Adrenal cancer treatments

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.

Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are all used to treat adrenal cancer, though how each is used, and whether they may be used in combination, depends on a number of factors. The surgical oncologist may recommend one of multiple surgical approaches, depending on the stage of the disease.

In some cases of advanced adrenal cancer, chemotherapy may be used in combination with surgery to destroy cancer cells or keep them from growing and spreading. Radiation therapy is often given following surgery in patients with advanced adrenal cancer to shrink or destroy cancer cells that could not be removed during surgery.


Surgery is used to treat all stages of adrenal cancer. In some cases, the surgeon removes the tumor, while in other situations, the entire adrenal gland is removed during a procedure called an adrenalectomy. Because people have two adrenal glands, removing the cancerous gland isn’t likely to affect adrenal function.

During surgery, the surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes to evaluate them for the presence of cancer cells.

A minimally invasive procedure known as laparoscopy—using a thin, lighted tube with a camera attached inserted via small incisions—may be an option for small tumors. In cases where laparoscopy cannot be performed, other surgical procedures for adrenal cancer may include:

Posterior surgery: This procedure removes the tumor through an incision in the back, just above the kidneys. This is typically the approach used to treat small, benign adrenal tumors.

Transabdominal surgery: In this procedure, the surgical oncologist makes an incision through the abdomen to inspect nearby tissues and organs, while removing the adrenal tumor, gland(s) and other cancerous tissues found during the procedure.

Thoracoabdominal surgery: A long incision extending from the chest to the abdomen may be necessary to remove large, cancerous adrenal tumors. This procedure allows for a broader view of the surrounding tissues and organs in order to assess the potential spread and growth of the cancer.

Interventional radiology

Some patients with adrenal cancer may be treated with interventional radiology, an area of medicine that uses image-guided procedures to diagnose and treat cancer. Interventional radiologists us small catheters, needles and other minimally invasive tools and instruments. In some cases, interventional radiology may be an alternative to open surgery, and may reduce risk, pain and recovery times for some patients.

Radiation therapy

In advanced-stage adrenal cancers, radiation therapy may be given following surgery, a combination referred to as adjuvant therapy. Radiation therapy may serve multiple purposes, including treating tumors that can’t be removed during surgery, decreasing the risk of tumor recurrence and treating areas where the cancer has spread, such as the brain, liver or bones.

Radiation therapy options may include:

  • External beam radiation therapy: When the radiation is directed toward the body from the outside, much like an X-ray
  • Brachytherapy: When a small amount of radioactive material is placed near the tumor to more directly target the cancer

Our radiation oncologists are trained to use various technologies to destroy cancer cells, shrink tumors and/or reduce cancer-related symptoms.


Chemotherapy may be used in conjunction with surgery to treat advanced-stage adrenal cancer. Chemotherapy drugs are designed to destroy cancer cells or interfere with their ability to grow and reproduce. Since chemotherapy has not had significantly positive outcomes for adrenal cancer, it is most often used when the disease is too widespread to be removed surgically.

Next topic: What are the facts about adrenal cancer?

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