What is a Pituitary Tumor?

A tumor is an abnormal growth of cells that results in a mass of tissue that can occur anywhere in the body. When a tumor forms in the pituitary gland, it is referred to as a pituitary tumor. Most of these types of tumors are benign (noncancerous). However, since the pituitary gland regulates some of the body’s hormones, a tumor can affect hormone production, causing a significant increase or decrease in levels of specific hormones.

These tumors that do not produce hormones are referred to as nonfunctioning. The tumors that produce hormones are referred to as functioning. Functioning tumors can affect the following hormones:

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
  • Prolactin
  • Growth hormone
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone
  • Gonadotropins

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What Causes Pituitary Tumors?

Doctors do not know what causes pituitary tumors to develop. However, scientists have discovered that individuals diagnosed with a condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN 1) are at an increased risk of developing pituitary tumors.

Symptoms of Pituitary Tumors

They can grow slowly, and most may not even cause any symptoms. Additionally, the symptoms depend on the type of tumor present.

Individuals with a nonfunctioning tumor may experience the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Vision problems
  • Seizures

Individuals with a functioning tumor may experience the following symptoms:

  • Hormone deficiency
  • Excess hormones
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Weight gain
  • Changes in mood, such as depression, irritability, and/or anxiety
  • Muscle weakness
  • Decreased libido
  • Acromegaly
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Hyperprolactinemia
  • In women, irregular menstruation

What to Expect at Your Appointment

During your appointment, your doctor will ask you to thoroughly describe your symptoms and will want to discuss your medical history. If your doctor suspects that a pituitary tumor may be causing your symptoms, he/she will want to perform diagnostic testing. Some of the tests used to diagnose a pituitary tumor include:

  • Pituitary functioning hormone test - This is a blood test used to determine whether the pituitary tumor is functioning (producing hormones) or nonfunctioning (not producing hormones).
  • Blood and urine test - These tests are used to detect overproduction or underproduction of various hormones. Your doctor may also want to conduct imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan in order to locate and determine the size of the pituitary tumor.

Non-surgical Treatments for Pituitary Tumors

If necessary, treatment will depend on various factors, such as:

  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether it is functioning or nonfunctioning
  • The extent of the tumor (whether it has spread to surrounding areas or not)
  • The age and overall health of the patient

Sometimes, the symptoms of functioning pituitary tumors can be treated using medication that restores the balance of hormones in the body. Medication is very useful for treating acromegaly and Cushing’s disease.

"Extensive neurosurgical and medical experience in management of pituitary tumors leads to better outcomes." - Dr. Susmeeta Tewari Sharma, Director of Pituitary Endocrinology at the MedStar Pituitary Center

Successfully treating a pituitary tumor requires an experienced team of specialists. At MedStar Washington, we take a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to the diagnosis and treatment of pituitary tumors in order to achieve the best outcomes. We are the only multidisciplinary pituitary tumor center in the Washington, DC, area to have neurosurgeons experienced with pituitary disorders, a pituitary endocrinologist, a neuro ophthalmologist, otolaryngology, office visits, diagnostic testing, and surgery - all in the same location.

Surgical Treatment for Pituitary Tumors and Post-Treatment

If the tumor is symptomatic, surgical intervention to remove the tumor will be necessary. There are two surgical techniques that can be used to remove a pituitary tumor. The technique used will depend on the size, extent, and the location of the tumor.

Transsphenoidal surgery - Transsphenoidal techniques use endoscopic instruments to remove the pituitary tumor through the nasal cavity. This type of surgery minimizes risks associated with more invasive, open surgical procedures.

Transcranial surgery - Transcranial surgery is an open surgical technique where the pituitary tumor is removed through an opening in the skull. This type of surgery is used for larger pituitary tumors that have spread to surrounding areas.

If the tumor cannot be removed, radiation therapy may be used to shrink the tumor. Radiation therapy can also be used in conjunction with surgery in order to target the tumor.

Some patients may experience sinus pressure and/or congestion for a few weeks following surgery. After surgery, some individuals may need adjuvant radiation and/or medication therapy in order to completely remove the tumor and restore hormone levels in the body.

Outlook and Prognosis for Individuals With Pituitary Tumors

When diagnosed and treated early, individuals typically experience excellent outcomes. However, if the tumor is diagnosed after it has spread or if it is left untreated, it may cause serious health complications. Lifelong treatment may be required in order to maintain hormonal balance. It may also be necessary to continue follow-up care indefinitely in order to monitor for the return of the tumor. It is very important to carefully follow instructions given by the pituitary tumor care team.

Helpful Links

A Breast Cancer Diagnosis: It Takes Your Breath Away

Breast Cancer Can Affect Anyone 

My name is Heidi Kirby. (Photo L to R:  Dr. Sandra Swain, former medical director of Washington Cancer Institute and current Associate Dean for Research Development at Georgetown University Medical Center and Heidi)  I am young. I am healthy. I have no family history of breast cancer, yet, somehow I found myself with the phone against my ear, being told that's what I had. For anyone touched by this disease, you know how powerless you can feel.  For anyone being told they have cancer, it takes your breath away.

My story is nothing special.  In fact, my story happens every day and can happen to anyone at any age. When I first felt something different in 2014, I was preparing to run in the annual Race to Beat Cancer 5K, sponsored by my former employer, The Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C. All the proceeds benefit cancer research at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. I was focused on the run, therefore not that concerned. But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October of that year, I went from denial to anger and back to denial over and over. During this stressful period, I reached out to my close work family, and because of their long-standing relationship with the Washington Cancer Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, I was put in touch with an oncologist so that I could start treatment right away. The wonderful doctors and medical professionals were determined to make me well. I'm happy to say that I am now cancer free and I know that my risk of recurrence is low.

Advances in Breast Cancer Treatment

I'm constantly amazed by the advances in cancer research, science and technology. I recently learned the Washington Cancer Institute at the Hospital Center offers intraoperative radiation therapy for a select group of breast cancer patients with small tumors, in which a single dose of radiation is delivered after lumpectomy, as opposed to standard radiation treatment over several weeks. In addition, physicians are studying chemotherapy–free options for metastatic breast cancer patients. Progress like this is possible thanks in large part to public and private donations.

I never imagined having to ask so many people to help me.  I never thought I would celebrate a genetic test result. Of course, I never thought I would need a genetic test at all. The simple part of my story is this: I'm going to live and love longer because so many people who I’ll never meet selflessly gave their time and resources - to beat this disease.

Contribute to Breast Cancer Research

I will continue to support the annual Race to Beat Cancer 5K, and the ongoing fundraising efforts of  the wonderful volunteers and donors who support cancer research at the Washington Cancer Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. I urge everyone to sign up for this year’s race.  There’s also the annual Drive Four the Cure Golf Classic at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, which is another opportunity to support the Washington Cancer Institute's cause. Together, we must continue to fight this disease so that we give friends, family, colleagues and many others the same opportunity! 


Have any questions?

We are here to help! If you have any questions about the Washington Cancer Institute or cancer treatments at MedStar Washington Hospital Center Call us at 202-877-3627.

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