Endocrine Cancer | Cancer


Endocrine Cancer

Endocrine cancer encompasses a wide range of tumors. No matter the type, we have the expertise and treatment options to help.

Medically reviewed by Michael Campbell, M.D. on Sep. 01, 2023.

Female nurse talking with a male patient in a hospital bed

Care for All Types of Endocrine Cancer

Our fellowship-trained endocrine and neurosurgeons treat all types of endocrine tumors, including those that are rare and complex. They partner with a wide range of specialists to provide leading-edge treatments and close follow-up care.


Types of Endocrine Cancers

Your endocrine system is a group of hormone-producing glands and organs. Hormones are chemical messengers that tell your cells what to do. They control many processes in your body, such as metabolism (the breakdown and storage of nutrients), blood pressure, emotions and fertility.

Endocrine tumors occur when endocrine cells grow unchecked and form a mass. Many endocrine tumors are noncancerous (benign). Malignant endocrine tumors are often slow growing but can sometimes act more aggressively.

The main types of endocrine cancer include:

  • Thyroid and parathryoid cancers: Your thyroid is in the front of your neck. Thyroid cancer is the most common endocrine cancer, while parathyroid cancer affects fewer than 100 people in the U.S. each year.
  • Adrenal cancer: Your adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney. There are about 200 cases of adrenal cancer per year in the U.S.
  • Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs): Neuroendocrine cells have characteristics of both nerve and endocrine cells. They do not form glands; rather, they are part of other organs. The most common NETs occur in your pancreas, lungs and stomach.
  • Pituitary tumors: The pituitary gland is a pea-sized gland located at the base of your brain. It makes hormones that control the rest of the endocrine system. Pituitary tumors are relatively common, but most are noncancerous. Pituitary cancer is extremely rare.

Endocrine Cancer Symptoms

Not all endocrine tumors cause symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they appear because the tumor is interfering with normal hormone production or making too much hormone itself. The tumor may also be pressing on nearby organs or tissues.

Your symptoms will depend on where the tumor is located and which hormones are out of balance.

Emergency Symptoms

Contact your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:

  • Black, tarry stool 
  • Coughing up blood 
  • Jaundice (yellowing of your eyes and skin) 
  • Lump in your neck that swells rapidly 
  • Rash that travels across your skin 
  • Trouble breathing 

Causes and Risk Factors of Endocrine Tumors

Cancer is caused by changes (mutations) in the genes that control cell growth and death.

The genetic mutations that cause endocrine tumors may occur spontaneously or from exposure to harmful substances, such as cigarette smoke or radiation. You can also inherit genes that cause endocrine tumors.

There are some factors that can increase your risk of endocrine tumors, including:

Biological Sex

Some types of endocrine cancer are more common in women, including thyroid cancer and lung neuroendocrine tumors.


Diabetes is a risk factor for pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.

Excess Weight

Carrying excess weight increases your risk of thyroid cancer.

Family History

A family history of endocrine cancer raises your risk of developing that type of cancer. You can also inherit genetic syndromes, or groups of symptoms and diseases, from your family. Certain genetic syndromes may increase your risk of endocrine tumors.

Radiation Exposure

Exposure to radiation increases your risk of thyroid cancer. Occasional exposure to low radiation, like X-rays, is unlikely to cause cancer. However, lots of exposure over time, or exposure to very high levels of radiation, can increase your risk.

Tobacco and Alcohol Use

Smoking and heavy alcohol use are risk factors for pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.


Diagnosing Endocrine Cancer

Our physicians review your symptoms and ask about your medical and family history. We perform a physical exam to check for masses or other signs of endocrine cancer.

If we suspect endocrine cancer, we may order one or more tests. Our oncologists (cancer doctors) use the latest techniques and technologies to diagnose endocrine cancer. They work closely with experienced radiologists and pathologists to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Tests for endocrine cancer vary by type but may include: 

  • Laboratory tests: These tests measure changes in hormone levels or other chemicals in your blood or urine. 
  • Medical imaging: X-ray, ultrasound, CT and MRI tests help us look for endocrine tumors. We also use PET scans, in which you receive a small amount of radioactive substance that binds to cancer cells. We see these areas using special imaging. 
  • Biopsy: We collect a sample of tissue using a fine needle, endoscope (thin, flexible tube) or surgery. A pathologist looks at the sample under the microscope for changes that suggest it is cancerous. 

Endocrine Cancer Treatments at UC Davis Health

The National Cancer Institute has designated UC Davis as a Comprehensive Cancer Center for our dedication to high-quality care. When you come to us, you receive a personalized treatment plan and have access to clinical trials of the latest therapies.

Endocrine cancer treatments we provide include:

Minimally Invasive Surgery

Surgery is an important treatment for endocrine tumors. In some cases, we can remove the entire tumor and cure your cancer. When possible, we offer minimally invasive techniques that use thin, flexible tubes and tiny instruments inserted through small incisions.

Open Surgery

More advanced endocrine tumors often require open surgery through larger incisions. Our surgeons are skilled in performing complex surgeries to achieve the best possible results.

Learn about our Division of Surgical Oncology
External Beam Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells. It is not usually the main treatment for endocrine tumors but may be helpful after surgery to prevent your cancer from returning. External beam radiation therapy, which delivers radiation from outside your body, is the most common type we use.

Radioiodine Therapy

Radioiodine therapy is a type of radiation therapy in which radioactive iodine travels to your thyroid and destroys cancer.

Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT)

PRRT is another type of radiation therapy. A drug that contains a radioactive element attaches to neuroendocrine cancer cells and destroys them.

Hormone therapy

Natural hormones called somatostatin analogs help slow the growth of neuroendocrine tumor cells. Other drugs block the hormones endocrine tumor cells make.

Learn about hormone therapy
Targeted Therapy

These drugs attach to cancer cells and destroy them.


Preventing Endocrine Cancers

Genetic testing can show if you've inherited a gene mutation that causes endocrine cancer. You and your provider may decide to do routine screening to catch any cancer as soon as it appears. In other cases, you and your provider may choose to remove the at-risk gland before it becomes cancerous.

You can also make lifestyle changes to help prevent certain endocrine cancers, such as: 

  • Maintaining a healthy weight 
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Reducing alcohol use

American Cancer Society, "Key Statistics for Adrenal Cancer" https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/adrenal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html

American Cancer Society, "What Is Thyroid Cancer?" https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/thyroid-cancer/about/what-is-thyroid-cancer.html

Who does thyroid cancer affect?

43K+People are diagnosed each year

Annual thyroid cancer deaths

2K+People die from thyroid cancer each year

Source: American Cancer Society: Key Statistics for Thyroid Cancer

Request an Appointment

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