Adrenal Cancer

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of adrenal cancers

In about half of people with adrenal cancer, symptoms are caused by the hormones made by the tumor. In the other half, symptoms occur because the tumor has grown so large that it presses on nearby organs. If you or your child has any of the signs or symptoms described in this section, discuss them with your doctor without delay. These symptoms may be caused by an adrenal tumor or by something else. Getting the proper medical tests is the only way to find out. The sooner you get a correct diagnosis, the sooner you can start treatment and the more effective your treatment will be.

Symptoms caused by androgen or estrogen production

In children, the symptoms are most often caused by the androgens (male-type hormones) that the tumor might secrete. The most common symptoms are excessive growth of facial and body hair (such as in the pubic and underarm areas). Male hormones may also enlarge the penis in boys or the clitoris in girls.

If the tumor secretes estrogens (female-type hormones), girls can start puberty early. This can cause the breasts to develop and menstrual periods to start. Estrogen-producing tumors also may enlarge breasts in boys.

The symptoms from high levels of sex hormones are less noticeable in adults because they have already gone through puberty and have breasts and adult patterns of body hair. Women with estrogen-producing tumors and men with androgen-producing tumors usually do not have any symptoms from the hormones, and so may have no symptoms until the tumor is large enough to press on nearby organs.

Symptoms are easier to notice if the tumor is making the hormone usually found in the opposite sex. For example, men with tumors that make estrogen (female hormone) may notice breast enlargement with tenderness. They may also have sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction (impotence) and loss of sex drive. Women with tumors that make androgens (male hormones) may notice excessive facial and body hair growth, receding hairline, irregular menstrual periods, and deepening of their voice.

Symptoms caused by cortisol production

Excessive levels of cortisol causes a problem known as Cushing syndrome. Some people have all of these symptoms, but many people with high cortisol levels have only 1 or 2 symptoms. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Weight gain, usually greatest above the collar bone and around the abdomen
  • Fat deposits behind the neck and shoulders
  • Purple stretch marks on the abdomen
  • Excessive hair growth on the face, chest, and back in women
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Weakness and loss of muscle mass in the legs
  • Easy bruising
  • Depression and/or moodiness
  • Weakened bones (osteoporosis), which can lead to fractures
  • High blood sugar, often leading to diabetes
  • High blood pressure

Cushing syndrome may be caused by an adrenal cancer or an adrenal adenoma that produces high levels of cortisol and/or related hormones. Benign pituitary gland tumors can produce high levels of another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This is often called Cushing disease. The high levels of ACTH in turn cause normal adrenal gland tissue to produce more cortisol. This results in the same symptoms as Cushing syndrome. Very rarely ACTH can be produced by other tumors and cause the same symptoms.

Some people with immune system problems or some cancers, such as lymphomas, are treated with drugs chemically related to cortisol. Because there are so many causes of high cortisol levels that can lead to Cushing syndrome, doctors do a number of blood tests, urine tests, and imaging tests to find out whether the patient has an adrenal cortical tumor or some other cause of Cushing syndrome.

Symptoms caused by aldosterone production

The main signs and symptoms caused by aldosterone-producing adrenal tumors are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Low blood potassium levels

Adrenal adenomas often produce aldosterone, but adrenal cancers rarely do so.

Symptoms caused by a large adrenal cancer pressing on nearby organs

As an adrenal cancer grows, it presses on nearby organs and tissues. This may cause pain near the tumor, a feeling of fullness in the abdomen, or trouble eating because of a feeling of filling up easily.


Last Medical Review: 03/19/2014
Last Revised: 04/10/2014