Adrenal cancer is a rare cancer that develops in the small, triangular glands located on top of your kidneys (adrenal glands). Adrenal glands produce hormones that give instructions to virtually every organ and tissue in your body.

Adrenal cancer is often aggressive. When found early, adrenal cancer can be cured. But if the cancer has spread to areas beyond the adrenal gland, cure becomes less likely. Treatment can be used to delay progression or recurrence.

Noncancerous (benign) adrenal tumors, such as adenomas or pheochromocytoma, also can develop in the adrenal glands.

Read more about pheochromocytoma.

  • Diagnostic expertise. Adrenal cancer can be challenging to diagnose because the features of benign and cancerous adrenal tumors can be similar. Mayo Clinic has pathologists with experience analyzing adrenal tumors, to help determine the most appropriate treatment for you.
  • Advanced treatments. Mayo surgeons have experience in the various procedures used to remove adrenal cancer, including large tumors.
  • Comprehensive cancer center. 3-sites-1-comprehensive-cancer-center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, recognizing scientific excellence and a multispecialty approach focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

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Specialists in endocrinology usually manage care for adults who have adrenal cancer.

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Specialists in endocrinology usually manage care for adults who have adrenal cancer.

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Your Mayo Clinic specialist will start by taking your medical history and performing a physical exam. You are likely to have blood and urine tests, including hormone-level tests. Adrenal cancer is often associated with excessive production of one of several hormones, including cortisol (Cushing syndrome), aldosterone or androgens.

If adrenal cancer is suspected, Mayo specialists generally recommend surgery to remove the tumor. In adrenal cancer, testing a tissue sample for cancer (biopsy) without removing the entire tumor can cause the cancer to spread. Mayo pathologists analyze adrenal tumors after they are surgically removed. The results guide treatment decisions.

Your Mayo specialist also may recommend other tests, including:

  • CT scan, to help determine if cancer has spread to other organs
  • MRI, to help identify small abnormalities in your adrenal glands
  • Nuclear scintigraphy, to help determine the type of adrenal tumor you have and if cancer has spread to other organs
  • PET scan, to help determine the type of adrenal tumor you have

Read more about biopsy, CT scan and MRI.

Adrenal cancer is often aggressive. A cure is possible only if surgery can completely remove the tumor, and cancer may recur after successful surgery.

At Mayo Clinic, the type of surgery you have depends on the size and characteristics of your adrenal tumor and on your overall health. The options include:

  • Laparoscopic adrenalectomy. The surgeon inserts a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the tip (scope) into your abdomen through a small incision in your back or side, and then removes the tumor through other small incisions. This procedure may permit a shorter hospital stay and more rapid recovery compared with other treatments.
  • Posterior surgery. The surgeon makes an incision in your back above your kidney to reach the tumor.
  • Surgery through the abdomen (transabdominal). The surgeon makes an incision in your abdomen to reach the adrenal glands and remove the tumor.
  • Surgery through the chest and abdomen (thoracoabdominal). Mayo Clinic surgeons use this procedure for very large adrenal tumors. This surgery requires a large incision through the chest and abdomen.

For tumors that are too large for safe removal, Mayo Clinic specialists may recommend:

  • Cryoablation. This procedure destroys tumor cells by freezing them using a special probe inserted into the tumor. The ice crystals formed in the cancer cells disrupt the cells, causing cell death. Use of cryoablation depends on tumor size and the types of surrounding tissue.
  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA). Your doctor inserts a needle into your tumor to heat and destroy it. The tumor size and surrounding tissue types determine if RFA can be performed.

Additional treatment is usually needed to delay recurrence of adrenal cancer. The options include:

  • Medication to slow tumor growth or reduce tumor size. At Mayo Clinic, medication may be used not only to treat adrenal cancer that wasn't entirely removed with surgery, but also to prevent recurrence of highly aggressive tumors after successful surgery.
  • Chemotherapy, to slow the growth of cancer, especially if it has spread to other organs.
  • Radiation therapy, to kill cancer cells.

Your Mayo Clinic specialist also may prescribe medications to ease the effects of excess hormone production that are often associated with adrenal cancer.

Specialists in endocrinology usually manage care for adults and children who have adrenal cancer.

Mayo Clinic scientists are working to improve diagnosis and treatment of adrenal cancer. Specific efforts include studies of the most effective options for treating the cancer and hormonal complications. If your cancer has spread beyond your adrenal glands, you may be able to join chemotherapy clinical trials through the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. Read more about endocrinology research.


See a list of publications by Mayo Clinic doctors on adrenal cancer on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Nov. 26, 2012