Adrenal Cancer

There are two adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are small and shaped like a triangle. One adrenal gland sits on top of each kidney. Each adrenal gland has two parts. The outer layer of the adrenal gland is the adrenal cortex. The center of the adrenal gland is the adrenal medulla.

The adrenal cortex makes important hormones that:

  • Balance the water and salt in the body.
  • Help keep blood pressure normal.
  • Help manage the body's use of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
  • Cause the body to have masculine or feminine characteristics.

The adrenal medulla makes hormones that help the body react to stress.

Adrenocortical carcinoma is also called cancer of the adrenal cortex. A tumor of the adrenal cortex may be functioning (makes more hormones than normal) or nonfunctioning (does not make hormones). The hormones made by functioning tumors may cause certain signs or symptoms of disease.

Cancer that forms in the adrenal medulla is called pheochromocytoma.

Having certain genetic conditions increases the risk of developing adrenocortical carcinoma.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for adrenocortical carcinoma include having the following hereditary diseases:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome.
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Carney complex.

Three ways that cancer spreads in the body

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

Stage I

In stage I, the tumor is 5 centimeters or smaller and is found only in the adrenal gland.

Stage II

In stage II, the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and is found only in the adrenal gland.

Stage III

In stage III, the tumor can be any size and may have spread to fat or lymph nodes near the adrenal gland.

Stage IV

In stage IV, the tumor can be any size and has spread:

  • to fat or organs and to lymph nodes near the adrenal gland; or
  • to other parts of the body. Adrenocortical carcinoma commonly spreads to the lung, liver, bones, and peritoneum (the tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the organs in the abdomen).
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