Diseases & Conditions


Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Adenocarcinoma is the name of a broad category of cancers. This type of cancer occurs in cells that line organs such as the colon, lung, and breast.

What is going on in the body?

Structures within the body are covered with layers of tissue. One of these layers of tissue is called the epithelium. It covers the inside of hollow organs and milk ducts in the breast. When cancer occurs in one of the cells of the epithelium, it is called an adenocarcinoma. The cancer is also categorized by the kind of tissue from which it arose, such as breast or lung.

Cancer occurs when a cell undergoes changes that make it grow and multiply uncontrollably. The abnormal cells grow into a mass, which is called a tumor. Cancer cells from the tumor can break off and metastasize. This means that they spread to other parts of the body. New tumors may then form. In addition to spreading, adenocarcinoma also destroys the tissue around it.

What are the causes and risks of the disease?

Smoking increases the risk for almost every kind of cancer. There may be other risk factors for adenocarcinomas in different organ sites. Each site may have different factors. For example, hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of uterine adenocarcinoma. Colon adenocarcinoma may be related to a diet high in fat or low in fiber. In the same way, the risk for adenocarcinoma of the small intestine increases with a history of Crohn disease.

Symptoms & Signs

What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?

Symptoms vary, depending on which organ is affected by the tumor. Small adenocarcinomas can be hard to detect. The tumor must be large enough to cause symptoms that prompt a person to see a doctor. Large tumors destroy tissue around them, which can cause symptoms. For example, a colon adenocarcinoma may erode into a blood vessel. In this case, the person might notice blood in the stool.

Diagnosis & Tests

How is the disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis of adenocarcinoma begins with a medical history and physical exam. When a lump is found, a piece of it is taken in a biopsy and examined to see what it is. If adenocarcinoma is found, other tests may be done to determine the extent of the disease. This process is called staging and usually includes specialized X-rays.

Prevention & Expectations

What can be done to prevent the disease?

Avoiding risk factors such as smoking is key to good health in general. There are no health behaviors that can prevent all cancers. But good health care can help to detect cancers early. This includes:

  • Routine physical exams
  • breast self-examination
  • testicular self-examination
  • What are the long-term effects of the disease?

    If the cancer is not successfully treated, adenocarcinoma is fatal.

    What are the risks to others?

    Adenocarcinoma poses no risk to others.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the disease?

    Adenocarcinoma is treated with one or more of the following:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • surgery
  • Early-stage disease is localized and may be treated by surgery alone. The whole tumor and the tissue around it are removed. Sometimes chemotherapy is given after surgery to make sure that any cancer left behind is killed. This is called adjuvant therapy. The goal is to prevent the return of the cancer. Radiation may also be given to the area of the tumor to kill any disease left behind after surgery.

    If adenocarcinoma is in the advanced stage, treatment is focused on improving the person's quality of life. This is done by shrinking tumors that are causing symptoms such as pain. Either radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be used. Advanced adenocarcinoma is not curable.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Side effects depend on the type of treatment chosen and the intensity of the therapy. The side effects of therapy are usually manageable. Treatment for advanced-stage disease is designed to relieve symptoms, so side effects are minimized.

    What happens after treatment for the disease?

    People who have early-stage disease are followed to make sure the cancer does not return. People with advanced adenocarcinoma are followed to make sure that the disease is not progressing. If the disease does return or progress, then a different treatment can be tried.

    How is the disease monitored?

    People who have been treated for adenocarcinoma should have routine physical exams to look for signs of recurrence. The frequency of these exams will decrease over time, if the disease has been successfully treated. Close monitoring will allow for changes in therapy to maintain the best possible quality of life. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.


    Author:Miriam P. Rogers, EdD, RN, AOCN, CNS
    Date Written:
    Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
    Edit Date:07/22/02
    Reviewer:Kathleen A. MacNaughton, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:10/07/02


    Fundamentals in Oncology, Part 1, CH Yarbro, 1997, pp. 1-92.