What are the Different Types of Endocrine Cancer?

Kathy Heydasch

Any cancer that affects the endocrine system in the body is known as endocrine cancer. The endocrine system contains all the glands without ducts that secrete hormones, such as the thyroid, pituitary, pancreatic and adrenal glands. The result of endocrine cancer is usually excessive secretion of the hormones, which can have effects throughout the rest of the body.

Cancer that affects the endocrine system is referred to as endocrine cancer.
Cancer that affects the endocrine system is referred to as endocrine cancer.

Abnormal growth of a tumor near one of the endocrine glands can be the result of endocrine cancer. The tumor can be either benign or malignant. A benign tumor can be removed through surgery and have little impact on a person’s well-being. A malignant tumor, on the other hand, is cancerous and invasive. It attacks and damages healthy tissues in the body and can spread quickly if not treated.

Any cancer involving the thyroid gland would be considered an endocrine cancer.
Any cancer involving the thyroid gland would be considered an endocrine cancer.

The tissues that comprise the endocrine system have complex functions. They secrete various levels of hormones which in turn function in a variety of ways throughout the body. These hormones can regulate metabolism, cause chemical reactions in cells and even influence the ability of some substances to migrate through cell walls. Endocrine cancer causes these tissues to secrete abnormal levels of hormones.

The body's two adrenal glands -- part of the endocrine system -- can become damaged by cancerous tumor growth.
The body's two adrenal glands -- part of the endocrine system -- can become damaged by cancerous tumor growth.

In well-functioning glands, a built-in mechanism allows them to secrete more hormones when the levels are too low, and to stop producing hormones when the levels are too high. When endocrine cancer affects these glands, they no longer regulate the secretion normally. Examples of endocrine cancer are pancreatic cancer and cancers of the pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, and parathyroid glands.

Pancreatic cancer can involve either exocrine or endocrine cancers, but the vast majority is exocrine. Adrenal gland tumors target one of the two main parts of the adrenal gland — the adrenal cortex or the adrenal medulla — and nearly all adrenal cancer is adenoma, a benign, non-functioning tumor found on the adrenal cortex. The vast majority of thyroid tumors, also called thyroid nodules, are benign, and thyroid tumors are mostly either papillary or follicular. Most types of endocrine cancer, including pituitary and parathyroid, can be treated and cured if detected early enough, but many grow without symptoms, making them hard to detect.

Treatment of endocrine cancer varies according to the type of tumor, whether benign or malignant, and the behavior of the tumor. A benign tumor can be removed via surgery with little to no side effects for the person receiving the treatment. Malignant tumors, however, can be aggressive, can overproduce hormones, and can spread to other parts of the body quickly. Malignant tumors can be treated with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. There are also medicines which can help control hormone secretion, mitigating the side effects of the tumor.

Cancer of the pituitary gland, located in the brain, would be considered an endocrine cancer.
Cancer of the pituitary gland, located in the brain, would be considered an endocrine cancer.

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