November 22, 2023
November 22, 2023

What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?

Reviewed By:
What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?

Adrenal cancer, also called adrenocortical carcinoma, is a rare cancer that stems from the adrenal cortex. Located atop each kidney, the adrenal glands produce vital hormones that regulate several important bodily functions. Recognizing the symptoms of adrenal cancer can be crucial for early diagnosis and treatment.

How Common Are Adrenal Tumors?

Symptoms of adrenal cancer: illustration of a person's adrenal glands

Adrenal gland tumors, specifically primary tumors that start in the adrenal gland, are relatively rare. Every year, around 600 people in the United States receive a diagnosis of adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC), a form of cancer that originates from the outer layer of the adrenal gland. 

Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) is a group of rare, inherited disorders that involve the development of tumors (benign or malignant) in two or more endocrine glands, including the adrenal glands. MEN is primarily characterized by the occurrence of tumors in multiple endocrine glands simultaneously.

Adrenal adenomas are benign (non-cancerous) tumors that are more common than MEN and ACC. These tend to be diagnosed more frequently in middle-aged and older adults. The average age of someone diagnosed with any kind of adrenal gland tumor is 46.

Can Adrenal Cancer Be Treated or Cured?

The main treatment for adrenal cancer is surgical removal (adrenalectomy). When adrenal cancer is found early, there’s a chance for a cure. However, if the cancer has spread to areas beyond the adrenal glands, a cure becomes less likely. The five-year survival rate is 74% when the tumor is found early and can be removed surgically.

The five-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least five years after their cancer is diagnosed. So, a five-year survival rate of 74% would mean that an estimated 74 out of 100 people are alive five years after being diagnosed.

Several factors can influence this rate:

  • Earlier stages usually have higher survival rates because the cancer hasn't spread and is easier to treat.
  • Other health conditions can impact a patient's resilience and ability to undergo treatment.
  • How well a patient's cancer responds to treatment will directly affect their prognosis.

Key Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer

Sometimes there are no signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer in its early stages, but as it progresses, several signs may indicate its presence. 

Hormonal Changes

The adrenal glands make hormones (sex hormones) like androgens and estrogens. When there's a tumor, these glands might make too many hormones. This can cause specific symptoms of adrenal cancer depending on age and gender.

For kids, signs and symptoms of adrenal cancer may look like early puberty. For example, getting taller quickly. While there’s no specific time frame that’s more indicative of cancer or dysfunction, the key is to pay attention. 

If a child is growing significantly faster than their peers, or if an adult is experiencing rapid changes in their body, such as a deepening voice, increased body hair growth, or changes in their menstrual cycle, it’s crucial to see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

Unexplained Weight Gain or Weight Loss

Tumors in the adrenal glands can interfere with the body's metabolism. Weight gain or weight loss due to adrenal tumors is primarily driven by the hormones produced (or not produced) by the adrenal glands.

  • Weight gain: The adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol, which helps your body respond to stress, maintain blood pressure, and regulate your metabolism (how your body uses food for energy). When a tumor makes the adrenal gland produce too much cortisol, it can cause an increase in appetite and make your body hold onto more weight — especially in the face, neck, abdomen, and upper back. This can lead to weight gain.
  • Weight loss: On the other hand, if the tumor affects the adrenal gland in a way that produces less of certain hormones needed by your body, it can cause a decrease in appetite and change how your body burns or stores fat, leading to weight loss. Both weight gain and weight loss can cause stretch marks, which are common signs.

Muscle Weakness and Fatigue

When the adrenal glands aren't working right because of a tumor, muscles may feel weak — like the way your legs might feel after a long run — but it happens without exercising.

High Blood Pressure

The adrenal glands make aldosterone, which helps control blood pressure. A tumor can make the gland produce too much of the aldosterone hormone, leading to high blood pressure. 

Blood Sugar Fluctuations

The adrenal glands also play a role in managing blood sugar. When they're not working correctly because of a tumor, sugar levels can go up and down. This is like a seesaw that doesn't stay balanced and can lead to diabetes.


Cortisol also helps your body deal with injuries. If the tumor affects how much cortisol you have, you might bruise more easily. Think of cortisol as the body's natural Band-Aid. Without enough of it, you might see more marks on your skin.

Nausea, Vomiting, and Abdominal Pain

When an adrenal tumor grows, it can press on nearby organs, causing pain or a feeling of fullness. Accompanying weight gain may cause your clothes to feel tight all of a sudden. Or your skin may feel tight and itchy. 

Does Adrenal Cancer Show Up in Blood Work?

Symptoms of adrenal cancer: stressed entrepreneur at her office

Adrenal dysfunction can sometimes be detected through blood work. When adrenal tumors are present, they produce excess hormones that can be measured in the blood. For instance, elevated levels of cortisol, aldosterone, androgens, or estrogens in blood (or in urine tests) can be indicative of an adrenal tumor. 

While blood tests can show abnormal hormone levels suggesting the presence of an adrenal tumor, further imaging tests like computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the adrenal glands are typically needed to locate and assess the tumor directly.

How Does Adrenal Cancer Start?

Adrenal cancer, specifically adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC), originates in the adrenal cortex — the outer layer of the adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney. The exact cause of adrenal cancer is still unknown. But like other cancers, it starts when cells grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. Over time, these cancer cells in the adrenal glands can invade nearby tissues or spread to other body parts.

Who Is Most Likely to Get Adrenal Gland Cancer?

Adrenal carcinoma (cancer) is rare and can occur at any age. But while anyone can develop adrenal cancer, certain factors can increase the risk:

  • Genetics: Some inherited conditions, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome or Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, increase the risk of developing adrenal cancer and bone cancer.
  • History of cancer: Individuals who have had another type of cancer may be at a slightly increased risk.
  • Exposure to certain toxins: Some studies suggest that exposure to specific carcinogens or industrial chemicals might increase the risk, but more research is needed in this area.

It's worth noting that many people diagnosed with adrenal cancer might not have any clear risk factors, and many who have known risk factors won't develop the disease.

What Does Adrenal Cancer Pain Feel Like?

Pain associated with adrenal cancer can vary based on the tumor's size, location, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. In its early stages, adrenal cancer might not cause any pain or discomfort. But as the tumor grows, it can cause the following:

  • Abdominal or back pain: This is often described as a deep, dull ache resulting from the tumor pressing on nearby organs or tissues.
  • Fullness or a lump in the abdomen: Some people might feel a noticeable lump or a sensation of fullness.
  • Other symptoms: As adrenal cancer affects hormone production, other symptoms like unexplained weight gain or loss, high blood pressure, or changes in appearance can occur, which may indirectly cause discomfort.

If you suspect you have symptoms of adrenal cancer or have concerns about any health issue, consult a doctor for accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.

Should You Get Screened Before You Have Symptoms of Adrenal Cancer?

Early detection is crucial in the fight against adrenal cancer. With advanced screening techniques, it's possible to identify potential concerns even before symptoms appear. By leveraging tools like Ezra's Full Body MRI Scan, you can proactively monitor changes in your adrenal glands, ensuring timely intervention and improving the chances of a successful treatment outcome. Here are some of the benefits of a full-body MRI scan from Ezra. 

  • Cancer screening: The Ezra MRI screens 13 organs, including the adrenal glands. This ensures an examination of the adrenal glands, along with other critical organs, providing a more holistic view of a person's health.
  • Safe and non-invasive: MRI scans are non-invasive, making them a preferred method for many patients. Moreover, they do not use ionizing radiation, unlike some other imaging methods like CT scans.
  • Continuity of care: After getting a scan, you can ask for your results to be passed on to your primary care doctor. This ensures your primary care provider can easily access and interpret the findings.
  • Expert follow-up: Everyone who gets an Ezra scan can get a follow-up from a licensed clinician. This ensures that any potential findings are communicated, understood, and acted upon in a timely manner.
  • Proactive health management: With the ability to book MRI scans online, you no longer have to wait for referrals. You can take a more proactive approach to your health, especially when it comes to detecting early changes in the adrenal glands.

Early Detection Can Make a Big Difference

Symptoms of adrenal cancer: senior couples dancing outdoors

The adrenal glands, though small, play a crucial role in your body's hormone production and regulation. Even though adrenal cancer is fairly rare, it’s a good idea to understand the signs and symptoms so that you’re aware of changes in your body.

The Ezra Full Body MRI scan provides a state-of-the-art solution to keep a watchful eye on your adrenal glands and many other body parts. When you start screening before you have any symptoms, it’s easier to watch for any changes that may occur. This is helpful because, with all types of cancer, early detection leads to more successful cancer treatment. 

Discover the peace of mind a comprehensive screening can offer. Book your scan today.