What are the Adrenal Glands?
Our bodies have two adrenal glands, located atop each of our two kidneys. They are critical to managing hormone levels and the other bodily systems that require these hormones to function.
The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the adrenal gland and makes cortisol, aldosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which carefully control your metabolism, hair growth and body shape.
The adrenal medulla is the inner part of the gland and produces epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine which control your body’s responses to stress, including blood pressure.
Adrenal gland tumors develop when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, and can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).
Types of Adrenal Gland Tumors
There are four main types of adrenal gland tumors:
Adenoma - This is a noncancerous and commonest type of adrenal gland tumor that affects the adrenal cortex. This type of tumor usually does not present with symptoms and, if small in size, often does not require treatment.
Adrenocortical carcinoma (also adrenal cortical carcinoma) - This is a rare, cancerous type of adrenal gland tumor affecting one or two people in one million. This is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and can grow for years without a person knowing and spread to other organs or systems (abdominal cavity, lungs, liver, and bone), before it is discovered.
Neuroblastoma - This is a childhood cancer that forms when immature neuroblasts (cells that are supposed to mature into nerve cells or adrenal medulla cells) don’t mature properly. Neuroblastoma can form before the baby is born and, although it can sometimes be discovered through a pre-natal ultrasound, many times, it is found after the cancer has already spread.
Pheochromocytoma - This is a cancerous neuroendocrine tumor which usually begins in the adrenal medulla.
Symptoms and Treatment of Adrenal Gland Tumors
Adrenal tumors are usually discovered during investigation into other symptoms usually related to elevated hormone levels. For example, excess production of steroids usually presents as Cushing’s syndrome and excess levels of aldosterone present as Conn’s syndrome.
Because the balance of these hormones is so integral to our body’s optimum function, fluctuations or overproduction of these hormones can affect other systems. Symptoms of adrenal gland tumors include:
• Severe headaches
• Excess sweating
• Racing heart rate (tachycardia and palpitations)
• Anxiety and nervousness
• Nervous shaking (tremors)
• Pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
• Nausea (with or with vomiting)
• Weight loss
• Intolerance to heat
• Difficult-to-control high blood pressure or onset before age 35 or after age 60
Cushing’s and Conn’s Syndromes have various unique symptoms associated with the overproduction of the specific hormones.
Adrenal gland tumor treatment can involve: posterior surgery to remove small, benign tumors; transabdominal surgery to inspect blood vessels and organs for signs of cancer, and, if necessary, remove tissue directly involved with the tumor; thoracoabdominal surgery to address large, malignant adrenal gland tumors; or laparoscopic adrenalectomy to remove the cancer using a fiber optic scope.
Radiation therapy, sometimes in conjunction with chemotherapy, may also be recommended for those patients whose cancer has already spread.
Adrenal Gland Tumor. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Web. Nov 17, 2011. http://www.cancer.net/patient/cancer+types/adrenal+gland+tumor
“Pheochromocytomas: Adrenal Gland Tumors – Headaches, Anxiety, Nervousness, and Hypertension” by James Norman MD, FACS, FACE. EndocrineWeb. Web. Nov 17, 2011. http://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/pheochromocytoma/pheochromocytoma-tumor-central-adrenal
Neuroblastoma – Childhood. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Web. Nov 17, 2011.
Adrenal Gland Cancer: Integrative Cancer Treatment Program. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Web. Nov 17, 2011. http://www.cancercenter.com/adrenal_cancer.cfm
Adrenal Tumors. Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Disease, University of Southern California, Department of Surgery. Web. Nov 17, 2011. http://www.surgery.usc.edu/divisions/tumor/pancreasdiseases/web%20pages/Endocrine%20tumors/adrenal/adrenal%20tumors.html
Reviewed November 17, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith