Surgical Procedures: Adrenalectomy for Cancer of the Adrenal Gland

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: January 11, 2024

What is an adrenalectomy and how is it done?

The adrenal glands are shaped like triangles and are found above each kidney. When there are cancer cells in the outer layer of the adrenal gland, it is called adrenocortical carcinoma. When there are cancer cells in a part of the adrenal gland called the adrenal medulla, this tumor is called a pheochromocytoma. In many cases, the first line of treatment for these cancers is surgery to remove the adrenal gland. This surgery is called an adrenalectomy. During an adrenalectomy, your surgeon will remove one or both of your adrenal glands.

Your adrenal glands help make hormones for your body. Talk to your provider about any hormone levels that should be monitored before and after surgery. You may need to take hormone replacement medications. 

What are the risks of an adrenalectomy?

The risks of an adrenalectomy may be:

  • Wound infection.
  • Bleeding.
  • Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis and/or pulmonary embolism).
  • Lung infection.
  • Intestinal Ileus (when your bowel doesn’t work as it should).
  • Your adrenal glands not being able to make enough hormones (adrenal insufficiency).
  • Injury to nearby organs and/or blood vessels.

What is recovery like?

The hospital stay after an adrenalectomy is about 3 to 5 days. Recovery from an adrenalectomy can take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks.

Your care team will talk with you about the medications you will be taking (blood clot and infection prevention) and pain management.

After surgery, it is often recommended that you do not:

  • Lift anything over 5-10 pounds for 6 weeks.
  • Do rigorous activity for 4 weeks.
  • Drive while on narcotic pain medications or if you are unable to do your own daily activities.
  • Shower until 2 days after the surgery.
  • Bathe in a tub, swim, or put the incision under water for 1 to 2 weeks.

Symptoms to report to your care team are:

  • Fever (your care team will tell you at what temperature you should call).
  • Signs of a wound infection, such as redness, warmth, or drainage.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or chills.
  • Feeling lightheaded.
  • Having a hard time breathing.

How do I care for my incision?

You will be taught how to care for your incision both before leaving the hospital and at home. Incisions should be kept clean and dry. 

How can I care for myself?

You may need a family member or friend to help you with your daily tasks until you are feeling better. It may take some time before your team tells you that it is okay to go back to your normal activity.

Be sure to take your prescribed medications as directed to prevent pain, infection, and/or constipation. Call your team with any new or worsening symptoms.

There are ways to manage constipation after your surgery. You can change your diet, drink more fluids, and take over-the-counter medications. Talk with your care team before taking any medications for constipation. 

Taking deep breaths and resting can help manage pain, keep your lungs healthy after anesthesia, and promote good drainage of lymphatic fluid. Try to do deep breathing and relaxation exercises a few times a day in the first week, or when you notice you are extra tense.

  • Example of a relaxation exercise: While sitting, close your eyes and take 5-10 slow deep breaths. Relax your muscles. Slowly roll your head and shoulders.

This article contains general information. Please be sure to talk to your care team about your specific plan and recovery.

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