Introduction to Adrenal Gland Tumors

Executive Summary

The adrenal glands are the endocrine glands that produce different hormones such as adrenaline, steroids, aldosterone, cortisol, etc. You can find these small glands situated on top of each kidney. They produces hormones essential for the body, such as sex hormones and cortisol. Cortisol helps in managing the stress level and other vital functions. The disorders of adrenal glands cause too much production or no production of hormones. Cushing’s syndrome causes too much production of cortisol, and Addison’s disease causes minimal production of cortisol. The excess production of these hormones or no production of hormones in adrenal glands causes tumors in the adrenal gland, known as adrenal gland tumors. This type of tumor depends on the functioning and nonfunctioning hormone production in adrenal glands.

What are adrenal glands?

Before talking about adrenal gland tumors, let us know that everyone has two adrenal glands. There is one adrenal gland for each kidney. Our body has two kidneys. The adrenal glands are small, yellow, and usually weigh about 10 grams, and these glands are essential to the body’s endocrine system. The endocrine system comprises tissues and organs that produce hormones ​1​. Hormones are chemicals transported through the bloodstream and have certain effects on other organs and cells in the body.

Each adrenal gland has two significant parts that function separately. Below is the description for the same: 

Adrenal cortex: It is the outer region of the adrenal gland. The adrenal cortex produces three essential hormones: cortisol, aldosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These hormones control metabolism, blood pressure, and body characteristics such as hair growth and shape.

Adrenal medulla: it is the inner region of the adrenal gland. The adrenal medulla produces three hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. These hormones, also known as catecholamines that control the body’s response to stress, including the “fight or flight” rush of adrenaline.

About Adrenal Gland Tumor

Tumors begin when healthy cells change and become uncontrollable, forming a mass. Tumors can be malignant or benign. Malignant tumors are cancerous, which means they can grow and spread to other body parts. But a benign tumor means that the tumor can grow but cannot spread.

Adrenal Gland tumors initiate the overproduction of hormones. In that case, the tumor is called a “functional tumor.” Adrenal tumors that do not produce hormones are called “non-functional tumors” ​​2​​. Symptoms and treatment of adrenal tumors depend on: 

  • Whether the tumor is functioning or nonfunctioning
  • Which hormone(s) is produced in excess
  • Whether the tumor started in the adrenal gland or spread from another organ

This section focuses primarily on adrenal tumors. Primary adrenal tumors begin in the adrenal glands. Adrenal tumors can develop in other organs, such as the lungs, and can also come from cancer that has spread to the adrenal glands through metastasis.

Also Read: Types of cancer

Primary Adrenal Gland tumors include the following

  • Adenoma: It is the most common type of adrenal tumor. Adrenocortical adenoma is an another name for adenoma. It is the benign tumor of the adrenal cortex that may or may not be functioning. So, small adenomas that do not cause symptoms or produce excess hormones do not require treatment. Adenomas with excess hormones are called aldosterone when they create a blood pressure hormone called aldosterone. In fact, adenomas that overproduce cortisol cause Cushing’s syndrome, characterized by weight gain, bruising, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
  • Adrenocortical carcinoma: You can find this tumor in adrenal cortex. It is rare, but is considered as the most common type of cancerous adrenal gland tumor. You may know it by another name i.e., adrenal cortical carcinoma. 4 to 12 people out of every 1 million people tend to develop adrenocortical carcinoma. It can be a functioning or nonfunctioning tumor. If the tumor is functioning, it may produce more than one hormone.
  • Pheochromocytoma: It is the neuroendocrine tumor that most commonly begins in the adrenal medulla and is characterized by symptoms such as hypertension, rapid heartbeat, and sweating.
  • Neuroblastoma: It is the type of childhood cancer that can occur in the adrenal medulla. 

References

  1. 1.
    Rosol TJ, Yarrington JT, Latendresse J, Capen CC. Adrenal Gland: Structure, Function, and Mechanisms of Toxicity. Toxicol Pathol. Published online January 2001:41-48. doi:10.1080/019262301301418847
  2. 2.
    Kao SCS, Pinto-Rojas A. Tumors of the Adrenal Gland. Pediatric Malignancies: Pathology and Imaging. Published online October 28, 2014:321-357. doi:10.1007/978-1-4939-1729-7_12