Pituitary cancer occurs on a small gland called the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is sometimes called the “master” gland because it controls several other glands like the thyroid, adrenal gland, and sex organs.
It is located in a person’s head just between their eyes and is only about the size of a pea. The pituitary gland produces hormones and when cancer forms on this gland it can increase the amount of hormones being secreted. Most pituitary tumors are benign and occur in the front part of the pituitary gland.
They are slow-growing tumors and there are approximately 2,000 cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Types of pituitary cancers include pituitary adenomas, teratomas, and germinomas. The tumors may or may not secrete hormones. While the cause of pituitary cancer is unknown, it is suspected that there is a genetic link.
Signs & Symptoms
Pituitary cancers are usually discovered for one of two reasons – either they are causing vision problems due to their size and their proximity to the eyes, or the excess hormones they are secreting are causing other problems. The symptoms experienced depend on the hormone being secreted. For example if growth hormones are being secreted the patient may experience an increase in the growth of certain body tissues that leads to other problems like body odor or carpal tunnel.
As mentioned above, pituitary cancers are usually discovered because of the symptoms they are causing. Doctors will perform a physical exam, blood tests, and an MRI to diagnose pituitary cancer. Occasionally the tumors are too small to be detected on an MRI so they might need to do a biopsy as well.
Treatment for pituitary cancer includes surgery, radiation therapy and medication. If the tumor is small enough and is benign it can generally be removed safely without damaging surrounding tissue or causing cosmetic issues.
Generally radiation therapy is not the first line of treatment since this can affect the skin outside of where the tumor is being treated. In some cases where the tumor is producing excess hormones, but is not a problem in size, medications can be given to balance the hormones and no further treatment is needed.
Prognosis for pituitary cancer varies greatly depending on the size of the tumor, whether or not it is secreting hormones, if it is a recurring cancer, and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body.