Adrenal cancer types

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.

Differentiating between benign and cancerous adrenal tumors under a microscope may be challenging. According to the American Cancer Society, sometimes the only way to confirm adrenal cancer is when it has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs and tissues. Non-cancerous adrenal tumors (adenomas) do not spread beyond the adrenal gland.

There are three common types of adrenal cancer:

Adrenocortical carcinoma: Also called adrenal cortical carcinoma (ACC) or adrenal cortex cancer, this is the most common form of adrenal cancer. It usually forms in the outer layer of the cortex and is typically not detected until the tumor is quite large. This cancer type is often discovered after the onset of symptoms, notably pain or a feeling of fullness, resulting in weight loss. Adrenocortical carcinomas may also produce excess hormones that may cause weight gain, excess facial hair or early puberty. If an adrenal tumor is larger than 5 to 6 centimeters, it is usually assumed to be cancer.

Pheochromocytoma: This type of adrenal cancer forms in the central part of the medulla and typically originates from adrenaline-producing cells. Adrenaline helps regulate important bodily functions, including heart rate and blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure, excessive sweating, racing heart and anxiety are among the symptoms of this type of tumor.

Neuroblastoma: Found in developing nerve cells of the medulla, this type of adrenal cancer usually affects infants or children under 10. Due to the unique nature of the cells, early detection is possible. In rare cases, however, the origin may be hard to determine since the cells can spread quickly. About one in three neuroblastomas begin in the adrenal glands, according to the American Cancer Society.

Next topic: What are the stages of adrenal cancer?

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