Adrenal tumors are noncancerous tumors that develop in the adrenal gland. In rare cases, they can be cancerous and affect hormone production.

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Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Adrenal cancer affects an estimated 300 people per year in the United States. Early treatment can lead to a positive outlook.

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), adrenal adenomas, which are noncancerous tumors, tend to occur more in women than in men. The NLM notes that 54% of adrenal masses that doctors find on imaging tests are adenomas.

Some studies may use the term benign to refer to a noncancerous growth.

This article explains what percentage of adrenal tumors are cancerous. It also details the symptoms, causes, treatment, and outlook.

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The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that doctors detect about 200 adrenal cancer cases per year in the U.S.

The researchers behind a 2018 study note that adrenal gland cancers account for 3.6% of cancers that affect the endocrine glands.

Learn more about adrenal cancer.

Adrenal cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the adrenal glands. These glands are on top of the kidneys and have two parts:

  • The cortex: This is the outer part of the adrenal gland. It produces steroid hormones that include glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids.
  • The medulla: This is the inner part of the adrenal gland and makes other hormones: catecholamines, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

The ACS states that most tumors affect the adrenal cortex. It also notes two types of these tumors:

  • Adenomas: These tumors are noncancerous and are less than 2 inches (in) in size. These do not always cause symptoms, and most people do not know they have adrenal adenoma. A person usually receives a diagnosis when undergoing an MR scan.
  • Carcinomas: This cancer is rare, and researchers refer to it as adrenal cancer, adrenocortical cancer, or carcinoma. It can cause weight gain, early puberty, and excess facial body hair growth. If the tumor is more than 2–2.5 inches in size, this may indicate it is cancerous.

Adrenal cancer symptoms can occur when there is an excess production of androgen, estrogen, and cortisol.

For example, some of the symptoms that high cortisol levels may cause:

Symptoms of excessive testosterone in females may include:

Symptoms of overproduction of estrogen in males may include:

  • breast tissue enlargement
  • reduced sexual interest
  • erectile dysfunction, where a person has difficulty getting erections

Adrenal tumors can also cause symptoms such as weight loss, reduced appetite, and abdominal pain.

Researchers do not know the cause of adrenal tumors but believe these could be genetic. The following conditions can increase a person’s risk of developing adrenal tumors:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome: This is a rare condition that affects 1 in 5,000–20,000 people worldwide. It makes individuals more prone to getting certain cancers, such as breast cancer, brain tumor, and leukemia.
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome: This is a congenital growth disorder that can cause abdominal wall defects, large birth weight, and tongue enlargement. Early treatment can help prevent complications, as it likely increases tumor risk during the first 2 years of life.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease: This is a rare genetic condition that causes noncancerous tumors to develop in different parts of the body. These tumors can affect the brain, inner ear, and spinal cord. Symptoms may include vision problems, high blood pressure, and dizziness.
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP): This causes polyps to form in the colon or rectum. These can increase colon cancer risk, which may cause diarrhea, frequent constipation, and bloating.
  • Carney complex: Studies show that Carney complex causes skin pigmentation issues and noncancerous tumors in the heart. Treatment usually involves surgery, where doctors remove the tumor to reduce a person’s risk of stroke or heart dysfunction.

Different treatment options are available for people with adrenal gland tumors:

  • Surgery: This is a procedure that doctors may refer to as an adrenalectomy. It involves the removal of the adrenal gland, and it also allows surgeons to check whether the tumor has spread to other organs.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs, such as mitotane, cisplatin, and vincristine, destroy cancerous cells. This type of treatment may take place with surgery.
  • Molecular targeted therapy: This involves the use of medications that attack molecules that cancer cells need to survive. This treatment may prevent cancer cells from growing or help the immune system to fight the tumor.

Adrenocortical carcinoma can cause complications, the most common being an overproduction of cortisol. This can cause various symptoms, such as muscle weakness, osteoporosis, or fatigue.

Early diagnosis and treatment can mean the cancer is curable. It can also help promote a positive outlook and improve an individual’s quality of life.

Delaying treatment can make cancer difficult to manage. In addition, cancer that has spread to other body areas has a 5-year survival rate of 36–46%. This means the percentage of people diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma will survive for more than 5 years.

Adrenal tumors can develop in the adrenal glands, most of which are not cancerous. However, some people may experience an increase in hormone production, which may indicate cancer.

Some individuals may experience swelling of the breasts, reduced sexual interest, and acne.

Doctors may recommend undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Delaying treatment can increase a person’s chance of developing complications.