Health and Cancer

What is adrenal cancer?

Adrenal cancer is a rare form of cancer that develops in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. The small glands are comprised of two separately functioning parts: the cortex (outer layer of the gland) and the medulla (the inner area of the gland).

The cortex produces hormones that are steroids, such as cortisol (which helps your body manage stress) and aldosterone (which helps regulate blood pressure). The medulla is part of your body’s nervous system. Hormones it produces include norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline). These hormones increase your heart beat and help your body react during stressful situations, such as when you are frightened.

Most adrenal tumors are noncancerous (benign) tumors known as adenomas. The majority of adenomas develop in the adrenal cortex

Types of adrenal cancer

Every adrenal cancer patient is different. The cancer experts at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) have extensive experience in properly staging and diagnosing the disease, and developing a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific type of adrenal cancer.

Adrenal cancers are found in both the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. There are three common types of adrenal cancer:

  • Adrenocortical carcinoma: Also called adrenal cortical carcinoma (ACC) or adrenal cortex cancer, this is the most common type of adrenal cancer. It typically forms within the outer layer of the cortex. These tumors are usually discovered when they grow to a larger size and begin to cause pain or a feeling of fullness, resulting in weight loss. These tumors may also produce excess hormones that can cause weight gain, excess facial hair or early puberty. If an adrenal tumor is larger than 5 to 6 centimeters, it is usually assumed to be cancer.
  • Pheochromocytoma: Usually forming in the central part of the medulla, this type of adrenal cancer typically originates from adrenaline-producing cells. Adrenaline helps regulate important bodily functions, including heart rate and blood pressure. Symptoms of this type of tumor are commonly associated with increased adrenaline levels and can include higher blood pressure, excess sweating, racing heart and anxiety.
  • Neuroblastoma: Found in developing nerve cells of the medulla, this type of adrenal cancer usually affects infants or children under 10. Because of the nature of these types of cells, it can be easy to determine where they originated if detected early. However, in rare cases, since they can spread quickly, the origin can be hard to determine. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in three neuroblastomas begin in the adrenal glands.
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