Pituitary cancer is a very rare type of brain cancer that begins in the pituitary gland located in the middle of the brain behind the eyes. The pituitary gland is small—about the size of a pea— but is called the “master gland” because the hormones it regulates are essential to allowing many other parts of the body to function.
The hormones in the pituitary gland regulate important functions like metabolism, water absorption, the movement of fats through the blood stream, the pigmentation of the skin, the thyroid gland, and sex hormones for women and men that control sperm production and menstruation.
Pituitary tumors account for about 10% of all brain cancers, but almost all pituitary tumors are benign tumors called pituitary adenomas. These are slow growing tumors that do not spread to other parts of the body.
Cancerous pituitary tumors that can spread to other parts of the body make up a very small proportion of all pituitary tumors. According to the American Cancer Society, only a few hundred cases of cancerous pituitary tumors have ever been documented.
Tumors in the pituitary gland are classified as either functioning or non-functioning. Functioning tumors continue to produce hormones, but produce too many. Non-functioning tumors will not produce hormones. Most pituitary adenomas are functioning tumors.
Though most pituitary tumors are benign or non-cancerous, they may still pose health problems as they grow and press on other parts of the brain.
The most common type of functioning pituitary adenomas, or non-cancerous tumors, are the prolactin-producing adenomas. Prolactin is the hormone that causes milk production in women, and has an unknown effect in men.
Pituitary Cancer Facts and Statistics
- In 2015, there will be an estimated 10,000 new cases of pituitary tumors, but less than 1% of those will be cancerous.
- Almost 25% of all people have a pituitary tumor without knowing it. Almost all of these are benign and will never show symptoms.
- The ten-year survival rate for pituitary tumors ranges from 60%-90%.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
The main risk factors of pituitary tumors involve certain genetic disorders. These genetic risk factors include:
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1), also called Wermer's syndrome. It is a genetic disorder of the endocrine glands that causes increased risk of tumors. Carney complex is another genetic disorder associated with increased tumors of the pituitary gland.
- Carney complex—causes problems with the heart, skin, and adrenal glands, and an increase in the risk of tumors.
- Familial acromegaly—a condition that results from too much growth hormone and causes tumors.
- McCune-Albright syndrome—another genetic mutation that causes too much growth hormone and tumors.
Having a personal or family medical history of pituitary tumors or other problems with the pituitary gland is also a risk factor.
There are many different types of pituitary gland tumors ranging from benign to cancerous and productive to non-productive. The symptoms of a tumor will depend on the type, size, and stage of the tumor. Symptoms include:
- Loss of vision or a change in vision
- Extra hormones in the blood
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
- Unusual heart rate
- Fat accumulation around the face or a change in facial appearance
- Bruising easily
- Irregular or lack of menstrual periods
- Bone weakening
- Increased or loss of body hair
- Anxiety and depression
- Loss of sex drive
- Sexual dysfunction
- Joint pain
Diagnosing Pituitary Cancer
Pituitary tumors are difficult to diagnose until advanced stages when they begin to show symptoms. If the tumor is functional and secrets hormones, symptoms will be noticeable earlier due to increased hormone levels.
If a patient is at a high risk for pituitary cancer, doctors may recommend imaging tests like MRIs or CT scans to check the brain for tumors, or may order blood tests to test for hormone levels.
Doctors may also do a biopsy to test for cancerous cells in the brain tissue.
Pituitary Cancer Treatment
Once a pituitary is diagnosed, doctors will need to assess if it is cancerous, where it is located, how fast it is growing, and what it has started to affect.
If the tumor is small and localized, meaning it has not spread to other parts of the body, doctors may choose to surgically remove the tumor. Doctors can also use radiation and chemotherapy or certain drugs and medicines to destroy and stop cancer cells.
If radiation, chemotherapy, or drug therapy is used to destroy the cancer, patients of pituitary cancer often receive hormone replacement therapy at the end of their treatment.
Lawsuits For Pituitary Cancer Malpractice In Maryland
Though tumors on the pituitary gland are fairly common, doctors will normally not test for them unless the patient is at a high risk, or if the patient is showing symptoms. Pituitary tumors have clear risk factors and symptoms, so diagnosis errors should be less common.
If doctors act negligently in their evaluations or diagnostic tests and fail to diagnose a pituitary tumor, make a delayed diagnosis, or misdiagnose the tumor, patients will suffer serious consequences.
The attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian have a proven track record of results in medical malpractice cases. If you or a loved one has been harmed from a diagnosis error in pituitary cancer, call our offices today for a free consultation and to learn more about your legal options.