Endocrine cancer

Sunday 31 July, 2011

Reviewed by: Annie Angle, Cancer Nurse, Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London


Endocrine cancers are named by the gland in which they begin. Endocrine cancers include pancreatic cancer and thyroid cancer.

What's endocrine cancer?

The endocrine system is a network of glands that produce hormones and send them around the body through the blood. There are several glands in the system including the:

  • pituitary gland (which sits just under the brain)
  • thyroid gland (which sits in the front of the neck)
  • pancreas (which sits well above the tummy button in the abdomen)
  • parathyroid glands (which sit just behind the thyroid gland)
  • adrenal glands (which lie on top of the kidneys in the abdomen).

Endocrine cancer is cancer that begins in one of these glands. The most common sort of endocrine cancer is thyroid cancer, which begins in the thyroid gland. There are also some types of pancreatic cancer (cancer in the pancreas) that are classified as endocrine tumours.

Some tumours that grow in an endocrine gland are benign, which means they're not cancerous. For example, most pituitary tumours are benign. However, benign tumours are often treated in the same way as cancerous tumours.

How common is endocrine cancer?

Endocrine cancer is rare. Around 350 people are affected by thyroid cancer in Victoria each year and 650 people develop pancreatic cancer. Another 30 or so people have other cancers of the endocrine system.

Causes of endocrine cancer

In most cases of this type of cancer, the cause is not known.

Signs and symptoms of endocrine cancer

Symptoms depend on where the cancer is growing in the body. A thyroid tumour may cause swelling in the neck, in the area of the thyroid. Other symptoms can include the effects of hormonal changes, which vary considerably from tumour to tumour.

If you have one of these symptoms, but haven't been diagnosed with this cancer, remember that it's rare, and your symptom is likely to be due to something else. However, see your doctor if any symptom persists for more than two weeks.

Types of endocrine cancer

Endocrine cancers are named by the gland in which they begin. The main types of endocrine cancers are:

Further information

Being given a diagnosis of endocrine cancer can be very upsetting. Your doctor will explain your cancer and its treatment to you. You can also call Cancr Council on 13 11 20 and speak with a cancer nurse. We can provide information and tell you about support services for people with cancer and their families and friends.

Other types of endocrine tumours

Apart from the main types of endocrine cancer, thyroid cancer and pancreatic cancer, several other types can develop. These types of endocrine tumours are very rare so information about them can be difficult to find. The links below take you to information on Macmillan Cancer Support (a UK website).

Treatment may be slightly different in Australia. Please discuss this with your doctor. If you have further questions you can call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 and speak with a cancer nurse.

Updated: 31 Jul, 2011