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The average age of diagnosis for adrenal cancers is about 46. Adrenal tumors are found in approximately 10% of individuals who undergo an imaging test such as an MRI, but most of them are found to be benign–or harmless 1https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html.
If your doctor suspects you have adrenal cancer, they will likely recommend you undergo an imaging test, such as a CT scan or MRI, the former of which exposes you to potentially harmful radiation2https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/medical-x-ray-imaging/what-are-radiation-risks-ct.
For about 50% of individuals with adrenal cancer, symptoms could originate from hormones produced by the tumor in question:
For the other 50%, symptoms present because the tumor has become so big that it presses on organs nearby. Signs could include:
If you are having any of the above symptoms you need to talk to a doctor about the appropriate diagnostic work up.
It is difficult for researchers to pinpoint precisely what causes adrenal cancer, though they do know that adrenal cancer originates in genetic changes, or mutations, found in the DNA of normal adrenal cells. Sometimes, these mutations can occur in oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes, which are the genes in charge of when cells grow, divide, or die. Such mutations can be at least in part responsible for cancer and can be inherited from one’s parents or picked up randomly during one’s life3https://www.cancer.org/cancer/brain-spinal-cord-tumors-adults/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html.
Inherited genetic mutations are associated with up to 15% of adrenal cancers. Some genetic syndromes associated with an increased risk are:
If your doctor suspects you have adrenal cancer, their first steps will likely involve a thorough abdominal exam for evidence of a mass, as well as blood and urine analyses to look for high levels of hormones made by common adrenal tumors. If your doctor thinks you have an adrenal tumor, they will likely perform a CT scan, PET scan, ultrasound, or MRI4https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html. A 2016 study, however, showed that MRI with chemical shift imaging were more effective in differentiating adrenocortical adenomas from other adrenal lesions than CT scans5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26849154.
If you have adrenal cancer, your chance of surviving at least five years increases by about 37% if you catch it early6https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-by-stage.html. This makes early detection your best bet for fighting the disease.
If your doctor finds a tumor on the adrenal glands, they will likely not recommend performing a biopsy because it can increase the risk of the cancer spreading elsewhere; instead, patients will generally go straight to surgery for tumor removal. However, if the cancer has metastasized to another body part, a biopsy may be taken to see if the tumors are due to the adrenal cancer or originated from another cancer or disease7https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html.
Your doctor will, however, likely perform more tests–such as physical exams and imaging tests, as well as analyzing surgical results–in order to assign a stage for your cancer, which can help inform your treatment plan. Adrenal cancer is often graded based on the TNM system:
The best treatment for adrenal cancer depends on the nature of the disease and how far it has spread. Treatment options may include radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy8https://www.cancer.org/cancer/adrenal-cancer/treating.html.
Please consult with a physician on treatment options as necessary.