Adrenal cancer is characterized by the growth of a tumor in the adrenal glands. The signs and symptoms associated with it can vary significantly according to the size and nature of growth of the tumor. Initially, the symptoms are quite subtle but usually become more obvious as the tumor grows in size and press against nearby tissues in the abdomen, or spreads to other areas of the body. The characteristics of adrenal cancer are discussed in more detail below.
Signs and symptoms that may be indicative of adrenal cancer are usually quite subtle in the initial stages of the condition, which can make diagnosis difficult. They may include:
- Lump in the abdomen
- Chronic pain (usually in the abdominal area)
- Feeling of fullness
- Unexplained weight loss
However, it is important to note that these are quite general and may occur as a result of a large number of health conditions. For this reason, differential diagnosis is important to determine the cause and make a diagnosis of adrenal cancer. Blood test, urine tests, and imaging techniques are usually required in this process.
Although a tumor of the adrenal gland may grow to a large size, the majority of tumors on the adrenal glands are benign. However, the size of the tumor can put pressure on adjacent organs, such as the stomach, even if they are benign.
The size of the tumor may cause patients to experience a feeling of fullness. This may cause loss of appetite and, as a result, unexplained weight loss.
A lump or mass may be visible in the abdominal region where the tumor is. This can often be the first sign reported by patients, particularly for those with benign tumors. Thus, physical examination of the abdomen is an important step in the diagnosis of adrenal cancer.
The adrenal glands are responsible for the production of regulatory hormones such as adrenaline and cortisone. As a result, the characteristics of adrenal cancer are closely linked to imbalances in these hormones, usually an overproduction of the hormones and related symptoms. The type of hormone that is secreted by the tumor will determine the related symptoms.
Conn’s disease, also known as Conn’s syndrome, is a condition associated with adrenal cancer that is caused by excessive production of aldosterone. This can lead to hypokalemia, hypernatremia, and hypertension, which may be life-threatening in some cases.
Cushing’s syndrome is a condition associated with adrenal cancer that involves excessive production of cortisol. This can lead to symptoms such as hypertension, weight gain, abnormal weight distribution (bloated face or hump on back), excessive hair growth, weakness, and fatigue.
Overproduction of androgen or estrogen hormones can affect the sexual development of males and females. This may lead to an early onset of puberty in children or altered sexual characteristics in adults.
Adrenal cancer that has spread to other areas of the body is known as stage 4 adrenal cancer, according to the system set out by the World Health Organization (WHO). The organs most likely to be affected are the liver and the lungs, although any area of the body can be affected in theory.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc