Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 31, 2021

If your doctor tells you that you have adenocarcinoma, it means you have a type of cancer that starts in the glands that line the inside of one of your organs.

Adenocarcinoma can happen in many places, like your colon, breasts, esophagus, lungs, pancreas, or prostate.

It's natural to feel worried when you find out you have cancer, but remember that treatments can slow or stop the disease. You might need chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, or surgery. You and your doctor will decide on the best approach, based on where your tumors are growing and how long you've had them.

Your glands make fluids that your body needs to stay moist and work well. You get adenocarcinoma when cells in the glands that line your organs grow out of control. They may spread to other places and harm healthy tissue.

Adenocarcinoma can start in your:

  • Colon and rectum. The colon, which is also called your "large intestine," is part of your digestive system. It's a long tube that helps remove water and nutrients from the food you eat. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of colon cancer. It starts out as a small polyp, or growth, that's usually harmless at first but can turn into cancer. The disease can also start in your rectum, the part of your large intestine where the leftover waste from digested food, called stool, gets pushed out of your body.
  • Breasts. Most breast cancers are adenocarcinomas. They start in the glands of the breast where milk is made.
  • Esophagus. This is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. Adenocarcinoma usually starts in mucus glands that line the lower part of your esophagus.
  • Lungs. Adenocarcinoma makes up about 40% of lung cancers. It's most often found in the outer part of the lungs and grows more slowly than other types of lung cancer. You usually get it if you're a smoker or used to be one.
  • Pancreas. This is an organ in the back of your belly, behind your stomach. It makes hormones and enzymes that help digest food. About 85% of pancreatic cancers are caused by adenocarcinoma. These tumors start in the ducts of this organ.
  • Prostate. This is a gland in men that's just below the bladder. It helps make some of the fluid that protects sperm cells. Adenocarcinoma starts in the cells that make this fluid. Most prostate cancers are this type.

You could have symptoms like pain, diarrhea, bleeding, or fatigue, depending on your type of cancer. But early on, you may not feel that anything's wrong.

Your doctor will give you a physical exam. They may feel your organs to see if there is any swelling or a growth.

They may also notice something's not right when you have regular screening tests like a colonoscopy, when a doctor puts a tube into your colon to check for polyps.

You may also get tests to see if you have adenocarcinoma in any of your organs:

  • Blood tests. Your blood may show signs of possible cancer. For example, your doctor may check it to see if you have anemia from a bleeding tumor. Also, high levels of some enzymes or other things made by cancer cells might mean canceer is likely.
  • Imaging tests. They can help see if any of the tissues in your organs don't look normal. You may get a CT scan, which is a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures inside your body. Or you might need an MRI, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of organs and tissues. If you do have cancer and start treatment, imaging tests can also help your doctor learn how well your treatment is working.
  • Biopsy. Your doctor takes a small sample of tissue from the organ where they think you may have cancer. For example, they may remove a polyp or growth from your colon, or use a small needle to remove tissue from your breast. A doctor called a pathologist will look at it under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells. A biopsy can also show if they are just in that one organ, have spread from another place in your body, or how much they've grown.

Your treatment depends on the type of adenocarcinoma you have and how far along your disease has moved. This is called the stage of your cancer.

  • Surgery. Your first treatment will probably be to remove the tumor and tissue around it. Your doctor can then look at the tissue to see if you're cured or if there still may be cancer cells in your body. You may need to combine other treatments with surgery to make sure your cancer is gone.
  • Chemotherapy. Drugs can kill adenocarcinoma cells, slow their growth, or even cure your disease.
  • Radiation. Doctors use high-energy X-rays or other types of rays to kill your cancer cells.

You may need chemo along with surgery and radiation to treat your cancer. Some chemo drugs may kill both cancer and healthy cells. Other, newer drugs may target just your cancer cells.

Your cancer treatment can have side effects. You might get very tired or feel like you need to throw up. Your doctor can suggest ways to manage these problems. They may prescribe drugs that fight nausea.

Talk to your family and friends about how you're feeling, and don't hesitate to ask them for help while you're getting treatment. Also tell them about your worries and fears. They can be a huge source of support.

Check the web site of the American Cancer Society. You can find out about local support groups, where you'll meet people who have the same type of cancer as you and can share their experience.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute.

Maurie Markman, MD, president of medicine and science, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Philadelphia.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

American Cancer Society: "What is non-small cell lung cancer?"

University of Southern California Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases, Los Angeles.

Penn Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Colon Cancer Coalition: "What Is Colon Cancer?"

Johns Hopkins: "Colorectal Cancer."

Esophageal Cancer Awareness Association:  "What is an Esophagus?"

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