What is a Pheochromocytoma?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 May 2020
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A pheochromocytoma is a tumor which arises in one of the adrenal glands of the body. Around 90% of these tumors are non-cancerous, but they can still cause serious health problems, because they disrupt the activities of the adrenal gland. Treatment for a pheochromocytoma usually involves surgery to remove the tumor, and sometimes it is necessary to remove the entire affected adrenal gland.

These tumors arise in chromaffin cells, a special type of cell which can also be found in other regions of the body. On occasion, a pheochromocytoma can appear elsewhere in the body. Most people with pheochromocytomas are between 30 and 60, but these tumors can arise in people of all ages. There is a slight genetic risk factor for developing a pheochromocytoma, but there are no other known causes or risk factors.

The adrenal gland, as one might gather from the name, produces adrenaline, a hormone which is critical for bodily function. When a pheochromocytoma develops, the gland starts to produce too much adrenaline, which can lead to symptoms like high blood pressure, anxiety, a rapid heart rate, pallor, and weight loss. If the tumor is allowed to continue growing in the adrenal gland, these symptoms can become fatal, as the body will be overloaded with signals from the adrenaline.

Doctors can diagnose this type of tumor with a medical imaging study, and with blood tests which look at different levels of hormones in the body. The tumor may be diagnosed when a patient goes to an endocrinologist, or by a general physician, and sometimes it is noticed in the process of examination and treatment for another medical issue. Alpha and beta blockers can be used to block the action of the adrenaline in the body, which will help to keep the patient stable, but it will still be necessary to remove the tumor surgically. If the adrenal gland is removed, it may also be necessary to provide supplementary hormones to maintain the correct balance in the endocrine system.

Around 10% of pheochromocytomas are malignant, and they will spread to other areas of the body. In some situations where the tumor has become cancerous and spread, surgery may not be a viable option for removal of the tumor, in which case other treatment approaches including management with medication, radiation, or chemotherapy. Doctors may also recommend vein ablation, which destroys the supply of blood to the tumor so that it cannot keep functioning.


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