Endocrine tumors are not very common, but they can cause problems for a patient by making hormones that affect the body in a negative way. In addition, endocrine tumors can be malignant (cancerous) and can spread to lymph nodes or other locations. Some endocrine tumors tend to occur together and run in families.
Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent the spread of cancer or the negative effects of hormones on the body and can sometimes lead to the early diagnosis and treatment of other family members. For this reason, a tumor of the thyroid, parathyroid, or adrenal glands should be fully evaluated by a surgeon with experience in the area of endocrine tumors. Minimally invasive surgery is often possible.
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck just above the collarbones. The thyroid gland makes hormones that regulate the bodys metabolism. Many people have nodules, or growths, in the thyroid gland. A thyroid nodule can be discovered if a person notices a lump in the neck, or if a doctor feels a lump in the thyroid during a routine physical exam. Thyroid nodules usually are evaluated with an ultrasound and a biopsy using a fine needle. Most thyroid nodules are benign. Surgery can be performed if a benign nodule causes symptoms.
Hoarseness, pain, or difficulty with swallowing or breathing can result from the nodule pressing on other structures in the neck. Anxiety, insomnia, tremor, weight loss, and heart palpitations can result if a thyroid nodule produces too much thyroid hormone. Some thyroid nodules are cancerous, and surgery is usually the first treatment. Lymph nodes may need to be removed at the time of surgery.
Other therapies, such as radioactive iodine, may be necessary after surgery. A certain type of thyroid cancer (medullary thyroid cancer) occasionally can run in families. The prognosis for thyroid cancer is often excellent if it is diagnosed early and the appropriate treatment is given. Therefore, it is important to have a surgeon with experience in thyroid surgery.
The parathyroid glands are tiny pea-sized glands located behind the thyroid in the neck. Most people have four parathyroid glands, although the number and location of parathyroid glands can vary considerably from person to person.
The parathyroid glands make a hormone called parathyroid hormone, which regulates the level of calcium in the blood. When one or more parathyroid glands enlarge or develop a growth, too much parathyroid hormone is produced and the calcium level in the blood becomes too high. This is called hyperparathyroidism. Hyperparathyroidism can cause kidney stones, osteoporosis, stomach ulcers, and pancreatitis. It also can cause other symptoms such as fatigue, body aches, sleep problems, and depression.
Hyperparathyroidism occasionally can run in families. Surgery is the only treatment that can provide a cure. Because the parathyroid glands are often difficult to find, specialized imaging studies are usually necessary before surgery, and it is important to have a surgeon with experience in parathyroid surgery.
The adrenal glands are triangular-shaped glands that lie on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands make a number of different hormones that are necessary for the body to function properly. For example, the adrenal glands produce cortisol and aldosterone, which are steroids that help the body regulate blood pressure and the levels of salt and potassium in the blood. The adrenal glands also produce adrenaline and other related substances that give the body strength, speed, and alertness, especially during an emergency.
Small tumors in the adrenal glands may not cause symptoms and often are discovered when a patient undergoes an imaging study of the abdomen (such as a CT scan or MRI) for another unrelated reason. Other tumors are discovered because they produce too much of a particular hormone. If too much cortisol is produced, a patient may experience thin skin that bruises easily, purplish stretch marks on the abdomen, fatigue, and excess fat over the upper back, around the abdomen, and in the face. If too much aldosterone is produced, a patient may experience high blood pressure, fluid retention, low potassium levels, and weakness. If too much adrenaline is produced, a patient may experience high blood pressure, sweating, headaches, rapid or irregular heartbeat, anxiety or panic, spells of paleness or dizziness, tremor, and weight loss.
Surgery to remove the adrenal gland is necessary if too much of a hormone is being produced. Surgery also may be necessary to determine if a tumor in the adrenal gland is cancerous. Although adrenal cancer is very rare, it is often aggressive and requires a coordinated treatment plan that may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. It is important a surgeon with experience in adrenal surgery evaluate any tumor of the adrenal gland.
Physicians who treat endocrine tumors:
Michael B. Flynn, M.D.
Amy R. Quillo, M.D.
Expertise By Disease Site
University Surgical Associates
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