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Adrenocortical Carcinoma

(Cancer of the Adrenal Cortex; Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma; Adrenal Cancer)


Adrenocortical carcinoma is cancer that starts in the adrenal cortex. There are 2 adrenal glands. They’re found above each kidney. They make important hormones. The hormones control heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, they manage the response to stress and infection.

This type of cancer is rare. In most cases, these tumors make too much of certain hormones. This can lead to an imbalance.

Anatomy of the Adrenal Glands
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Cancer is when cells in the body split without control or order. These cells go on to form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to harmful growths. These growths attack nearby tissues. They also spread to other parts of the body. It’s not clear exactly what causes these problems. It’s likely a mix of genes and the environment.

Risk Factors

There aren’t any known risk factors. But, problems with certain genes may be linked with the disease.


Most people don’t have symptoms. If they appear, they are linked to an imbalance in hormones such as:

  • Weight gain
  • Easy bruising
  • Irritability
  • Rounding of the face
  • Muscle weakness
  • Thin skin
  • Excess hair growth in women
  • Increase in breast size in men not related to weight gain
  • Loss of sex drive

The problems depend on which hormone is out of balance.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. Most adrenal cancer is found during a routine image testing. When a tumor is found, testing will be done. This includes:

Additional testing will be done to determine what stage the cancer has reached. The stage of a tumor is determined by its size and how far it has spread from its point of origin.


Treatment depends on the stage of the tumor. These may include:

  • Surgery— Adrenalectomy to remove the adrenal tumor. In most cases, this is the first treatment if the tumor is causing problems.
  • Radiation therapy—Used to shrink any remaining tumors after surgery or if the cancer has spread. It may be:
    • External—radiation aimed at the tumor from a source outside the body
    • Internal—radioactive materials are placed into the body near the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy—Use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. It’s not used as a cure. But it may be done if cancer has spread and surgery isn’t possible.
  • Medicines are used to:
    • Kill cancer cells
    • Balance hormones
    • Manage symptoms caused by hormones


There is no way to prevent adrenal cancer since the cause is unknown.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


Canadian Cancer Society

BC Cancer—Provincial Health Services Authority


Adrenal cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Adrenal cortical adenoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

General information about adrenocortical carcinoma. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP