Adrenal Tumors / Pheochromocytoma

What are adrenal tumors?

There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney toward the back. Tumors of the adrenal glands are rare. However, when present, they can cause many problems by excess secretion of certain adrenal-produced hormones. One type of tumor of the adrenal glands is called a pheochromocytoma.

What is a pheochromocytoma?

A pheochromocytoma is an adrenal gland tumor that secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating heart rate and blood pressure, among other functions. Pheochromocytomas occur most frequently in young to middle-aged adults between the ages of 30 and 60.

What are the symptoms of pheochromocytoma?

The most common symptom of pheochromocytoma is high blood pressure, which is sometimes extreme. Other symptoms are usually nonexistent, unless the person experiences pressure from the tumor. Symptoms can also be brought on by emotional stress, changes in posture, or if a patient is taking beta-blocker drugs for a heart disorder. The following are the most common symptoms of pheochromocytoma. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Other symptoms may include:

  • Rapid pulse

  • Palpitations

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Clammy skin

The symptoms of pheochromocytoma may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is pheochromocytoma diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for pheochromocytoma may include:

  • Blood and urine tests - to measure hormone levels.

  • Computed tomography scan (Also called a CT or CAT scan.) - a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Radioisotope scan - uses radioactive substances introduced into the body to create a functional image of the tumor.

Treatment for pheochromocytoma:

Specific treatment for pheochromocytoma will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery - to remove the tumor. The surgeon may remove one or both adrenal glands. Surgery may be performed either through an open incision or through several small incisions using a laparoscope (a small thin tube with a video camera attached).

  • External radiation (external beam therapy) - a treatment that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. The machine is controlled by the radiation therapist. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes.

  • Chemotherapy - the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual.

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