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Adrenal gland

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What is adrenal gland cancer?

Adrenal gland cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the adrenal gland. Malignant means that it can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.

You have 2 adrenal glands. There is one above each kidney, and the kidneys are deep inside the upper part of the abdomen. The adrenal glands are part of the body’s 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.

The adrenal gland has 3 layers. The outer covering is called the capsule. It is made of dense fibrous tissue. Inside the capsule is a layer of gland tissue, which is called the adrenal cortex. The inner layer is called the medulla. It is made of nerve tissue.

Cells in the adrenal gland sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. When cells in the adrenal cortex become abnormal, they can form non-cancerous, or benign, tumours called adrenal cortical adenoma. Sometimes cells in the adrenal cortex change and become cancerous. This type of cancer is called adrenocortical carcinoma. It is the most common cancerous tumour of the adrenal gland.

Tumours can also start in the medulla of the adrenal gland. When chromaffin cells in the medulla become abnormal, they can lead to a tumour called pheochromocytoma. Most pheochromocytomas are non-cancerous, but some are likely to become cancerous. . Pheochromocytomas are a type of neuroendocrine tumour.

Other types of tumours can start in the adrenal gland, but they are very rare. These include myelolipomas, cysts and pseudocysts, adenomatoid tumours and lymphoma.

Cancerous adrenal gland tumours are rare. It is more common for other types of cancer to spread, or metastasize, to the adrenal gland.

Diagram of location of adrenal glands and kidneys


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