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Diagnosing adrenal cortical cancer

There are different tests to diagnose adrenal cortical cancer (ACC). These include blood and urine tests, CT scans, MRI scans and PET scans. 

Diagnosing ACC can be difficult as the symptoms are vague and can be caused by a number of other more common conditions.

Your doctor might diagnose a non cancerous (benign) adrenal gland tumour by chance, when you are having a scan for something else. 

Your GP will refer you to a specialist for tests if you have symptoms that could be caused by ACC. You might have some of the following tests.

Blood and urine tests

If your cancer makes hormones, these can affect the salt and glucose levels in your blood. So you have blood tests to check these levels.

You might have:

  • blood tests to measure hormone levels in your blood
  • a 24 hour urine collection 

CT scan

A CT scanner takes x-rays from different angles to form a detailed image of the inside of your body. This can show doctors where a tumour is, how big it is and whether it has spread anywhere else. 

MRI scan

An MRI scanner uses magnetism rather than x-rays to build up a picture of the inside of your body. MRI scans are especially good at showing up soft tissue in the body.

PET scan

PET stands for positron emission tomography. This type of scan can show how body tissues are working, as well as what they look like.  It can be helpful in looking for cancer that has spread. And it can help doctors decide whether or not you should have an operation. 


The doctor doesn’t usually take a sample (biopsy) of the tumour. This is because blood tests,  hormone levels and scans are usually more useful than a biopsy in diagnosing ACC.

Your doctor might take a biopsy of tumours from other parts of your body. This tells the doctor if these tumours have spread from the adrenal gland. And the doctor might take a biopsy from an adrenal tumour if you have a different type of cancer and the doctor wants to know if it has spread to the adrenal gland.

Last reviewed: 
20 Jun 2018
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