Pituitary tumors are the third most common primary brain tumor, yet most go undiagnosed because of the wide spectrum of symptoms associated with the problem.
In fact, one 37-year-old woman was suffering from depression, weight gain, excess facial hair, headaches and osteoporosis, all symptoms of Cushing's Disease brought on by a tumor in her pituitary gland. She was fortunate to receive the proper diagnosis, because many pituitary tumors go undiagnosed. "I am sure that there are many patients with symptomatic pituitary tumors that are still unrecognized."
For example, the typical patient with Cushing's Disease has seen five or six doctors with kind of vague symptoms like weight gain and feeling not themselves. Sometimes some psychological depression and the diagnosis is missed because the doctors don't think about it. But more and more they're learning to do so. A doctor specializing in pituitary tumor surgery spoke at an American Medical Association press conference in New York City to heighten awareness about this common, but often undiagnosed, problem. He says about 20 percent of the brain tumors performed at academic training centers across the country are for pituitary tumors, yet only 5,000 people a year are actually diagnosed.
"The good news is that these tumors are almost all benign, and that if we can remove them, the pituitary gland itself often comes back to normal function, and even if it doesn't, we know, in conjunction with the endocrinologist, how to replace the hormones that a person needs to have normal health."
The pituitary gland is a master gland in the brain that controls many bodily functions like sexual maturation, reproduction and metabolism. When it is not functioning properly, many side effects can occur.
For women, the most common symptoms are interruption of the menstrual cycle and infertility.
For men, the most common side effects are sexual dysfunction and oversecretion of growth hormones, such as excess body hair, and gross enlargement of features.
Other symptoms include depression, weight gain, loss of libido and osteoporosis.
Dr. Laws says a pituitary tumor can be diagnosed through an MRI and simple endocrine tests and treatment is non-invasive. "Not everybody requires surgery, some of the people who have surgery also require additional medical treatment, and some require radiation therapy, so it's a very individualized type of care that involves a spectrum of physicians from different specialties."
Surgery is performed through the nostril with an operating microscope or endoscope. It takes an average of two hours and the patient is back to normal in three months.