Overview

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

Adrenal cancer, also called adrenocortical cancer, can occur at any age. But it's most likely to affect children younger than 5 and adults in their 40s and 50s.

When adrenal cancer is found early, there is a chance for cure. But if the cancer has spread to areas beyond the adrenal glands, cure becomes less likely. Treatment can be used to delay progression or recurrence.

Most growths that form in the adrenal glands are noncancerous (benign). Benign adrenal tumors, such as adenoma or pheochromocytoma, also can develop in the adrenal glands.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer include:

  • Weight gain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin
  • Hormone changes in women that might cause excess facial hair, hair loss on the head and irregular periods
  • Hormone changes in men that might cause enlarged breast tissue and shrinking testicles
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Back pain
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight without trying

Causes

It's not clear what causes adrenal cancer.

Adrenal cancer forms when something creates changes (mutations) in the DNA of an adrenal gland cell. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The mutations can tell the cell to multiply uncontrollably and to continue living when healthy cells would die. When this happens, the abnormal cells accumulate and form a tumor. The tumor cells can break away and spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Risk factors

Adrenal cancer happens more often in people with inherited syndromes that increase the risk of certain cancers. These inherited syndromes include:

  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
  • Carney complex
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Lynch syndrome
  • Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 1 (MEN 1)

Adrenal cancer care at Mayo Clinic

Oct. 09, 2019
  1. Neuroendocrine and adrenal tumors. Plymouth Meeting, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp. Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.
  2. Jameson JL, et al., eds. Adrenocortical carcinoma. In: Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.
  3. Adrenocortical carcinoma treatment (PDQ). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/adrenocortical/patient/adrenocortical-treatment-pdq. Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.
  4. Warner KJ. Allscripts EPSi. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. July 17, 2018.

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