tumors are benign, but can produce excess levels of certain hormones. Cancerous adrenal tumors will require treatment or removal.

Most adrenal tumors are benign, but some can be cancerous.

People will need treatment to remove or control a cancerous tumor. Some benign adrenal tumors may not require treatment if they do not cause symptoms.

This article looks at tumors on the adrenal gland and how serious they are. It also looks at their survival rates, types, outlook, and more.

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Adrenal gland tumors may be cancerous or noncancerous. Cancerous tumors may spread to other areas of the body and damage healthy tissue.

Noncancerous, or benign, adrenal tumors do not spread, and in most people, are not life threatening. Most tumors on the adrenal gland are not cancerous.

Benign adrenal gland tumors may be functional or nonfunctional. Functional tumors make excess hormones, which can affect other systems in the body and cause symptoms. Nonfunctional tumors do not usually cause any symptoms.

For adrenal cancer, the outlook may depend on whether cancer has spread beyond the adrenal gland to the lymph nodes or to distant areas of the body.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) uses a 5-year relative survival rate to assess the outlook for cancer. This compares survival data from those with the same type and stage of cancer to data from people in the overall population.

To do this, they use the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database.

According to the ACS, the 5-year relative survival rates for people with a diagnosis of adrenal gland cancer between 2012–2018 were as follows:

SEER stage Stage description 5-year relative survival rate
LocalizedCancer is only in the adrenal gland, and there is no indication it has spread further. 73%
RegionalCancer has spread from the adrenal gland to nearby lymph nodes or structures.53%
DistantCancer has spread from the adrenal gland to distant organs or body parts, such as the liver or lungs.38%
All stages combinedThe average of all SEER stages combined.50%

For example, because the 5-year relative survival rate for localized adrenal cancer is 73%, people in that group are around 73% as likely to live for at least 5 years after diagnosis as those who do not have that cancer.

The outlook for adrenal cancer may also depend on factors, such as a person’s treatment response, age, and overall health.

This section looks at the types of adrenal cancer and how serious they are.

Adrenocortical carcinoma

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a cancerous tumor on the adrenal gland and is the most common type of adrenal cancer.

ACC begins in the adrenal cortex, which is the outer part of the adrenal gland. ACC tumors often measure over 6 centimeters (cm) in diameter.

Around 60% of ACC tumors are functional, meaning they produce excess levels of hormones, such as cortisol.

In the early stages, doctors can cure around 30% of people with ACC. Overall, people with ACC may have a 5-year survival rate of around 75–90%.


Pheochromocytomas are usually benign but can sometimes be cancerous.

Pheochromocytomas begin in the inner part of the adrenal gland. Most pheochromocytomas are functional tumors and produce excess epinephrine and norepinephrine.

The outlook for pheochromocytomas may depend on whether cancer has spread. For tumors that have not spread, the 5-year survival rate is about 95%, and 34–60% for tumors that have spread.

Functional pheochromocytomas can be dangerous without treatment, as they can cause very high blood pressure, which may lead to a heart attack or stroke. With treatment, the outlook is good in most people.


Paragangliomas are tumors that form close to blood vessels and nerves outside of the adrenal gland.

Around 35–50% of paragangliomas may spread to other areas of the body. The 5-year survival rate for a paraganglioma that has not spread may be around 95% and between 34–60% for a tumor that has spread or returned.


Adenomas are benign tumors on the adrenal gland. Adenomas are usually less than 5 cm in diameter.

Most adrenal adenomas do not cause symptoms, although some may produce excess steroid hormones and cause symptoms.

Surgical removal of an adenoma can cure it, or medications can help control the effects of any excess hormones.

Some adrenal tumors may not cause any symptoms. However, if a tumor produces a certain hormone, it may cause symptoms, including:

If a tumor becomes large, it may press on nearby organs and feel painful, or people may feel fuller more quickly after eating.

Certain genetic disorders may increase the risk of adrenal tumors, including:

Lifestyle and environmental factors, such as smoking, may also increase the risk of adrenal cancer.

To diagnose adrenal tumors, doctors may use the following tests:

Many times, doctors may find adrenal tumors by accident through testing for other conditions.

Treatment may depend on whether a tumor is cancerous or not, but it may include:

  • surgery to remove the adrenal gland
  • radiation therapy, to shrink a tumor
  • chemotherapy, for adrenal cancer
  • drugs to control excess hormone production

If people have surgery to remove the adrenal gland, they may need hormone supplements to replace those the adrenal gland normally produces.

People living with adrenal cancer will need to attend any follow-up appointments after treatment.

Doctors may use blood tests and CT scans to monitor any side effects of treatment and check for signs of cancer returning.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about adrenal tumors.

How long can you live with an adrenal tumor?

Benign adrenal tumors are usually not life threatening, but people may require treatment if the tumor causes symptoms.

The survival rate for adrenal cancer may depend on the type of tumor, the stage of cancer, and how the tumor responds to treatment.

Do all adrenal gland tumors have to be removed?

People may not require any treatment for a benign adrenal tumor that does not cause symptoms.

If a benign tumor is causing symptoms, medication to suppress excess hormone production may be a suitable treatment option rather than surgery.

People may need surgery to remove a tumor if it is cancerous, doctors suspect it may be cancerous, or if it is causing symptoms.

Doctors may monitor small tumors to see if they grow over time and to determine if they require surgery or not.

What percentage of adrenal gland tumors are cancerous?

Most adrenal tumors are benign and adrenal cancer is rare. In total, less than 1% of adrenal gland tumors are cancerous.

Adrenal gland tumors are usually benign, but some can be cancerous. People may require treatment for cancerous tumors or benign tumors that cause symptoms.

Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or medications to suppress excess hormones.