What Is a Pituitary Tumor?
The pituitary gland is a piece of the brain that manages the body’s hormones. Like many areas of the body, it is susceptible to tumor development. In many cases, pituitary tumors are benign and people will not even realize they have one. However, it is possible for a malignant tumor to develop, in which case it is important to have the tumor removed as soon as it is discovered.
There are three types of pituitary tumors:
- Benign pituitary adenoma: noncancerous tumors that slowly spread from the gland to other parts of the body
- Invasive pituitary adenoma: Another benign tumor, this type may spread to the bones, skull, or sinus cavity
- Pituitary carcinoma: This is a very rare type of cancerous tumor that can spread to the brain and spinal cord
Most pituitary tumors are “functioning” tumors that produce more hormones than normal. This can lead to some abnormal signs and symptoms.
Symptoms of a Functioning Tumor
Functioning tumors can create different types of hormones, so the symptoms a patient will experience will depend on the type of hormone being produced. In general, patients may experience the following symptoms:
- Minor vision loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Runny nose
- Anxiety and depression
- Diminished sex drive
- Fertility issues
- Abnormal growth spurts
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abnormal sweating
If your doctor suspects that a pituitary tumor is responsible for these symptoms, they will likely order a blood and urine test or a brain image scan. If a tumor is detected, surgery is usually the recommended treatment option for quick removal. Some patients also respond to radiation therapy. In the meantime, you may be provided with medications to help regulate your hormones.
It’s possible that your body will experience a hormone deficiency after a pituitary tumor is removed. There are medications that can help your body maintain a more balanced hormone production level.
Once a patient is found to have a pituitary tumor, tests must be done to find out if the tumor has spread into the brain or other parts of the body. Using an MRI or CT scans, doctors are able to tell its size and grade and whether or not it produces extra hormones. The size of a pituitary tumor is usually described as microadenoma (smaller than 1cm) or macroadenoma (larger than 1cm). The grade of the tumor is based on how far it has grown into the surrounding area of the brain.
Several different treatment options are available for people who are diagnosed with pituitary tumors. While there are several standard surgeries that are done to remove the tumor, there are also clinical trials that may be available to evaluate different treatment options for those patients diagnosed with a malignant tumor.
Surgical treatment options for pituitary tumors include:
- Endoscopic endonasal surgery: A type of surgery in which an endoscope is inserted through an incision made at the back of the inside of the nose and then through the sphenoid bone to reach the pituitary gland. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light, a lens for viewing, and a tool for removing tumor tissue. This technique has been refined and perfected by our experts at SCCNS and patients have less postoperative pain and fewer complications.
- Gamma Knife Radiosurgery: Whether used as a primary or secondary treatment, Gamma Knife radiosurgery has the advantage of delivering a high dose of radiation in a single fraction while minimizing the risk of damage to the nearby visual nerves and normal pituitary gland. It also offers the convenience of a single treatment compared to several weeks of fractionated radiation therapy. Gamma Knife radiosurgery has been found to have a very high chance of preventing further tumor growth.
- Craniotomy: Surgery to remove the tumor through an opening made in the skull. A craniotomy is used in the rare occasion that a pituitary tumor cannot be removed using an endoscope.
In the case of malignant tumors, even if the tumor is completely removed during surgery, patients may be given radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. This treatment is to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.