By Healthtrip Team Blog Published on - 13 October - 2023

Adrenal Cancer: Types, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

Adrenal cancer is a rare and serious medical condition characterized by the abnormal growth of cancerous cells in the adrenal glands, which are situated on top of each kidney. These glands play a crucial role in producing hormones that regulate various bodily functions. In this overview, we will explore the definition of adrenal cancer and provide a brief overview of the adrenal glands.

Book free consulting session with HealthTrip expert

Adrenal Cancer

Adrenal cancer, also known as adrenocortical carcinoma, refers to the development of malignant tumors in the adrenal glands. These tumors can interfere with the normal functioning of the adrenal glands, disrupting the production of essential hormones and potentially spreading to other parts of the body.

The adrenal glands, composed of the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla, are essential components of the endocrine system. The adrenal cortex produces hormones such as cortisol and aldosterone, crucial for metabolism and electrolyte balance, while the adrenal medulla produces adrenaline, which plays a role in the body's "fight or flight" response. Maintaining the proper functioning of these glands is vital for overall health.

II. Types of Adrenal Cancer

A. Adrenocortical Carcinoma

Adrenocortical carcinoma is the most common type of adrenal cancer, originating in the outer layer (cortex) of the adrenal glands. This type is often aggressive and may lead to the overproduction of hormones. Adrenocortical carcinoma can affect both adults and children but is more common in adults.

B. Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is another type of adrenal cancer, primarily found in children and arising in the adrenal medulla. This cancer originates in immature nerve cells and may also affect the sympathetic nervous system. Neuroblastoma is one of the most common solid tumors in early childhood.

Demographics: Who Gets Adrenal Cancer

A. Age Groups Affected

Adrenal cancer can affect individuals across a broad age range, but there are distinct patterns:

  • Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC): Most commonly diagnosed in adults, with a peak incidence in the fourth and fifth decades of life.
  • Neuroblastoma: Primarily affects children, with the majority of cases diagnosed before the age of 5.

B. Gender Distribution

The distribution of adrenal cancer varies between genders:

  • Adrenocortical Carcinoma: Slightly more prevalent in females.
  • Neuroblastoma: Affects both genders, but some studies suggest a slightly higher incidence in males.

C. Other Relevant Demographics

Additional factors influencing adrenal cancer incidence:

  • Ethnicity: Some variations based on racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Geographical Location: Incidence rates may differ based on geographic regions and environmental factors.

Symptoms and Signs

A. Common Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Changes in skin, such as bruising or redness
  • Irregular menstrual periods (in females)
  • Muscle weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood changes, including irritability

B. Specific Signs to Watch For

  • Excessive hair growth (hirsutism)
  • Skin changes, like darkening or yellowing
  • Development of stretch marks without weight gain
  • Irregularities in blood pressure
  • Changes in sexual function

C. Early Warning Signs

  • Persistent, unexplained abdominal or back pain
  • Sudden or unexplained hormonal changes
  • Unusual fatigue that does not improve with rest

Causes of Adrenal Cancer

A. Genetic Factors

  • Hereditary syndromes like Li-Fraumeni syndrome and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Inherited genetic mutations affecting tumor suppressor genes.

B. Environmental Factors

  • Exposure to high levels of radiation.
  • Prolonged exposure to certain toxins or chemicals.

C. Other Potential Causes

  • Hormonal imbalances, including elevated levels of certain hormones.
  • Chronic infections or inflammatory conditions affecting the adrenal glands.


A. Imaging Tests (CT Scans, MRI)

1. Computed Tomography (CT) Scans:

  • Provides detailed cross-sectional images of the adrenal glands.
  • Helps identify the size, shape, and location of tumors.

2. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):

  • Uses powerful magnets and radio waves to generate detailed images.
  • Particularly useful for evaluating soft tissues and detecting abnormalities.

B. Hormone Level Tests

1. Cortisol Levels:

  • Measures cortisol to identify hormone overproduction.
  • Imbalances can indicate adrenocortical carcinoma.

2. Aldosterone Levels:

  • Assesses aldosterone production, crucial for electrolyte balance.
  • Elevated levels may suggest adrenal gland dysfunction.

3. Epinephrine and Norepinephrine Levels:

  • Measures these hormones produced by the adrenal medulla.
  • Perturbations may indicate neuroblastoma.

C. Biopsy Procedures

1. Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA):

  • Uses a thin needle to extract a small tissue sample for examination.
  • Helps confirm the presence of cancerous cells.

2. Core Needle Biopsy:

  • Collects a larger tissue sample, often guided by imaging.
  • Aids in determining the tumor's characteristics and grade.

3. Surgical Biopsy:

  • Removal of a larger portion of the tumor for in-depth analysis.
  • May be necessary when other biopsies are inconclusive.

Treatment Options

A. Surgery

1. Adrenalectomy:

  • Surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland.
  • May include nearby lymph nodes if cancer has spread.

2. Partial Adrenalectomy:

  • Removal of part of the adrenal gland, preserving healthy tissue.
  • Considered for smaller tumors or when sparing healthy tissue is critical.

B. Chemotherapy

1. Systemic Chemotherapy:

  • Administration of drugs to destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • Circulates throughout the body via the bloodstream.

2. Regional Chemotherapy:

  • Direct delivery of chemotherapy to the affected area.
  • Minimizes exposure to healthy tissues.

C. Radiation Therapy

1. External Beam Radiation:

  • Precise targeting of high-energy rays at the cancerous tissue.
  • Aims to destroy cancer cells or inhibit their growth.

2. Internal Radiation (Brachytherapy):

  • Placement of radioactive material directly into or near the tumor.
  • Limits radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissues.

D. Targeted Therapy

1. Molecular Targeted Drugs:

  • Designed to target specific molecules involved in cancer growth.
  • Minimizes damage to normal cells.

E. Immunotherapy:

  • Enhances the body's immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
  • May involve immune checkpoint inhibitors or adoptive cell therapy.

Risk Factors

A. Genetic Predisposition

  • Family history of adrenal cancer.
  • Presence of hereditary syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni or Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Inherited genetic mutations affecting adrenal gland function.

B. Hormonal Imbalances

  • Overproduction of hormones, such as cortisol or aldosterone.
  • Conditions leading to hormonal disruptions, potentially increasing cancer risk.
  • Endocrine disorders affecting the adrenal glands.

C. Environmental Exposures

  • Prolonged exposure to high levels of radiation.
  • Contact with toxins or chemicals that may impact adrenal gland health.
  • Environmental factors influencing the development of adrenal cancer.


A. Metastasis

  • Spread of cancer cells beyond the adrenal glands.
  • Potential involvement of nearby organs or distant tissues.

B. Hormonal Disruptions

  • Impact on hormonal balance, leading to various health issues.
  • Excessive hormone production causing metabolic imbalances.

C. Surgical Complications

  • Risks associated with surgical interventions.
  • Possible complications such as infection, bleeding, or damage to nearby structures.

Preventive Measures

A. Genetic Counseling

  • Understanding and managing genetic risks through counseling.
  • Identification of hereditary factors contributing to adrenal cancer.

B. Lifestyle Modifications

  • Adopting a healthy lifestyle to minimize environmental risk factors.
  • Managing stress, maintaining a balanced diet, and avoiding harmful exposures.

C. Regular Health Check-Ups

  • Routine medical examinations for early detection of abnormalities.
  • Periodic imaging and hormone level tests for individuals at risk.

In conclusion, a comprehensive understanding of adrenal cancer, from risk factors to treatment options, underscores the importance of early detection and prompt, personalized treatment for optimal patient outcomes. Regular medical check-ups and awareness of symptoms play pivotal roles in managing and combating adrenal cancer.


Adrenal cancer is a rare condition marked by abnormal cancerous cell growth in the adrenal glands, situated on top of each kidney.
The two main types are adrenocortical carcinoma, affecting adults, and neuroblastoma, primarily found in children.
drenal cancer can affect individuals of any age, with adrenocortical carcinoma more common in adults, and neuroblastoma primarily impacting children.
Symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, abdominal pain, skin changes, and hormonal irregularities.
Genetic factors play a role, with hereditary syndromes and inherited mutations increasing susceptibility.
Diagnosis involves imaging tests (CT scans, MRI), hormone level tests, and biopsy procedures.
Treatment includes surgery (adrenalectomy), chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy.
Preventive measures involve genetic counseling, lifestyle modifications, and regular health check-ups for early detection and intervention.
Contact Us Now