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Phaeochromocytoma

A tumour in the centre of the adrenal gland that produces an excess of certain adrenal hormones

  • Most common between the ages of 30 and 60 but may occur at any age
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Gender and lifestyle are not significant factors

A phaeochromocytoma is a tumour that develops in the medulla (centre) of one of the adrenal glands. Phaeochromocytomas produce excessive amounts of the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which are normally produced by the adrenal glands to prepare the body for action or physical stress. Phaeochromocytomas are rare. Only 1 in 10 is cancerous. Such tumours may develop as part of multiple endocrine neoplasia, an inherited condition in which tumours occur in several hormone-secreting glands.

What are the symptoms?

Exercise, emotion, or even a change in body position can trigger the tumour to release hormones into the blood. When this happens, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations (awareness of an abnormally fast or irregular heartbeat).

  • Pale, cold skin and profuse sweating.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Feelings of intense anxiety.

  • Headache.

Raised levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine also lead to a rise in blood pressure (see Hypertension).

What might be done?

If your doctor suspects a phaeochromocytoma, he or she may ask you to collect your urine over a 24-hour period so that tests can be performed on it. Chemicals in the urine provide information about levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in the body. If the levels of these hormones are higher than normal, you will probably have MRI or CT scanning to look for a tumour.

Initially, drug treatment is used to lower your blood pressure. The tumour is then removed surgically. People who have had a noncancerous phaeochromocytoma re-moved usually make a full recovery. However, cancerous tumours are more likely to recur.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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