A person with pituitary cancer might experience headaches, diabetes insipidus, optic nerve damage, and more. However, those with the disease can be asymptomatic.

Most pituitary tumors are noncancerous and may not cause symptoms.

However, they can cause the pituitary gland to over- or under-produce some hormones, causing health issues throughout the body.

Research indicates that 0.1% of pituitary tumors are cancerous and may spread to other areas.

This article looks at the symptoms of pituitary cancer, including its complications, management, and more.

A person clutching their head due to a headache, which can be a pituitary cancer symptom. -2Share on Pinterest
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Pituitary tumors are mostly benign and are called functioning pituitary adenomas. This means they secrete extra hormones in a person’s body, causing symptoms and health issues.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that a pituitary tumor causes symptoms either by affecting hormone production in the pituitary gland or by growing large enough to put pressure on the brain and nearby structures.

Rarely, pituitary adenomas can become cancerous and spread into other areas of the brain, spinal cord, or outside the central nervous system.

The tumor might also continue to produce mainly adrenocorticotropic hormones and prolactin hormones.

The Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD) explains that an individual with pituitary cancer may experience the following symptoms:

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Learn more about pituitary tumors, their symptoms, and more.

The symptoms above can lead to the following secondary symptoms:

If a person with pituitary cancer does not receive treatment, it can decrease their quality of life or likelihood of survival.

An individual might require surgery to remove the tumor. However, the risks of having surgery include vision problems from nerve damage, heavy bleeding, and further damage to the pituitary gland.

Other rare complications, such as meningitis and cerebrospinal fluid leaking from the brain out of the nose, can also occur.

The appropriate treatment can correct these complications. Additionally, pituitary cancer or its treatments do not always cause long-term health issues.

According to a 2020 study, managing pituitary cancer symptoms is challenging due to the aggressive nature of the tumor.

Treating pituitary cancer typically involves palliative rather than curative approaches. This means it aims to relieve symptoms and improve the person’s quality of life rather than cure the disease.

Experts typically recommend a combination of surgery and radiation therapy as treatment methods.

A doctor may also recommend chemotherapy, particularly when surgery and radiation are not possible or were previously unsuccessful in a person’s treatment.

These treatments may alleviate someone’s symptoms to some extent. Other medications and lifestyle changes may improve the outlook and quality of an individual’s life.

A person should discuss ways to manage their symptoms with a medical professional.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about pituitary cancer symptoms.

How is pituitary cancer diagnosed?

Generally, MRI or CT scans can detect tumors in the pituitary gland. Blood and urine tests can also determine hormone levels in an individual.

However, even when using a microscope to diagnose pituitary cancer, experts may find it hard to distinguish between a cancerous and a noncancerous pituitary tumor.

Experts may not recognize a cancerous tumor until it spreads into another part of a person’s body.

Pituitary cancer spreads equally to areas both inside and outside the brain. The tumor is likely to spread in many distant areas of an individual’s body, including:

  • other parts of the brain and brain blood vessels
  • the spinal cord
  • the eyes
  • the lymph nodes
  • certain organs, such as the lungs, heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and ovaries

Is pituitary cancer curable?

When a pituitary tumor is cancerous and spreads to another part of the body from where it started, doctors refer to it as a metastatic cancerous tumor.

At this advanced stage, it is harder for medical professionals to cure or control the disease, and an individual’s prognosis is generally unfavorable.

The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database indicates that someone with pituitary cancer that has metastasized has a 5-year relative survival rate of 30%.

This means that, on average, those with a metastatic pituitary gland cancer diagnosis are 30% as likely to live at least 5 years after their diagnosis as people without the disease.

GARD indicates that the most common pituitary cancer symptoms are headaches, optic nerve dysfunction, diabetes insipidus, and anterior pituitary dysfunction.

However, people with pituitary cancer may be asymptomatic.

The outlook is generally unfavorable, as a person is likely to receive a diagnosis at a late stage when the cancer has metastasized.

This is due to the difficulties in recognizing the difference between a cancerous and a noncancerous pituitary tumor.

However, a doctor and multidisciplinary healthcare team can work together with an individual to formulate the best palliative treatment plan for them.