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Adrenal Cancer: Diagnosis

How is adrenal cancer diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have adrenal cancer, certain exams and tests will be done to be sure. Diagnosing adrenal cancer starts with your healthcare provider asking you questions. You'll be asked about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. A physical exam will be done.

What tests might I need?

You may have 1 or more of these tests:

  • Blood tests

  • Urine tests

  • Chest X-ray

  • Ultrasound

  • CT scan

  • MRI

  • Nuclear imaging tests

  • Biopsy

Blood and urine tests

Blood and urine hormone tests measure the amount of adrenal hormones in your blood and urine. A 24-hour urine test may also be done. To do this, you save your urine for 24 hours. It's then sent to a lab to check the amounts of certain hormones. All of these tests can be very helpful in figuring out what kind of cancer you have.

Activating and inhibitory tests might be done. To do these, you're given medicines to increase or decrease certain adrenal hormones. Blood or urine tests will then show if the hormone levels changed. Hormones made by a cancer tumor often don't change with these medicines.

Imaging tests

  • Chest X-ray. This can be done to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs. It can also show if you have any lung or heart problems.

  • Ultrasound. This test uses sound waves and a computer to make pictures of the inside of your body. This test may be used to look for a tumor in the adrenal gland. It can show if the tumor is a fluid-filled sac (cyst), which is likely not cancer. It can also show if a tumor is solid, which is more likely to be cancer. Ultrasound can be used check the liver for tumors, too.

  • CT scan. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the inside of the body. CT scans can be used to measure the tumor and find out exactly where it is. A CT scan can also show if the cancer has spread.

  • MRI. An MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of the body. It doesn't use X-rays. MRIs can be used to check the brain and spine for problems. They can sometimes help find out if an adrenal tumor is or isn't cancer.

  • Nuclear imaging tests. For these tests, a mildly radioactive substance, like sugar, is put into your blood. It then travels all over your body. The substance is more likely to collect in cancer cells or in different types of adrenal tumors. The radiation can then be found with a special camera to show where the tumors are. An MIGB scan is a nuclear imaging test that can be used for adrenal cancer. MIGB is the radioactive material that's used. It collects in the tumor over 2 days. Scans are taken during this time. This test can help find different types of adrenal tumors.

Biopsy

If your doctor finds something in another part of your body that may have spread there from adrenal cancer, a biopsy may be done. This is the best way to know for sure that a change is cancer. A tiny piece (called a sample) of the tumor is taken out using a thin needle. A CT scan might be used to guide the needle into the tumor. The sample is then tested by a pathologist. This is a doctor who specializes in looking for disease. The pathologist looks at the cells to see if cancer is present.

Getting your test results

Your healthcare provider will contact you with your test results. Your provider will talk with you about other tests you may need if adrenal cancer is found. Make sure you understand the results and what your next steps should be.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.