Endocrine cancer

The endocrine system is a network of glands that secrete hormones, the chemicals that regulate the activity of other organs or cells in the body. Endocrine cancer occurs when a tumor starts growing in one of those glands. When this happens, the tumor itself can produce hormones, causing serious illness.

Types of endocrine cancer

Treatments are available

Treatment options for endocrine cancer depend on the type of cancer and its location in the body. Many types of endocrine cancer respond well to treatment.

Endocrine cancer: causes and risk factors

Couple kayaking on sunlit river

Although the exact cause of endocrine cancer isn’t known, there are some common risk factors that may contribute to its development. They include:

  • Age. Different age groups are more likely to develop different types of endocrine tumors. For example, Merkel cell cancer tends to occur in people over 70, while thyroid cancer can affect people of any age.
  • Diet low in iodine. Iodine, a requirement for normal thyroid functioning, is added to salt in the United States to help prevent thyroid problems.
  • Gender. Men are more likely to develop Merkel cell cancer than women. However, women are two to three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men.
  • Immune suppression. People with HIV and people with suppressed immune systems due to factors like organ transplantation have a higher risk of developing an endocrine cancer.

Symptoms of endocrine cancer

Symptoms of endocrine cancer tend to resemble symptoms of other conditions. In some cases, you may not experience any symptoms at all. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms.

  • Anxiety, including panic attacks.
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits.
  • Confusion.
  • Depression.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Facial flushing (redness and warm feeling over the face).
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Headaches.
  • Intestinal bleeding.

  • Irritability.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
  • Nervousness.
  • Nausea.
  • Persistent pain in a specific (localized) area.
  • Sweating.
  • Thickening or lump in any part of the body.
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss.
  • Vomiting.

How is endocrine cancer diagnosed?

There isn’t a single definitive test that helps doctors diagnose endocrine cancer. However, there is an array of tests doctors can perform to check for a suspected endocrine tumor. No matter which tests your doctor suggests, they’ll start by assessing your medical history and performing a physical exam to look for physical or behavioral changes related to hormone function. After that, they may recommend any of the following:

  • A biopsy to obtain a sample of abnormal tissue and analyze it for cancer cells.
  • An endoscopy to allow your doctor to examine your esophagus and stomach or your rectum and colon.
  • Imaging studies (CT scan, MRI or ultrasound) to look for evidence of abnormal tissue in the gland.
  • Lab tests to check for abnormal hormone levels in the blood or urine.

The results of these tests will give your doctor a clear picture of the type of, if any, endocrine cancer you have and will help them determine your course of treatment.

Female patient and CT imaging technician

Treatments for endocrine cancer

Treatment options for endocrine cancer depend on the type of cancer and its location in the body.

In general, neuroendocrine tumor treatment options might include:

  • Surgery. When possible, surgeons work to remove the entire tumor and some of the healthy tissue that surrounds it. If the tumor can’t be removed completely, it might help to remove as much of it as possible.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy kills cancerous cells using strong drugs. This might be the best option if there’s a chance that your tumor might recur after surgery, or if your tumor is too advanced to be removed with surgery.
  • Targeted drug therapy. Targeted drug treatment focuses on blocking specific abnormalities present within tumor cells, thereby causing those tumor cells to die. Targeted drug therapy is usually combined with chemotherapy for advanced neuroendocrine tumors.

  • Radiation therapy. If surgery isn’t an option, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy. It uses powerful energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill tumor cells.
  • Medications to control excess hormones. If your tumor produces extra hormones, your doctor might recommend medications to regulate or halt that production.

Pharmacist explaining medication to patient

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about endocrine cancers

Many forms of neuroendocrine tumors are treatable with a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, especially if the tumor hasn’t metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body.

If the entire tumor can’t be removed via surgery, “debulking” surgery may be performed. This procedure removes as much of the tumor as possible and helps relieve symptoms.

Most endocrine tumors aren’t cancerous. However, some tumors mutate and become cancerous.

Because the endocrine system controls the amount of hormones your body produces, endocrine cancer may increase hormone levels, which can cause problems throughout the body.

In most cases, no. Most neuroendocrine tumors can be present for a lifetime without causing symptoms or spreading.

Neuroendocrine tumors in the pancreas, which can be benign or malignant, form in the islet cells and may be functional (hormone-producing) or nonfunctional. When they’re functional, they release hormones directly into the bloodstream, directly affecting the endocrine function of the pancreas. This, in turn, causes blood sugar levels to rise, eventually causing diabetes.

Neuroendocrine tumors can occur in any of the major endocrine glands, including the thyroid, parathyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands, and the pancreas, but most endocrine cancers develop in the thyroid gland.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, certain inherited syndromes increase the risk of developing a neuroendocrine tumor (NET).

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) is a hereditary condition associated with certain types of NETs, including lung NETs, GI tract NETs, and pancreatic NETs. Other hereditary conditions related to NETs include Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2), and tuberous sclerosis complex.

No. There isn’t a sure way to prevent pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), especially since some risk factors, like family history, are out of your control.