Adrenal gland
cancer

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What is adrenal gland cancer?

Adrenal gland cancer starts in the cells of the adrenal gland. Cancer may start in the outer layer of the adrenal gland (adrenal cortex) or in the inner layer of the adrenal gland (adrenal medulla). A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. When cancer starts in the adrenal gland cells, it is called adrenal gland cancer or primary adrenal gland cancer. This type of cancer is rare.

When cancer starts in another part of the body and spreads to the adrenal gland, it is called secondary adrenal gland cancer. Secondary adrenal cancers include melanoma, lymphoma and cancer of the lung, breast, colon and rectum. Secondary adrenal cancer is more common than primary.

The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the group of glands and cells that make and release hormones into the blood. These hormones control many body functions, such as growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger and metabolism.

You have 2 adrenal glands. There is one above each kidney, and the kidneys are deep inside the upper part of the abdomen. Each adrenal gland has 2 main layers – an outer layer of gland tissue and an inner layer of nerve tissue. A covering (capsule) surrounds and protects each adrenal gland.

Diagram of the location of the adrenal glands

Cells in the adrenal gland sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. Changes in the adrenal cortex may lead to non-cancerous tumours such as adrenal adenomas. These changes may also become cancerous. This type of cancer is called adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC). It is the most common primary adrenal gland cancer.

Changes in the adrenal medulla may lead to tumours such as pheochromocytomas. Most pheochromocytomas are non-cancerous but some may become cancerous.

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