Health Information

Adrenocortical carcinoma

Adrenocortical carcinoma


Tumor - adrenal

Adrenocortical carcinoma is a cancer of the adrenal glands.

I Would Like to Learn About:

  • Causes

    Adrenocortical carcinoma is most common in children younger than 5 and adults in their 30s and 40s.

    Adrenocortical carcinoma may be linked to a cancer syndrome that is passed down through families (inherited). Both men and women can develop this tumor.

    Adrenocortical carcinoma can produce the hormones cortisol, aldosterone, estrogen, or testosterone, as well as other hormones. In women the tumor often releases these hormones, which can lead to male characteristics.

    The cause is unknown. About 2 people per million develop this type of tumor.

  • Symptoms

    Symptoms that suggest increased cortisol or other adrenal gland hormone production:

    • Fatty, rounded hump high on the back just below the neck (buffalo hump)
    • Flushed rounded face with pudgy cheeks (moon face)
    • Obesity
    • Stunted growth in height (short stature)
    • Virilization - the appearance of male characteristics, including increased body hair (especially on the face), pubic hair, acne, deepening of voice, and enlarged clitoris (girls)

    Symptoms that suggest increased aldosterone production are the same as symptoms of low potassium and include:

    • Muscle cramps
    • Weakness
  • Exams and Tests

    The doctor or nurse will examine you. You may have high blood pressure and changes in body shape, such as breast growth in men (gynecomastia) or male signs in women (virilization). Blood tests will be done to check hormone levels:

    • ACTH level will be low.
    • Aldosterone level will be high.
    • Cortisol level will be high.
    • Potassium level will be low.
    • Male or female hormones may be abnormally high.

    Imaging tests may include:

    • Abdominal x-ray
    • CT scan of the abdomen
    • MRI of the abdomen
  • Treatment

    Primary treatment is surgery to remove the tumor. Adrenocortical carcinoma may not improve with chemotherapy. Medications may be given to reduce production of cortisol, which causes many of the symptoms.

  • Outlook (Prognosis)

    The outcome depends on how early the diagnosis is made and whether the tumor has spread (metastasized). Tumors that have spread usually lead to death within 1 to 3 years.

  • Possible Complications

    The tumor can spread to the liver, bone, lung, or other areas.

  • When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call your health care provider if you or your child has symptoms of adrenocortical carcinoma, Cushing syndrome, or failure to grow.

Related Information

  TumorAdrenal glandsMetastasis    


National Comprehensive Cancer Network. National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Neuroendocrine tumors. 2012. Version 1.2012.

Nieman LK. Adrenal cortex. In Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 234.



Review Date: 8/30/2012  

Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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