Carcinoma of unknown primary origin with isolated adrenal metastasis: a report of two cases

Endocr J. 2021 Oct 28;68(10):1209-1215. doi: 10.1507/endocrj.EJ21-0141. Epub 2021 May 18.


The adrenal glands are one of the most common sites of malignant tumor metastasis. However, metastatic adrenal carcinoma of unknown primary origin with localized adrenal gland involvement is an extremely rare condition. Herein, we reported two cases of carcinoma of unknown primary origin with isolated adrenal metastasis. In the first case, back pain was the trigger; while in the second case, the triggers were low fever and weight loss. Metabolic abnormalities such as hypertension and obesity were not detected in either case. Neither patient had relevant previous medical histories, including malignancy. However, both had a long-term history of smoking. Systemic imaging studies revealed only adrenal tumors and surrounding lesions. Primary adrenocortical carcinoma was initially suspected, and chemotherapy including mitotane was considered. However, due to difficulty in complete resection of the tumor, core needle tumor biopsies were performed. Histopathological examination of biopsy specimens led to the diagnosis of carcinoma of unknown primary origin with isolated adrenal metastasis. In both cases, additional laboratory testing showed high levels of serum squamous cell carcinoma-related antigen and serum cytokeratin fragment. Malignant lesions confined to the adrenal glands are rare. As in our cases, it could be occasionally difficult to differentiate non-functioning primary adrenocortical carcinoma from metastatic adrenal carcinoma of unknown primary origin localized to the adrenal gland. If the lesion is unresectable and there are elevated levels of several tumor markers with no apparent hormonal excess, core needle tumor biopsy should be considered to differentiate the primary tumor from the metastatic tumor.

Keywords: Adrenal metastasis; Carcinoma of unknown primary origin; Tumor biopsy.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / blood
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / pathology
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms / secondary
  • Adrenocortical Carcinoma / diagnosis*
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / blood
  • Biopsy, Needle
  • Carcinoma / blood
  • Carcinoma / diagnostic imaging*
  • Carcinoma / pathology
  • Carcinoma / secondary
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Keratins / blood
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / blood
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / pathology
  • Serpins / blood


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Serpins
  • squamous cell carcinoma-related antigen
  • Keratins