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Endocrine Tumor: Overview

About the endocrine system

The endocrine system is made up of cells that produce hormones. Hormones are chemical substances that are made by the body and carried through the bloodstream to have a specific regulatory effect on the activity of other organs or cells. For example, part of the pancreas is made up of specialized cells clustered together in islands within the organ, called islets of Langerhans. These cells make different types of hormones—the most important being insulin, which is a substance that helps control the amount of sugar in the blood.

Part of the endocrine system is the neuroendocrine system, which is made up of cells that are a cross between traditional endocrine cells (or hormone-producing cells) and nerve cells. Neuroendocrine cells are found throughout the body in organs such as the lungs and gastrointestinal tract. They perform specific functions, such as regulating the air and blood flow through the lungs and controlling the speed at which food is moved through the gastrointestinal tract.

About endocrine tumors

A tumor begins when normal cells in the body change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor will not spread.

An endocrine tumor is a mass that affects the parts of the body that secrete hormones. Because an endocrine tumor starts in the cells that make hormones, the tumor itself can make hormones and cause serious illness.

There are several types of endocrine tumors. For more specific information on each type, select a name below:

  • Adrenal gland tumor (includes information on adenomas and adrenocortical carcinoma)
  • Carcinoid tumors (includes information on both lung and gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors)
  • Islet cell tumor (includes information on gastrinoma, insulinoma, glucagonoma, VIPoma, somatostatinoma, and nonfunctioning tumors)
  • Neuroendocrine tumor (includes information on Merkel cell cancer, pheochromocytoma, and neuroendocrine carcinoma)
  • Parathyroid tumor
  • Pituitary gland tumor

People with an endocrine tumor may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with an endocrine tumor do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not a tumor.

  • Thickening or lump in any part of the body
  • Persistent pain in a specific (localized) area
  • Anxiety (including panic attacks)
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Nervousness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Facial flushing (redness and warm feeling over the face)
  • Intestinal bleeding

Most symptoms of an endocrine tumor are specific to the type of tumor.

If you are concerned about one or more of the symptoms or signs on this list, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If an endocrine tumor is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of your medical care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Talking often with the doctor is important to make informed decisions about your health care. These suggested questions are a starting point to help you learn more about your medical care and treatment. You are also encouraged to ask additional questions that are important to you. You may want to print this list and bring it to your next appointment.

General questions:

  • What type of endocrine tumor do I have?
  • Is the tumor cancerous?
  • If so, what is the stage of my cancer? What does this mean?
  • Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?
  • Do I need treatment right away?
  • What treatment options do I have?
  • What clinical trials are open to me? Where are they located, and how do I find out more about them?
  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?
  • What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help me feel better, or both?
  • Who will be part of my health care team, and what does each member do?
  • Who will be coordinating my overall treatment and follow-up care?
  • What is my prognosis?
  • What are the possible side effects of each treatment, both in the short term and the long term?
  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and perform my usual duties?
  • Could this treatment affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?
  • Could this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before treatment begins?
  • If I’m worried about managing the costs related to my medical care, who can help me with these concerns?
  • What support services are available to me? To my family?
  • Whom do I call for questions or problems?

For people who need surgery:

  • Will I need to stay in the hospital for this surgery? For how long?
  • What are the possible side effects of my surgery?

For people who need chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or hormone therapy:

  • Which medications will I be receiving?
  • How will each medication be given to me? How often?
  • What does the preparation for this treatment involve?
  • What side effects can I expect from this treatment?
  • What will be done to relieve the side effects?

For people who need radiation therapy:

  • What type of radiation therapy is recommended?
  • What is the goal of the radiation therapy?
  • How long will each session of the radiation therapy take? How often will it be given?
  • What side effects can I expect from this treatment?
  • What will be done to relieve the side effects?

After treatment:

  • What are the chances that the tumor will return (recur)?
  • What follow-up tests do I need, and how often do I need them?
  • Whom should I call for questions or problems?

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