Adrenal Cancer

Adrenal cancer is cancer in the adrenal glands, small glands that produce hormones your body needs to work properly. These hormones help regulate blood pressure, kidney function, stress responses and some sexual functions.Most people have two adrenal glands. They are located in the back of the abdomen, just above the kidneys. 

Adrenal cancer is extremely rare. Most adrenal cancers are found by chance during imaging studies (X-rays or other studies) for anothermedical condition. You might also see your doctor because you notice changes in the way your body works, caused by hormone changes. Some people with adrenal cancer discovered it this way. Another cause of adrenal tumors is cancer spreading (metastasis) from another area in the body, such as breast cancer, kidney cancer or thyroid cancer.  

Treatment options


Most larger adrenal tumors are treated with surgery. Here at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, our doctors are trained in the latest treatments for all types of adrenal tumors. We do  open (traditional incision) and minimally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery.

Surgery to remove adrenal cancer is called an adrenalectomy. This surgery removes the entire adrenal gland and all the fatty tissue around it. Your doctor can do an open (traditional incision) or minimally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery, depending on where your tumor is located and other factors. If the tumor has spread to nearby organs such as the liver, spleen or a large blood vessel, your doctor might also take out these organs.

You might need medication before surgery to keep your hormones balanced during the operation. Our anesthesiologists are trained to manage your body’s hormone balance for patients having adrenal surgery.

Medical Treatment

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by stopping cancer cells from growing or reproducing. Different drugs work in different ways to fight cancer. Your medical oncologist will recommend the best treatment plan for you.

Studies have shown that chemotherapy after surgery can increase the survival rate for some patients with adrenal cancer. Chemotherapy can also help relieve symptoms of advanced cancer.

Medications called targeted therapies can be used along with chemotherapy or sometimes by themselves. These medications have different side effects than standard chemotherapy medications, and the side effects are often milder.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation beams that penetrate deep into the body to safely and effectively treat cancer and other diseases. This treatment can also be used to relieve symptoms, such as pain caused by cancer.

Radiation works by damaging cancer cells so that they cannot reproduce and eventually die. When cancer cells die, the body removes them naturally over time. Your body’s healthy cells are also sensitive to radiation. However, normal cells can repair radiation damage, while cancer cells cannot.

Symptoms of adrenal tumors can include:

  • No symptoms
  • High blood pressure, fast heart rate , flushing and sweating
  • Anxiety, feeling more emotional than usual 
  • Weight gain, feeling tired, developing a shoulder hump, blue streaks on the abdomen (stomach area)
  • Acne (pimples) and facial hair
  • Breast development in men

Your doctor will use the results of your physical examination, blood and urine tests and X-rays to diagnose adrenal cancer. You will also have an MRI or CT scan of the abdomen (stomach area).

Most adrenal tumors are not cancerous and do not spread to other parts of the body. Many of them produce hormones that keep your body from working correctly. Some adrenal conditions are:

  • Pheochromocytoma: Tumors that can cause high blood pressure , fast heart rate , flushing and sweating. About 10 percent of pheochromocytomas are malignant and can spread to other parts of the body. Your doctor will use an MRI scan and blood and urine tests to diagnose a pheochromcytoma.    
  • Aldosteronoma: Tumors that can cause high blood pressure and lower levels of potassium, a mineral your body needs to work properly. Your doctor can diagnose this condition with urine and blood tests.  

More information