Your adrenal glands produce a number of important hormones, including cortisol and aldosterone. When a tumor develops on these glands, which are located above your kidneys, hormone production can be affected. Some types of adrenal tumors cause high blood pressure, diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome and other conditions. Others may cause weight gain, fatigue, easy bruising and other problems.

Most tumors, or growths, on the adrenal glands are not cancerous. But all adrenal tumors need to be treated or watched carefully to ensure they don’t cause serious problems.

While small, the adrenal glands play a vital and complex role in your body’s endocrine system. For this reason, adrenal tumors are best diagnosed and managed by a team of physicians with extensive and specialized experience. At the University of Chicago Medicine, our nationally respected endocrinologists and endocrine surgeons collaborate to identify the best way to treat benign adrenal tumors, using the most advanced medical and surgical approaches. When a tumor is cancerous, our world-class cancer experts, including medical oncologists and radiation oncologists, are brought onto the team.

Because our endocrinologists are also experts in managing high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions caused by hormonal changes, we can help patients effectively manage symptoms caused by an adrenal tumor or by the removal of an adrenal gland. We also specialize in diagnosing and treating rare types of adrenal tumors, including those linked to inherited disorders. Our Endocrine Genetics Clinic offers risk assessments to patients who may have inherited a tendency to get adrenal or other endocrine tumors.

Types of Adrenal Tumors

The adrenal glands have two sections: the cortex (outer region) and the medulla (the inner region). These two sections release different types of hormones. Thus, a tumor growing on the cortex will cause different symptoms than one growing on the medulla.

When an adrenal tumor is suspected, our physicians may order various tests, including blood draws and imaging, to determine what type of adrenal tumor you have. Types of adrenal tumors include:

  • Adrenal incidentalomas: These small tumors are found when patients get imaging tests. They are usually benign and don’t typically cause any symptoms.
  • Adenomas: Also known as adrenal cortex tumors, these growths are usually benign but can cause an overproduction of cortisol, aldosterone or other hormones. Overproduction of cortisol leads to Cushing’s syndrome, a condition that causes upper body obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other problems. Tumors of the adrenal cortex can also produce excess aldosterone, leading to high blood pressure and low potassium levels. This condition is known as Conn syndrome or hyperaldosteronism.
  • Adrenocortical carcinoma: This is the most common type of cancerous adrenal tumor and it can be aggressive.
  • Pheochromocytomas: These rare tumors begin in the medulla section of the adrenal glands. A small percentage of these tumors are cancerous. But even benign tumors may cause the over-production of catecholamine hormones (epinephrine and norepinephrine), which can raise blood pressure and cause other problems. Certain genetic diseases, including Von Hippel-Lindau disease and multiple endocrine neoplasia, can increase the risk of these tumors.
  • Paragangliomas: These neuroendocrine tumors can be similar to pheochromocytomas but form elsewhere in the body. Some inherited disorders can lead to these tumors.

Adrenal Tumor Treatment

Treatment for adrenal tumors will vary depending on the type of tumor and other factors. For instance, not all adrenal tumors affect hormone levels. An adrenal tumor is called a “functioning tumor” when it makes excess hormones, causing symptoms like high blood pressure or fatigue. When tumors do not produce hormones, they are called “non-functioning” tumors.

When a tumor is benign and non-functional, treatment may not be necessary. You and your endocrinologist may decide to wait and see if any symptoms develop.

When a tumor is cancerous or causing symptoms, surgery is often the first line of treatment. Typically, the adrenal gland with the tumor is removed in an operation called an adrenalectomy. Our endocrine surgeons are among the most experienced in the Midwest and have expertise in various techniques for adrenal surgery. We aim to tailor the surgery to each specific patient and tumor. In many cases, we perform adrenalectomies using minimally invasive laparoscopic techniques that reduce scarring, pain and recovery time. However, open surgical techniques may be necessary if the tumor has invaded surrounding organs.

If a patient is too fragile for surgery, our expert endocrinologists prescribe various medications to manage symptoms caused by adrenal tumors.

If a patient’s tumor is cancerous, our cancer team may recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation to kill cancer cells and prevent the cancer from returning.

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