April 17, 2024

Pituitary Cancer: Unraveling the Mysteries of a Rare Disease

Pituitary Cancer: Understanding this Rare but Deadly Disease

The pituitary gland, also known as the hypophysis, is a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain. It plays an essential role in regulating many important bodily functions through the hormones it secretes. While tumors in the pituitary gland are common, pituitary cancer is exceptionally rare. Only about 100-200 new cases of pituitary cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. However, it remains an aggressive form of cancer that can be life-threatening if not treated early. In this article, we shed light on pituitary cancer, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

What is Pituitary Cancer?

Pituitary cancer, also known as pituitary adenocarcinoma, refers to a malignant tumor that originates from the cells of the pituitary gland. There are two main types of pituitary cancer – functional and non-functional. Functional pituitary cancers secrete excess hormones like prolactin, growth hormone, or ACTH, leading to hormone-related symptoms. Non-functional pituitary cancers do not secrete excess hormones. Pituitary cancers can be either primary, meaning they started within the pituitary gland itself, or secondary/metastatic, referring to cancers that began elsewhere in the body and spread to the pituitary gland. Primary pituitary cancers are usually very rare.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes of pituitary cancer are still unclear. However, some risk factors that may increase the chances of developing this rare form of cancer include:

– Genetics: Certain inherited genetic conditions like Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia type 1 (MEN 1) syndrome increase the risk.

– Previous tumor: People with a history of non-cancerous pituitary tumors or cysts have a higher risk of pituitary cancer.

– Radiation exposure: Previous radiation therapy to the head/neck region for other medical conditions is a risk factor.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a pituitary tumor depend on the type and size of the tumor, and whether it secretes excess hormones. Common symptoms include:

– Headaches.
– Vision problems like blurry or double vision.
– Fatigue.
– Unexplained weight gain or loss.
– Menstrual irregularities in women.
– Decreased sex drive.
– Excessive thirst and urination (if tumor secretes excess ACTH).
– Large hands, feet, and lower jaw (if it secretes excess growth hormone).

Diagnosis

If symptoms indicate a possible pituitary tumor, the doctor will conduct tests like:

– MRI scan of the brain: Provides the best images of the pituitary gland.
– Blood tests: To check hormone levels in the blood and determine which pituitary hormones may be affected.
– Vision tests: To evaluate any changes in visual fields.
– Biopsy: Rarely needed for pituitary tumors but may be done to confirm cancer diagnosis.

Stages of Pituitary Cancer

Pituitary cancers are staged based on how far they have grown and spread:

– Stage 1: Tumor is small and confined to the pituitary gland.
– Stage 2: Tumor has grown larger but is still confined to the gland.
– Stage 3: Tumor has grown into surrounding structures of the brain and skull base.
– Stage 4: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body like the liver or bones (metastatic cancer).

Treatment

Treatment options depend on the stage and size of the tumor, as well as your overall health. The main treatments are:

– Surgery: The preferred treatment is transsphenoidal surgery to remove the tumor through the nose and sinuses. It provides the best chance of cure if the tumor can be totally removed.

– Radiation therapy: Used along with surgery or alone if surgery is not possible. Different types of radiation like proton beam therapy may be used.

– Chemotherapy: Some chemotherapy drugs may be offered for metastatic or recurrent cancers that no longer respond to other treatments.

– Hormone therapy: To control excess hormone levels if the tumor is functional.

– Monitoring: Even after treatment, patients require lifelong monitoring with regular checkups and scans to watch for signs of recurrence.

Prognosis

The prognosis or outlook depends on the stage at diagnosis but is generally worse for pituitary cancers compared to non-cancerous pituitary tumors. Early diagnosis and treatment when the cancer is still localized results in the best chance of long-term remission. Surgery offers the best chance of cure for stage 1 or 2 cancers. Later or metastatic stages have poorer outcomes, though combination therapies may still provide long-term control of the disease. With careful management, the 5-year survival rate for resectable pituitary cancers is around 85%.

Conclusion

In summary, while pituitary cancer is thankfully rare, it remains an aggressive form of cancer that needs to be treated promptly once diagnosed. Understanding the symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, stages and management options is vital for both patients and doctors. With advances in surgery, radiation and medical therapies, the prognosis continues to gradually improve. Early detection through regular checkups for high-risk groups remains key to catching these cancers as early as possible.

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  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
  2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it