Attached to the base of the brain, the pituitary gland manages the secretion of various hormones controlling sexual desire, growth, metabolism and stress. And when tumors develop from the abnormal growth of cells within this gland, they are known as pituitary tumors.
These types of tumors are categorized into three classes: benign pituitary adenomas are non-cancerous, do not spread to surrounding tissues and grow very slowly; invasive pituitary adenomas, which are also benign and specifically affect the bones of the skull and sinus cavities; and pituitary carcinomas, which are cancerous and often affect the brain and spinal cord as well as other areas of the body.
Any of these forms of pituitary tumors can impact how the gland functions, causing abnormal levels of hormones and leading to multiple conditions and problems throughout the body.
Essentially, tumors are abnormal growths due to unnecessary cell multiplication that serves no proper function in the human body. Typically, cell multiplication is controlled by suppressor genes, which continually act to protect cells from cancer-causing genes known as oncogenes. However, when suppressor genes fail because of changes in their protein coding, tumor can develop as cell division becomes unregulated.
Whereas our body’s built-in defenses find and destroy these abnormal cells, naturally occurring chemicals sometimes hamper the ability of our immune system to see these cells, as which point they become strong enough and exist in large enough numbers to overpower any of body’s defenses.
Whether or not a pituitary tumor is “functioning” or “non-functioning” dictates what sorts of symptoms will appear in the patient; functioning tumors produce hormones, while non-functioning ones do not. Symptoms will be dependent on the size of the tumor and will likely include headaches, visions problems and nausea and vomiting in addition to an abnormal production of breast milk, loss of sexual desire, sudden weight changes, a propensity for easy bruising and weakness and pain in muscles and joints.
A neurological exam is the first step if the presence of a pituitary tumor is suspected. Eye, ear, nose and muscle function will be tested, as will coordination and balance, memory and cognitive abilities. And because these tumors can affect hormones, testing of hormone levels in the blood will likely be ordered. Image testing in the form of CT scans and MRIs can help determine the exact size, location and form of the tumor, and a biopsy can test whether it is benign or malignant.
Certain pituitary tumors can be treated with medication only, but careful observation will be ordered to ensure symptoms don’t worsen and hormonal changes don’t occur. Surgery combined with radiation therapy may also be necessary for larger tumors, especially if they are somehow impacting nearby nerves.