Pituitary Tumors

General Information

What are pituitary tumors?

Pituitary tumors are tumors found in the pituitary gland, a small organ about the size of a pea in the center of the brain just above the back of the nose. The pituitary gland makes hormones that affect the growth and the functions of other glands in the body.

Most pituitary tumors are benign. This means that they grow very slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body. Information about craniopharyngioma, another type pituitary tumor, can be found in another summary (Refer to Adult Brain Tumors Treatment and Childhood Brain Tumors Treatment for more information on craniopharyngioma).

If a pituitary tumor is found, the pituitary gland may be making too many hormones. This can cause other problems in the body. Tumors that make hormones are called functioning tumors, while those that do not make hormones are called nonfunctioning tumors.

Certain pituitary tumors can cause a disease called Cushing's disease, in which too many hormones called glucocorticoids are released into the bloodstream. This causes fat to build up in the face, back, and chest, and the arms and legs to become very thin. Other symptoms include too much sugar in the blood, weak muscles and bones, a flushed face, and high blood pressure. Other pituitary tumors can cause a condition called acromegaly. Acromegaly means that the hands, feet, and face are larger than normal; in very young people, the whole body may grow much larger than normal. Another type of pituitary tumor can cause the breasts to make milk, even though a woman may not be pregnant; periods may stop as well.

A doctor should be seen if there are symptoms such as headaches, trouble seeing, nausea or vomiting, or any of the symptoms caused by too many hormones.

If there are symptoms, a doctor may order laboratory tests to see what the hormone levels are in the blood. The doctor may also order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, which uses magnetic waves to make a picture of the inside of the brain. Other special x-rays may also be done.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and choice of treatment depend on the type of tumor, and the patient's age and general state of health.

Stage Information

Types of pituitary tumors:

Once a pituitary tumor is found, more tests will be done to find out how far the tumor has spread and whether or not it makes hormones. A doctor needs to know the type of tumor to plan treatment. The following types of pituitary tumors are found:

ACTH-producing tumors
These tumors make a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal glands to make glucocorticoids. When the body makes too much ACTH, it causes Cushing's disease.

Prolactin-producing tumors
These tumors make prolactin, a hormone that stimulates a woman's breasts to make milk during and after pregnancy. Prolactin-secreting tumors can cause the breasts to make milk and menstrual periods to stop when a woman is not pregnant. In men, prolactin-producing tumors can cause impotence.

Growth hormone-producing tumors
These tumors make growth hormone, which can cause acromegaly or gigantism when too much is made.

Nonfunctioning pituitary tumors
Nonfunctioning tumors do not produce hormones.

Recurrent pituitary tumors
Recurrent disease means that the tumor has come back (recurred) after it has been treated. It may come back in the pituitary gland or in another part of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

How pituitary tumors are treated:

There are treatments for all patients with pituitary tumors. Three kinds of treatment are used:

-surgery (taking out the tumor in an operation)
-radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays to kill tumor cells)
-drug therapy

Surgery is a common treatment of pituitary tumors. A doctor may remove the tumor using one of the following operations:

-A transphenoidal hypophysectomy removes the tumor through a cut in the nasal passage.
-A craniotomy removes the tumor through a cut in the front of the skull.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation for pituitary tumors usually comes from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy). Radiation therapy may be used alone or in addition to surgery or drug therapy.

Certain drugs can also block the pituitary gland from making too many hormones.

Treatment By Type

Treatments for pituitary tumors depend on the type of tumor, how far the tumor has spread into the brain, and the patient's age and overall health.

Standard treatment may be considered because of its effectiveness in patients in past studies, or participation in a clinical trial may be considered. Not all patients are cured with standard therapy and some standard treatments may have more side effects than are desired. For these reasons, clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. Clinical trials are ongoing in some parts of the country for patients with pituitary tumors. To learn more about clinical trials, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

ACTH-Producing Pituitary Tumor
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the tumor (transphenoidal hypophysectomy or craniotomy
2. Radiation therapy. Clinical trials may be testing new types of radiation
3. Surgery plus radiation therapy.
4. Radiation therapy plus drug therapy to stop the tumor from making ACTH.

Prolactin-Producing Pituitary Tumor
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the tumor (transphenoidal hypophysectomy or craniotomy).
2. Radiation therapy.
3. Surgery, radiation therapy, and drug therapy.
4. Drug therapy to stop the tumor from making prolactin. Clinical trials are
testing new drugs for this purpose.

Growth Hormone-Producing Pituitary Tumor
Treatment may be one of the following:
1. Surgery to remove the tumor (transphenoidal hypophysectomy or craniotomy).
2. Radiation therapy.
3. Drug therapy to stop the tumor from making growth hormone.

Nonfunctioning Pituitary Tumor
Treatment may be one of the following:

1. Surgery to remove the tumor (transphenoidal hypophysectomy or
2. Radiation therapy alone or in addition to surgery.

Recurrent Pituitary Tumor
Treatment of recurrent pituitary tumor depends on the type of tumor, the type of treatment the patient has already had, and other factors such as the patient's general condition. Patients may want to take part in a clinical trial of new treatments.

The information on this page was obtained from the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute provides accurate, up-to-date information on many types of cancer, information on clinical trials, resources for people dealing with cancer, and information for researchers and health professionals.

The National Cancer Institute is in no way affiliated with the Mary Stolfa Cancer Foundation.

The information on this web site is provided for general information only. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are familiar with your individual medical needs. The MSCF disclaims all obligations and liabilities for damages arising from the use or attempted use of the information, including but not limited to direct, indirect, special, and consequential damages, attorneys' and experts' fees and court costs. Any use of the information will be at the risk of the user.

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