The adrenal glands are two small hormone-secreting organs located in the back of the abdomen, on top of each kidney. Among the hormone released by the adrenal glands are corticosteroids and adrenaline. These hormones help stabilize a wide variety of processes in the body and are vital to maintaining life.
Adrenal tumors can be either benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous). Some tumors produce excess amounts of a specific hormone. Depending on the type of tumor the result may be symptoms such as:
Other tumors may be totally nonfunctional and cause few, if any, symptoms.
Adrenal tumors that secrete excess hormones can be diagnosed by measuring hormone levels in the blood or urine. The majority of adrenal tumors are actually found incidentally when abdominal CAT scans or MRI scans are being performed for an unrelated problem. If a tumor is small and not related to any hormone symptoms, it is likely a benign growth that can be safely watched. However, any growth larger than 3 centimeters in diameter (slightly more than an inch across) must be considered somewhat suspicious for cancer, and may need to be removed. Tumors larger than 5 centimeters (2 inches) are highly suspicious for cancer and generally should to be removed.
Elective removal of an adrenal gland, called adrenalectomy, can usually be performed using laparoscopic surgical techniques. This is particularly true for benign tumors. For extremely large tumors a large open incision may still be required. Although many of the functions of the adrenal glands are considered vital to life, it is possible to remove one gland without significant impact, since the remaining gland will compensate by increasing its hormone production. But, if both glands are removed it is necessary to provide the missing hormones in the form of daily medications.
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