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Home > Wellness > Health Library > Adrenocortical Carcinoma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Incidence and Mortality
Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare tumor with an annual incidence of 2 cases per 1 million population. Although it mainly occurs in adults, children can be affected too. The median age at diagnosis is 46 years. Historically, about 30% of these malignancies are confined to the adrenal gland at diagnosis. However, more ACCs are being diagnosed at early stages, most likely because of the widespread use of high-quality imaging techniques.
Retrospective studies have identified the following three important prognostic factors:
Patients who have low-grade tumors without evidence of invasion into local tissues or spread to lymph nodes have an improved prognosis. The role of other prognostic indicators is controversial.
In approximately 60% of patients, symptoms related to excessive hormone secretion are the main reason for seeking medical attention. Biochemical hormone testing reveals that up to 80% of tumors are functioning. The second most common symptoms at time of initial presentation are unspecific abdominal symptoms, such as abdominal pain or fullness. A small percentage of ACCs are incidentally discovered when imaging studies are conducted for reasons other than potential adrenal disease.
Initial evaluation should include careful endocrine studies to reveal any excessive hormone production by the tumor, which can serve as a tumor marker during therapy. Staging should include imaging of the primary site by computed tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging of the abdomen. In addition, a CT of the chest is necessary to assess potential lung metastasis. Although the use of positron emission tomography may be effective in identifying unsuspected sites of metastases, its role as a staging tool is unclear. The detection of metastatic lesions may allow effective palliation of both functioning and nonfunctioning lesions.
Prognosis and Survival
The most common sites of metastases are the lung, liver, peritoneum, and less commonly, the bones and major veins. Palliation of metastatic functioning tumors may be achieved by resection of both the primary tumor and metastatic lesions. Unresectable or widely disseminated tumors may be palliated by adrenolytic therapy with mitotane, antihormonal drugs (i.e., ketoconazole and metyrapone), systemic chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy. However, 5-year survival rates for patients with stage IV tumors are usually less than 20%.
Although several studies have shown partial or even complete remission, there is no convincing evidence that systemic therapy will improve the survival duration of patients with adrenal cancer. Radical open surgical excision is the treatment of choice for patients with localized malignancies and remains the only method by which long-term disease-free survival may be achieved. Overall 5-year survival rates are approximately 38% to 46%.[1,2]
Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) can be classified into functioning and nonfunctioning tumors by clinical and biochemical assessment. Approximately 60% of ACCs produce hormones. The associated clinical syndromes include the following:
Biochemical assessment aims to detect increased levels of cortisol (24-hour urine, 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test, serum adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol), androgens (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, testosterone), estrogens (estradiol), and mineralocorticoids (renin, aldosterone).
Pathological assessment can differentiate high-grade and low-grade tumors according to the mitotic activity of the tumor. The differentiation of benign and malignant adrenocortical tumors can be determined using the Weiss score, which scores several histopathological criteria, including the following:
Several staging systems for adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) are in use. The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system for ACC is based on the following assessment:
The stage of ACC is determined by the size of the primary tumor, the degree of local invasion, and whether it has spread to regional lymph nodes or distant sites. Proper staging should include computed tomography (CT) of the abdomen and chest. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may add specificity to CT evaluation of an adrenal mass. In-phase and out-of-phase T1-weighted imaging may be the most effective noninvasive method to differentiate benign from malignant adrenal masses. MRI may suggest evidence of extracapsular tumor invasion, extension into the vena cava, or metastases. Patency of surrounding vessels can often be demonstrated with gadolinium-enhanced sequences or flip-angle techniques.
In addition to the above-mentioned AJCC staging, the European Network for the Study of Adrenal Tumors (ENSAT) staging system is widely used internationally. The ENSAT staging system is essentially the same as the AJCC system, but reserves stage IV only for tumors with distant metastasis. Other staging systems include the classical Macfarlane system, modified by Sullivan, and the Union Internationale Contre le Cancer staging system, published by the World Health Organization.
AJCC Stage Groupings and TNM Definitions
The AJCC has designated staging by TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) to define ACC.
Treatment Options for Stage I Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC)
Treatment options for stage I ACC include the following:
Although adjuvant mitotane has shown some progression-free or disease-free survival advantage, no overall survival advantage has been demonstrated.[1,2,3]
Current Clinical Trials
Use our advanced clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now enrolling patients. The search can be narrowed by location of the trial, type of treatment, name of the drug, and other criteria. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment Options for Stage II Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC)
Treatment options for stage II ACC include the following:
Treatment Options for Stage III Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC)
Treatment options for stage III ACC include the following:
The role of mitotane as adjuvant therapy after complete tumor resection is still unclear but should be discussed with the patient. For patients who undergo a complete resection, the role of adjuvant mitotane and radiation therapy is the same as for patients with stage I and stage II ACC.
Many patients with functioning tumors who have received treatment will experience reduced hormone production. In patients who have increased hormone production, antisteroidogenic drugs such as ketoconazole and metyrapone, and steroid receptor antagonists, such as spironolactone and mifepristone, should be considered.
Clinical trials are appropriate for newly diagnosed patients.
Treatment Options for Stage IV Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC)
Treatment options for stage IV ACC include the following:
Temporary palliation of disseminated ACC can sometimes be achieved with the chemotherapeutic agent mitotane. Although measurable partial remissions are unusual and are reported in only 20% to 30% of patients, palliation of hormone symptoms is commonly observed. Prolonged treatment with mitotane, however, is often limited by gastrointestinal and neurological toxicity. Local recurrences and selected sites of metastatic disease can sometimes be palliated surgically or with radiation therapy.[1,2]
Two other cytotoxic chemotherapy regimens may be effective and have been compared in a phase III clinical trial:
Clinical trials of other chemotherapy regimens are ongoing.
Many patients with functioning tumors who have received treatment will experience reduced hormone production. In patients who have increased hormone production, antisteroidogenic drugs, such as ketoconazole and metyrapone, and steroid receptor antagonists, such as spironolactone and mifepristone, should be considered.
Clinical trials are appropriate and should be considered whenever possible because phase I and II trials evaluate newer chemotherapeutic and biological agents.
Deciding to treat patients with recurrent adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC), and what treatment to use, depends on many factors, including previous treatment, site of recurrence, and individual patient considerations. Local recurrence and selected sites of metastatic disease can sometimes be palliated by surgery or radiation therapy. Although patients with recurrent ACC are not considered curable, palliation of hormonal symptoms and occasional 5-year survivals can be achieved. Substantial morbidity, however, is associated with resection of recurrent tumors.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of adult adrenocortical carcinoma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians in the care of their patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Adrenocortical Carcinoma Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the NCI website's Email Us. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Adrenocortical Carcinoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/adrenocortical/hp/adrenocortical-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389393]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
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Last Revised: 2022-08-25
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