Our endocrine glands produce hormones, which are like the body’s messengers—they move through the bloodstream until they reach their target organ, and then they deliver instructions telling that organ exactly how to behave. These “messages” trigger important processes, like metabolism, growth, reproduction and even mood.
Occasionally, in one of the endocrine glands, a change in the DNA (known as a mutation) causes abnormal cells to grow, and a tumor forms. Most endocrine tumors are benign (not cancerous), but a few will become cancerous. Collectively, endocrine cancers are much less common than other kinds of cancer. “However, thyroid cancer, which is an endocrine cancer, is the fifth most common cancer among women in the United States,” notes Yale Medicine endocrinologist Elizabeth Holt, MD, who is also the co-director of the endocrine neoplasia disease team and an associate professor of medicine (endocrinology) at Yale School of Medicine. She is part of Yale Cancer Center’s Endocrine Cancers Program.
Because hormones play such a key role in keeping the body balanced, both benign and cancerous endocrine tumors have the potential to cause serious problems. For this reason, they may require some form of treatment such as surgery or radiation therapy. Almost all endocrine tumors require at least some evaluation and monitoring, she says.
“At the Endocrine Cancers Program,” says Dr. Holt, “patients with endocrine cancers are cared for by a multidisciplinary team of doctors and nurses, including those in endocrinology, endocrine surgery, radiology, nuclear medicine, pathology, genetics and medical oncology.” This team of experts meets weekly to discuss patient care and to share new research.