Cancer of the adrenal cortex, a rare cancer, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the adrenal cortex, which is the outside layer of the adrenal gland. Cancer of the adrenal cortex is also called adrenocortical carcinoma. There are two adrenal glands, one above each kidney in the back of the upper abdomen. The adrenal glands are also called the suprarenal glands. The inside layer of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal medulla. Cancer that starts in the adrenal medulla is called pheochromocytoma and is discussed in a separate PDQ patient information summary.
The cells in the adrenal cortex make important hormones that help the body work properly. When cells in the adrenal cortex become cancerous, they may make too much of one or more hormones, which can cause symptoms such as high blood pressure, weakening of the bones, or diabetes. If male or female hormones are affected, the body may go through changes such as a deepening of the voice, growing hair on the face, swelling of the sex organs, or swelling of the breasts. Cancers that make hormones are called functioning tumors. Many cancers of the adrenal cortex do not make extra hormones and are called nonfunctioning tumors.
A doctor should be seen if the following symptoms appear and won’t go away:
If there is a functioning tumor, there may be symptoms or signs caused by too many hormones.
If there are symptoms, a doctor will order blood and urine tests to see whether the amounts of hormones in the body are normal. A doctor may also order a computed tomography scan of the abdomen, a special x-ray that uses a computer to make a picture of the inside of the abdomen. Other special x-rays may also be done to tell what kind of tumor is present.
The chance of recovery (prognosis) depends on how far the cancer has spread (stage) and on whether a doctor was able to surgically remove all of the cancer.
Once cancer of the adrenal cortex has been found, more tests will be done to see how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. A doctor needs to know the stage of the cancer to plan treatment. The following stages are used for cancer of the adrenal cortex:
The cancer is less than 5 centimeters (less than 2 inches) and has not spread into tissues around the adrenal gland.
The cancer is more than 5 centimeters (greater than 2 inches) and has not spread into tissues around the adrenal gland.
The cancer has spread into tissues around the adrenal gland or has spread to the lymph nodes around the adrenal gland. Lymph nodes are part of the lymph system and are small, bean shaped organs that make and store infection-fighting cells.
The cancer has spread to tissues or organs in the area and to lymph nodes around the adrenal cortex, or the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The cancer has come back (recurred) after it has been treated. It may come back in the adrenal cortex or in another part of the body.
There are treatments for all patients with cancer of the adrenal cortex. Three kinds of treatment are used:
A doctor may take out the adrenal gland in an operation called an adrenalectomy. Tissues around the adrenal glands that contain cancer may be removed. Lymph nodes in the area may also be removed (lymph node dissection).
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be put into the body by a needle in a vein or muscle. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and kills cancer cells throughout the body.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation for cancer of the adrenal cortex usually comes from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy).
Besides treatment for cancer (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or surgery), a patient may also receive therapy to prevent or treat symptoms caused by the extra hormones that are made by the cancer.
Treatment depends on how far the cancer has spread, and a patient’s age and overall health.
Standard treatment may be considered because of its effectiveness in past studies, or participation in a clinical trial may be considered. Not all patients are cured with standard therapy, and some standard treatments may have more side effects than are desired. For these reasons, clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. Clinical trials are ongoing in some parts of the country for patients with cancer of the adrenal cortex. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.
Treatment will probably be surgery to remove the cancer.
Treatment will probably be surgery to remove the cancer. Clinical trials are testing new treatments.
Treatment may be one of the following:
Treatment may be one of the following:
Treatment depends on many factors, including where the cancer came back and what treatment has already been received. In some cases, surgery can be effective in decreasing the symptoms of the disease by removing some of the tumor. Clinical trials are testing new treatments.
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Editorial changes were made to this summary,and links to the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms were added.
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PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.
Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."
Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.
Physicians version: CDR0000062907
Date last modified: 2005-07-21
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