Adrenal tumors often are characterized by the hormones that they secrete
In order to understand this cancer, it's important to learn about the adrenal gland, in general. The two adrenal glands are positioned above the kidneys and are responsible for making steroid hormones that enable the body respond to stress (aldosterone, cortisol and adrenaline). They also make a small amount of sex steroids (the major sex steroids testosterone and estrogen are made by the gonads).
Adrenal tumors often are characterized by the hormones that they secrete:
- Aldosterone tumor (Conn's Syndrome) = adrenal tumor making aldosterone:
often presenting with new hypertension and low potassium . This syndrome is named after the former UMICH endocrinologist who discovered and characterized this syndrome.
- Cushing's Syndrome = adrenal tumor making excessive cortisol:
often presenting with new hypertension, diabetes, central obesity. Virilizing adrenal tumor = adrenal tumor making excessive androgens (like testosterone)
often presenting with new hirsuitism (hair growth), increased muscle mass, acne and amenorhea (loss of periods) in a female.
- Feminizing adrenal tumor = adrenal tumor making excessive estrogens
often presenting with new gynecomastia (breast growth in a man) and impotence in a male. Pheochromocytoma = adrenal tumor making excessive adrenaline often presenting with new hypertension, headaches, sweating, palpitations and panic attacks.
Additionally adrenal tumors are classified by their growth characteristics:
- Adrenal adenoma: adrenal tumor that is benign
- Adrenal carcinoma: adrenal tumor that is malignant
- Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC): rare, but very deadly. This type of cancer develops in the outer layer, called the cortex, of the two small adrenal glands that sit on top of each kidney. Between 500-1,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States.
- Adrenocortical cancer: most common in either the first or fifth decade of life. Because it produces symptoms in children, pediatric adrenal cancer is often diagnosed and treated at an early stage. Five-year survival rates in children are greater than 50%.
Adults rarely have obvious symptoms, so they often are not diagnosed until the cancer is large and has spread to other parts of the body. Although adrenal cancer can be treated in adults, it usually comes back. Once it recurs, it is almost always fatal.
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