What is an Adrenal Carcinoma?

F. Hay

An adrenal carcinoma, sometimes referred to as an adrenocortical carcinoma, is a very rare tumor found in the adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the adrenal gland. The adrenal glands are small triangular glands, one of which is located at the top of each kidney. Adrenal carcinomas occur in the population each year at a rate of one or two incidences per million people.

If an adrenal carcinoma is suspected, an individual may have to undergo a CT scan for confirmation.
If an adrenal carcinoma is suspected, an individual may have to undergo a CT scan for confirmation.

The adrenal cortex is the outer region of the adrenal gland, and the adrenal medulla is the inner region. Adrenal glands product corticosteroids, adrenaline and other important hormones that help to control blood pressure, heart rate and other important body functions.

An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.
An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.

When cells in the glands are cancerous, they can cause either too much hormone production or not enough. Functioning tumors are cancerous tumors that make excess hormones. Non-functioning tumors in the adrenal cortex do not make extra hormones. Too much hormone production can cause symptoms such as diabetes, weakening of bones or high blood pressure.

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The cause of an adrenal carcinoma is unknown, but it is though that it might be inherited. This type of cancer most commonly is seen in adults between the ages of 30 and 40 and in children younger than 5 years old. Adrenal carcinomas are seen in both males and females.

Some generalized symptoms of an adrenal carcinoma are weight loss without dieting, abdominal pain, excessive weakness and failure to thrive. Prolonged exposure to high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is produced by functioning tumors, in the body’s tissue might cause a hormonal disorder known as Cushing's syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome often is identified by the presence of increased fat around the neck, upper body obesity and a round moon-face appearance.

Preliminary diagnosis of an adrenal carcinoma usually is made through blood and urine tests. These tests help determine whether the body is producing normal amounts of hormones or whether there is a significance imbalance present. Other diagnostic studies might include C-rays, tomography scan, a magnetic resonance imagine (MRI) exam or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

After a diagnosis is made about whether the lesion is cancerous, functioning or non-functioning, treatment can be determined and might range from surgical removal to simple observation. Small, non-functioning, non-growing tumors might require active surveillance and are more than likely non-cancerous. Localized, non-spreading tumors might require an adrenalectomy to remove the lesion. Metastatic, cancerous lesions that have spread to other parts in the body might require chemotherapy. The prognosis for adrenocortical carcinoma depends on how advanced the cancer is prior to diagnosis and treatment.

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