Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
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Adrenal Gland Tumor

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 2/2013

About the adrenal glands

Each person has two adrenal glands—one located on top of each of the body’s two kidneys. These glands are important to the body’s endocrine (hormonal) system. Each adrenal gland has two main parts that function separately:

Adrenal cortex. The outer part of the adrenal gland is called the cortex. The adrenal cortex makes three main hormones: cortisol, aldosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These hormones carefully control metabolism and body characteristics, such as hair growth and body shape.

Adrenal medulla. The gland’s inner part is called the medulla. The adrenal medulla makes other hormones: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These hormones control the body’s responses to stress, including the “fight or flight” adrenaline surge.

Types of adrenal gland tumors

A tumor begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body).

An adrenal gland tumor can sometimes overproduce hormones. When it does, the tumor is called a functioning tumor. An adrenal gland tumor that does not produce hormones is called a nonfunctioning tumor. A tumor can start in an adrenal gland (called a primary adrenal tumor), or it can begin in another organ, such as the lungs, and then metastasize (spread) to the adrenal glands. The symptoms and treatment of an adrenal gland tumor depend on whether the tumor is functioning or nonfunctioning, what hormone(s) is overproduced, and whether the tumor is a primary adrenal gland tumor or a metastases from cancer of another organ.

This section focuses on primary adrenal gland tumors, which include the following:

Adenoma. Adenoma is the most common type of adrenal gland tumor, making up the majority of all adrenal gland tumors. It is a noncancerous, nonfunctioning tumor of the adrenal cortex. Also called an adrenocortical adenoma, this tumor usually does not cause symptoms and, if it is small, often does not need treatment.

Adrenocortical carcinoma. Although rare, the most common type of cancerous adrenal gland tumors begins in the cortex and is called adrenocortical carcinoma, or adrenal cortical carcinoma. Approximately four to 12 out of one million people develop this type of tumor. Adrenocortical carcinoma can be a functioning or nonfunctioning tumor; if the tumor is functioning, it may produce more than one hormone.

Neuroblastoma. This is a type of childhood cancer that can begin in the adrenal medulla. Learn more about childhood neuroblastoma.

Pheochromocytoma. This type of neuroendocrine tumor most often begins in the adrenal medulla. Learn more about pheochromocytoma.

Find out more about basic terms used in this section.

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