Symptoms of adrenal gland cancer

Adrenal gland cancer may not cause any signs or symptoms in its early stages. Signs and symptoms often appear as the tumour grows or makes hormones that cause changes in the body. Other health conditions can cause the same symptoms as adrenal gland cancer.

The signs and symptoms of adrenal gland cancer may vary depending on:

  • whether the tumour is producing hormones (functional) or not (non-functional)
  • which hormones are produced too much
  • whether the tumour is large and pressing on nearby organs
  • whether the cancer has spread to other organs

Non-functional adrenal gland tumours usually don’t make any hormones and don’t cause any symptoms. Non-functional tumours have few early signs and symptoms. They may only cause symptoms as they grow large and spread to other organs.

Functional adrenal gland tumours make too much of a certain hormone and cause symptoms. The symptoms will depend on which hormones are overproduced by the tumour. See your doctor if you have any of the following signs or symptoms.

Symptoms caused by too much cortisol

Adrenal gland tumours that make too much cortisol in the body cause Cushing syndrome (hypercortisolism). Cushing syndrome can also be caused by a pituitary gland tumour or drugs given to treat other health problems. Most people with a functional adrenal tumour develop Cushing syndrome. The signs and symptoms of Cushing syndrome include:

  • weight gain
  • a red, round and full face
  • muscle weakness
  • increased hair growth on the face and body
  • buildup of fat between the shoulders or above the collar bone
  • purple lines on the skin
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood sugar (glucose) levels
  • changes in mood and behaviour

Symptoms caused by too much aldosterone

Adrenal gland tumours that make too much aldosterone in the body cause Conn’s syndrome (primary hyperaldosteronism). The signs and symptoms of Conn’s syndrome include:

  • high blood pressure
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle cramps
  • increased thirst
  • frequent urination
  • frontal headaches
  • abnormal sensation on the skin (paraesthesia), such as numbness, prickling, tingling or burning
  • heart problems
  • changes to vision

Symptoms caused by too much androgen or estrogen

Adrenal gland tumours that make too much of the sex hormones androgen and estrogen cause adrenogenital syndrome. The following are signs and symptoms of adrenogenital syndrome.

Too much androgen production in women may cause:

  • excessive hair growth on the face, arms or upper back
  • acne
  • balding
  • deepening of the voice
  • no menstrual periods

Too much estrogen production in women may cause:

  • irregular menstrual periods in premenopausal women
  • menstrual bleeding in post-menopausal women

Too much estrogen production in men may cause:

  • breast enlargement
  • decreased sex drive
  • impotence

Too much androgen production in men usually does not cause symptoms.

Symptoms caused by too much epinephrine or norepinephrine

Functional pheochromocytomas can make too much epinephrine or norepinephrine. High levels of these hormones can cause health problems. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • high blood pressure
  • headache
  • sweating
  • rapid heart beat

Symptoms caused by growth of the tumour

Signs and symptoms often occur as the tumour grows larger or spreads to other parts of the body and may include:

  • pain in the abdomen or back
  • feeling of fullness in the abdomen
  • a lump in the abdomen
  • feeling full sooner than normal after eating or after eating less than usual
  • pain and difficulty passing urine
  • swelling of the legs

Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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