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Adrenal Cancer Causes and Symptoms

No one knows for sure what exactly causes adrenal cancer—cancer that causes abnormal growths (tumors) in your adrenal glands—but researchers know that adrenal cancer is extremely rare. They also know that adrenal cancer is a very aggressive cancer and that there are several symptoms of adrenal cancer.

This article explains the most common causes and symptoms of adrenal cancer.

Adrenal Cancer Causes

  • Age: When diagnosed, adrenal cancer is usually seen in children or in adults around 40 to 50 years old1.
  • Family history: It's not common, but adrenal cancer may be associated with certain genetic disorders, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, and familial adenomatous polyposis. However, most cases of adrenal cancer occur in people with no family history of these diseases.
  • Smoking: If you smoke, especially if you're a heavy smoker, you may be at an increased risk of developing adrenal cancer.

Adrenal Cancer Symptoms
Most patients with adrenal cancer will have symptoms, but some people may also feel fine. In fact, some patients don't even know they have adrenal cancer until their doctor finds a tumor on a computed tomography (CT) scan or a different type of imaging test done for another reason.

For example, a doctor can order a CT scan for a patient with persistent stomach pain, but he or she may find an adrenal cancer tumor.

There are 3 types of cancerous adrenal tumors: adrenal cortical carcinomas, neuroblastomas, and some pheochromocytomas. Most of these tumors cause an overproduction of specific hormones, including aldosterone, cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone. It's the overproduction of these hormones that cause symptoms.

Excessive hormone production can lead to endocrine disorders, such as Cushing's syndrome (from too much cortisol) and precocious puberty (from too much aldosterone).

Despite causing symptoms in some people, it's hard to detect adrenal cancer early, and often, tumors grow very large and can metastasize (spread) before they're found.

However, adrenal cancer is typically diagnosed earlier in children than in adults because symptoms may be more easily recognizable (eg, early puberty) since children are still developing.

The symptoms of adrenal cancer depend on a variety of factors.

  • The type of tumor you have
  • Whether the tumor is excessively producing hormones
  • What type of hormone is being overproduced

If a malignant adrenal tumor causes too much aldosterone, symptoms may include:

  • excessive thirst
  • frequent urination
  • high blood pressure
  • muscle cramps
  • weakness

Symptoms of a cancerous adrenal tumor that causes too much cortisol include:

  • depression
  • easy bruising
  • fat behind the neck and shoulders
  • hair growth on the face, chest, and back (in women)
  • irregular periods
  • weakness in the legs
  • weight gain around the chest and stomach

Symptoms of adrenal cancer that involves tumors that overly produce estrogen are:

  • breast growth (in boys)
  • early puberty in girls
  • less sex drive and impotence (in men)

Adrenal tumors that cause excessive production of testosterone include symptoms, such as:

  • deepening of the voice
  • excessive acne
  • excessive growth of facial and body hair
  • increased muscle mass
  • irregular periods

In addition, some adrenal tumors are so large that they press on other organs. If a tumor presses on nearby organs and tissues, it can cause pain or a feeling of fullness.

It's also important to note that some people with adrenal cancer have no symptoms at all, so it can be tricky to diagnose.

If you have any of the symptoms of adrenal cancer, talk to your doctor immediately. Your doctor can diagnose adrenal cancer using a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance image (MRI). The sooner adrenal cancer is found, the sooner you can start treatment for adrenal cancer.

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X-Ray Tests for Adrenal Gland Tumors