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Pituitary tumours

The pituitary gland makes and releases hormones into the bloodstream. Most pituitary tumours are benign. Benign pituitary gland tumours are also called pituitary adenomas.

The pituitary is a small gland that lies in a hollow, just behind the eyes. It controls many body functions by making and releasing hormones into the bloodstream.

The pituitary gland is part of our endocrine system. So pituitary gland tumours are also called endocrine tumours.

Diagram showing the parts of the brain

Types of pituitary tumours

Pituitary tumours can be put into 2 groups depending on whether they make hormones or not.

Pituitary tumours that don't make hormones are called non secreting or non functioning tumours. The ones that make hormones are called secreting or functioning tumours.

The symptoms you have depend on whether the tumour makes hormones or not.  

Pituitary tumours that don’t make hormones

Pituitary tumours that don't make hormones are usually larger than tumours that produce hormones. They can press on the nearby optic nerve and cause changes to your eyesight. They can also affect the normal pituitary gland tissue so that you have changes in the levels of hormones.

Pituitary tumours that make hormones

There are a number of different types of pituitary tumours that make hormones. These tumours can cause quite unusual symptoms depending on the type of hormone they produce.

Prolactinomas make a hormone called prolactin which regulates the milk production after pregnancy. They are the most common type of functioning pituitary tumours.

Prolactinomas can cause:

  • infertility
  • loss of sex drive
  • difficulty getting an erection
  • increased milk production in the breasts of women

Tumours that make growth hormone can cause a condition called acromegaly. Symptoms of acromegaly include:

  • growth spurts in young people
  • overgrowth of hands, feet and lower jaw in adults

ACTH stands for adrenocorticotropic hormone. ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to make another hormone called cortisol. Tumours that make ACTH can cause a number of symptoms that are known as Cushing’s syndrome. Symptoms include:

  • weight gain
  • red and rounded face
  • high blood pressure

Pituitary tumours that make TSH can cause:

  • weight loss
  • sweating
  • tremor (shaking)
  • a fast heart beat (palpitations)

How common it is

About 8 out of every 100 brain tumours (8%) diagnosed in England between 2006 and 2010 were pituitary tumours.

Most pituitary tumours are benign (not a cancer). They usually grow slowly and tend not to spread.  

What tests will I have?

Your doctor examines you and checks your symptoms. You also have tests to diagnose a pituitary tumour. This helps your doctor plan the treatment. The tests you might have include:

  • blood tests
  • MRI scan or CT scan

Treatment

The treatment you need depends on the type of pituitary tumour you have. It also depends on how well you are and your symptoms.

Pituitary tumours usually grow slowly over some years. So for a small tumour that isn’t causing symptoms, your doctor might monitor you with regular MRI scans. This is called active monitoring. You then have treatment if there are signs that the tumour is growing or starts to cause symptoms.

Surgery is the most common treatment for pituitary tumours. A highly specialised doctor (neurosurgeon) removes as much of the tumour as possible.

Your surgeon passes a tube into your nose to remove the tumour. This operation is called an endoscopic transphenoidal resection. 

Diagram showing surgery through the nose

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill tumour cells. You might have radiotherapy after surgery to kill any tumour that has been left behind.

You may have a type of radiotherapy called external beam radiotherapy or stereotactic radiotherapy.

For some types of pituitary tumours you might take drugs to reduce hormone levels. For example for a prolactinoma, you may take a drug called cabergoline. It stops the pituitary tumour from making the hormone prolactin.

This won’t get rid of the tumour but helps to reduce the symptoms. 

You have hormone replacement tablets if you had all or most of the pituitary gland removed during surgery. Hormone replacement includes:

  • thyroid hormones
  • the sex hormones oestrogen and androgen
  • growth hormone

You have hormone replacement as tablets, injections or patches.

If your pituitary tumour comes back, you might be able to have more surgery or radiotherapy. Your doctor might also suggest a chemotherapy drug called temozolomide.

Follow up

You have regular appointments with your doctor or nurse after treatment finishes. Your doctor examines you at each appointment. They ask how you are feeling, whether you have had any symptoms or side effects, and if you are worried about anything. You might also have MRI scans on some visits.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

Coping with pituitary tumours

Coping with a diagnosis of a brain tumour can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. It can be especially difficult when you have a rare tumour. Being well informed about the type of tumour you have, and its treatment can make it easier to cope.  

Research and clinical trials

Doctors are always trying to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumours. As part of your treatment, your doctor might ask you to take part in a clinical trial. This might be to test a new treatment or look at different combinations of existing treatments.

Last reviewed: 
30 Oct 2019
  • Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Incidence statistics from Cancer Research UK (Cancer Stats)
    Accessed February 2019

  • Pituitary adenoma
    BMJ Best Practice, Last accessed February 2019

  • Endoscopic transsphenoidal pituitary adenoma resection
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2003

  • Electronic Medicine Compendium (eMC)
    Last accessed February 2019

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

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