What is Adrenal Cancer?

Diagram of kidney anatomy
A closer look at your adrenal gland.

Cancer of the adrenal gland is very rare. It forms in the tissues of the adrenal glands, two glands located just above the kidneys that make the steroid hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. There are different types of adrenal cancer named for the cells in which cancer originates:

  • Adrenocorticol Carcinoma: begins in the outside layer of the adrenal gland, or adrenal cortex.
  • Malignant Pheochromocytoma: begins in the inner layer of the adrenal gland, or adrenal medulla.

Your Adrenal Glands

There are two adrenal glands in the body located on top of the kidneys. Each adrenal gland has two parts: the outer layer is the adrenal cortex; the inner layer is the adrenal medulla. Both have an important role to play in maintaining bodily functions.

The adrenal cortex makes hormones that:

  • Balance the level of salt and water 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 adrenaline-type hormones that::

  • Allow the body to react to stress

Metastatic Adrenal Cancer

When adrenal cancer spreads beyond the adrenal glands, it is considered metastatic disease. At this point, the cancer becomes more difficult to treat. 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 adrenal cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually adrenal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic adrenal cancer, not lung cancer.


General symptoms of adrenal cancer include a lump in the abdomen or pain in the abdomen or back. The appearance of additional symptoms depend on whether the tumor is functioning (makes more hormones than normal) or nonfunctioning (does not make hormones). A nonfunctioning tumor may not have any signs. However, the excess of hormones produced by a functioning tumor trigger a variety of side effects depending on the hormone released. Most functioning tumors in the adrenal gland are benign and not cancerous, but can still be dangerous due to the excess of hormones they make.


  • Weight gain in the face, neck, and trunk of the body and thin arms and legs
  • Growth of fine hair on the face, upper back, or arms
  • A round, red, full face
  • A lump of fat on the back of the neck
  • A deepening of the voice and swelling of the sex organs or breasts in both males and females
  • Muscle weakness
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure


  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling thirsty


  • Anxiety
  • Irregular or racing heartbeat
  • Sweats/flushes
  • Headaches

Testosterone (in women)

  • Growth of fine hair on the face, upper back, or arms
  • Acne
  • Balding
  • A deepening of the voice
  • No menstrual periods

(Men producing excess testosterone typically do not have symptoms)

Estrogen (in women)

  • Irregular menstrual periods in women who have not gone through menopause
  • Menstrual bleeding in women who have gone through menopause 

Estrogen (in men)

  • Growth of breast tissue
  • Lower sex drive
  • Impotence

These symptoms may be the result of a condition other than cancer. If you are experiencing any of the above, you should speak with your physician to determine the exact cause.