The adrenal glands are triangular shaped glands located above the kidneys. The outer layer of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal cortex. It produces important hormones that regulate metabolism, water and salt levels, blood pressure and influence sexual characteristics. Cells in the adrenal cortex may rarely undergo a malignant transformation where they become abnormal and grow at an uncontrolled rate. This condition is referred to adrenocortical carcinoma.
The cause of adrenocortical carcinoma is unclear but individuals with certain hereditary conditions are at increased risk.
Adrenocortical carcinoma may be felt as abdominal or back pain, a lump in the abdomen or a feeling of fullness. Symptoms may be caused by overproduction of hormones. The hormones produced include cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone and estrogen.
Specific symptoms associated with overproduction of these hormones include:
Cortisol: Increased fat in the face, neck and trunk, breast development in males, deepening of voice, muscle weakness, high blood pressure.
Aldosterone: High blood pressure, muscle weakness, thirst
Testosterone (females): Balding, acne, hair on the face, back and upper arms, absence of menstrual period.
Estrogen (males): Growth of breast tissue, decreased libido and impotence
To diagnose an adrenocortical carcinoma, your doctor will review your history and symptoms and conduct a physical examination. Imaging studies as well as blood and urine tests are ordered. Your doctor will determine the type and stage of the cancer and if it has spread elsewhere.
Adrenocortical carcinoma may be cured by early intervention. It is usually treated by surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Treatments such as biologic therapy that use the body's immune system or targeted therapy that specifically attacks cancer cells may also be recommended.