Diagnosing adrenal cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 7, 2022.

In addition to conducting a comprehensive medical history and exam, our clinicians may use a variety of tests and procedures for diagnosing adrenal cancer and staging the disease. The tests used depend on factors such as the size and location of the tumor.

Testing blood and urine is performed to look for irregular levels of adrenal hormones. These tests may detect adrenal cancer before symptoms develop

Other tests used for diagnosing adrenal cancer include:


This test takes an image or images of the chest and surrounding area—the lungs, heart, large arteries, ribs and diaphragm. Smaller structures, like blood vessels, are also inspected. A chest X-ray may show whether cancer has spread to the lungs and whether abnormalities have formed on the heart or lungs.


During this minimally invasive procedure, a long, thin instrument with a camera attached (a laparoscope) is inserted into the patient’s side. The camera transmits images from inside the body, allowing the doctor to view the adrenal mass and involved lymph nodes without having to perform surgery. Laparoscopy also helps the physician determine whether the cancer can be removed with surgery.

CT scan

This computed tomography (CT) imaging test is used to determine if surgery is a viable treatment option for adrenal cancer. This scan is used to determine whether cancer has developed in the adrenal glands or elsewhere in the body, such as the liver.


Using sound waves to create pictures may be used when a CT scan cannot be performed. Ultrasound allows the physician to view the adrenal glands, check for tumors and potential masses in the liver, where adrenal cancer may spread.


PET is an acronym for positron emission tomography. This test may be useful in determining whether an adrenal tumor is likely to be benign or cancerous, as well as whether the cancer has spread outside the adrenal glands.


An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test helps distinguish between normal and abnormal tissue. In the case of adrenal cancer, an MRI may provide greater soft tissue contrast than a CT scan. This type of imaging helps doctors evaluate adrenal tumors to determine if they are likely to be benign or cancerous. An MRI may also be used to inspect the brain. The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, and adrenal tumors may cause similar symptoms.


In this procedure, a tumor tissue sample is examined under a microscope. Blood, urine and imaging tests may also be used to help diagnose the disease instead. A CT-guided needle biopsy may be performed to confirm the presence of an adrenal carcinoma. A biopsy may be performed to determine if the tumors located outside the adrenal glands are related to the adrenal cancer or caused by another cancer or disease.

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