Adrenal tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign adrenal tumors are called adrenal adenomas. They are usually less than two inches in length and usually occur in just one gland (but can occur in both). Malignant adrenal tumors may be called adrenal carcinoma, adrenocortical cancer, or adrenal cortical cancer. Most cancers found in the adrenal gland actually started in other organs and spread to the adrenal glands. These are not adrenal cancer and they are named after their initial location in the body (such as lung cancer) and receive that type of treatment.

Overview and Symptoms

The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system and are located just above the kidneys. They produce hormones, including sex hormones and cortisol, which causes changes in metabolism and helps you respond to stress. The adrenal gland has two parts – the outer part is the cortex and inner part is the medulla. Most adrenal tumors occur in the adrenal cortex.

Sometimes adrenal tumors and adrenal cancer produce no symptoms, and they are not discovered until they become large and press on other organs in the body, causing pain or discomfort. Other times, adrenal tumors or adrenal cancer cause the adrenal gland to produce excess hormones, which can result in high blood pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, weight gain, fluid retention or excess hair growth in women.

Adrenal tumor diagnosis may include:
  • a physical exam and medical history
  • Blood and urine samples – to check for high levels of the hormones
  • Imaging tests, such as chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, positron emission tomography (PET) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Biopsy – the removal of part of the tumor, which is then looked at under the microscope

Treatment at BIDMC

  • Benign adrenal tumors are treated through the surgical removal of the tumor.
  • Adrenal cancer treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and other medications.

Some adrenal tumors can be removed using minimally invasive surgery, such as a laparoscopic adrenalectomy. Traditional open surgery involves making an 8-20 inch incision in the flank or abdomen and in some cases removing a rib. Postoperative pain and numbness near the wound site can interfere with breathing and extend recovery. Laparoscopic adrenalectomy, using tiny "keyhole" incisions, offers similar cure rates but with decreased blood loss, a shorter hospital stay and recovery period, as well as decreased pain and infection rates.

Genitourinary Cancer Program

Patients with adrenal cancer are treated through the Genitourinary Cancer Program, where leading oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, radiologists, and pathologists provide state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment.

Learn More

Endocrine Surgery

Our endocrine surgeons are highly skilled in treating conditions of the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands.

Learn More