Pheochromocytoma - Experience

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What is a pheochromocytoma?

Pheochromocytomas are a type of tumor of the adrenal glands that can release high levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. As the name implies, the ad-renal glands are located near the "renal" (kidney) area. In other words, the adrenal glands are small glands that are located near the top of the kidneys. One adrenal gland sits on top of each of the two kidneys.

Despite their small size, the adrenal glands have many functions. They are complex endocrine (hormone secreting) glands. Cells in different regions of the adrenal glands have different functions in the endocrine system. There is an area (zona fasciculata) where the cells secrete cortisol, a hormone similar to cortisone. There is another area (zona glomerulosa) where cells secrete a hormone called aldosterone which helps in water regulation.

There is yet another area, referred to as the adrenal medulla, where the cells secrete substances called catecholamines -- epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. These are "flight or fight" hormones. They are responsible in part for that feeling of an "adrenaline" rush people feel when they are afraid. It is these cells that are involved in a pheochromocytoma. Basically, a pheochromocytoma is a tumor of these catecholamine-secreting cells, and that causes the clinical signs and symptoms we will discuss below. The catecholamine-secreting cells are sometimes referred to as chromaffin cells, and they are found in other areas of the body as well as in the adrenal medulla.

Sometimes, pheochromocytomas arise from chromaffin cells that are located outside of the adrenal gland. In this case, they are termed extra-adrenal pheochromocytomas or paragangliomas and are usually located in the abdomen.

Pheochromocytomas may occur in persons of any age. The peak incidence is between the third and the fifth decades of life. Pheochromocytomas are, fortunately, quite rare (2 to 8 people per million per year), and the majority of them are entirely benign.

Picture of the endocrine system
Picture of the endocrine system
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See what others are saying

Comment from: Jeanne, 65-74 Female (Patient) Published: March 06

I am 72 years old and I had a pheochromocytoma when I was 17 years old in 1959. I had high blood pressure which limited my normal activities as I would get dizzy with any exertion. I also had extreme sweating. A urinalysis showed sugar in my urine. My doctor thought I was diabetic and started me on insulin shots, but I did not respond properly. Fortunately the doctor knew he needed help with a diagnosis and sent me to a teaching hospital where they made the diagnosis. My right adrenal gland was removed and I had a blood clot in my left arm after surgery which had to be removed in another lengthy surgery. For those of you with pheochromocytoma now the methods for bringing you back to health are a lot more user friendly! Good luck to you all.

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Comment from: Robin in Wyoming, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: May 21

I was a 47 year old women with 6 children and I used to get violent headaches that made me grab my head and hope it wouldn"t explode off my shoulders. I went to one doctor who placed a Holter monitor on me and found severe changes but blew it off as menopausal symptoms and sent me on my way with Premarin. It made me feel better but again just aggravated the headaches and dizzy spells. Well, I looked out for another physician and he took on my case thinking I had an insulinoma and finding out it was not the case. He wasn"t satisfied with the answer and sent me for an ultrasound of my kidneys but before that could happen the emergency room (ER) doctor diagnosed it as possible pheochromocytoma in July. I then had many returns to the ER and I had the gambit of answers, most being I was crazy. In October however I had 3 diagnosed heart attacks in a 24 hour period of time, the last placing me on a life flight helicopter to a trauma I hospital in CCU getting an immediate angioplasty. When they came back with the diagnosis I was told you have the best looking heart I have ever seen go back to your town doctor and have him continue to look into this it"s not your heart. He did and 4 days later I received an ultrasound and they found a large sized marble lesion on the underside of my liver or on top of my adrenal gland. Not less than 5 days later I was transported to the same trauma I level hospital again with violent cardiac symptoms and after the biopsy and now the lesion being the size of a grapefruit I was diagnosed with a pheochromocytoma. Luckily I had it removed and have gone 10 years without symptoms but they have returned and now they are looking for another one. So when your doctor says you are clear, get more than one opinion, maybe 5 if need be; never accept you are crazy. Anxiety in a pheochromocytoma patient is not anxiety, it is your body telling you, you are sick.

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