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.

Adrenal tumors develop in the adrenal glands, which are located above each kidney and create hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) that help regulate body functions. In most instances, adrenal tumors are benign (non-cancerous), but about 200 people in the United States are diagnosed with adrenal cancer annually.

Differentiating between benign and cancerous adrenal tumors under a microscope may be challenging. 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.

The adrenal cancer type is assigned based on where the cancer is located within the adrenal gland and what type of cells are involved.

Adrenocortical carcinoma

Also called adrenal cortical carcinoma (ACC) or adrenal cortex cancer, this is the most common form of adrenal cancer. Adrenocortical carcinoma usually forms in the cortex (the outer region of the adrenal gland) and is typically not detected until the tumor is quite large. This cancer type is often discovered after the onset of adrenal cancer 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 in younger people. If an adrenal tumor is larger than 5 centimeters, it is usually assumed to be cancer, and further testing is performed.


This type of adrenal cancer forms in the central part of the medulla, the inner part of the adrenal gland, and typically originates in 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 pheochromocytoma.


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. Most neuroblastomas begin in the adrenal glands, but the disease may also start in nerve tissues near the abdomen, pelvis, neck, chest or spine.


This type of neuroendocrine tumor forms either within the adrenal glands or just outside of them. Paraganglioma is rare and is typically diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50. This condition doesn’t always cause symptoms, but when it does, they may include a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, a headache, tremors and sweating.

Next topic: What are the stages of adrenal cancer?

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