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What You Should Know About Surviving Pituitary Tumors

Last Updated: January 7, 2023

Being diagnosed with a pituitary tumor can be a challenging experience for any patient. In general, the word “tumor” is often associated with cancer. However, this is not necessarily the case for almost all pituitary tumors. Fortunately, most pituitary tumors are benign, meaning that they do not spread to other parts of the body and are non-cancerous. Therefore, they rarely affect the natural lifespan of the patient.

Understanding the course that a pituitary tumor can take is valuable to make informed decisions about treatment and for peace of mind. This article will discuss and summarize the prognosis of pituitary tumors, the treatment options available to a patient, and life expectancy.

What Course Can a Pituitary Adenoma Take?

Because most pituitary tumors are very slow growing and therefore non-cancerous, the prognosis is generally favorable. There is a very slight chance that a pituitary tumor is malignant, or cancerous, and can spread to other parts of the brain and body. However, malignancy occurs in less than 1% of pituitary tumors, so a cancer diagnosis is exceedingly rare for a pituitary adenoma.

Despite its benign nature, the presence of a pituitary adenoma can cause problems. By pressing against vital structures and tissues surrounding it, a pituitary adenoma can lead to issues such as partial vision loss (tunnel vision), growth issues, obesity/medical problems, and hormone deficiencies. Some pituitary adenomas are functioning, meaning that they secrete excess hormones and cause imbalances in the body. Treatment with surgery, radiation therapy, medications, or a combination of the above is typically effective and can resolve symptoms. Rarely, pituitary tumors can be resistant to conventional therapies and in such cases are called “refractory pituitary adenomas.” These tumors can be associated with frequent recurrences and invasive behavior despite treatment.

Survival Rate and Life Expectancy

Life expectancy following the diagnosis of pituitary tumor is overwhelmingly positive. The 5-year survival rate of pituitary adenomas is over 97%, meaning that the vast majority of people go on to live at least 5 or more years following diagnosis. Autopsy studies have even found that there are many individuals with pituitary tumors that go undiagnosed.

Treatment For Pituitary Tumors

Pituitary tumors can be treated through surgery, radiation therapy, medications, or a combination of the above. Pituitary tumors that do not cause symptoms may not require treatment at all. Such pituitary tumors can simply be observed over time with regular followup. Treatment options depend on several factors, including age, patient’s overall health, possible side effects, and the size of the pituitary tumor.

How Does a Pituitary Tumor Impact Your Quality of Life?

A pituitary tumor can cause a variety of symptoms if it produces excessive amounts of hormones or presses against the vision (optic) nerves. Symptoms can include: 

  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Mood changes
  • Unexpected weight gain
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased mental function
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue

Life and Care After Treatment

Following treatment and recovery, many patients go on to resume their daily lives. Regular followup (typically MRI every year) is performed to monitor for recurrence of the tumor. Hormone replacement therapy may also be required to maintain normal hormone levels after tumor removal. Besides the neurosurgeon, your care team may involve an endocrinologist and neurologist. Endocrinologists play an important role in your overall treatment plan long term. During follow-up appointments, imaging scans and blood tests are conducted.

Key Takeaways

Pituitary tumors are often benign and associated with excellent prognosis. Though they are slow-growing, they can cause symptoms if the tumor grows large enough to place pressure on surrounding tissues or secretes excessive hormones. Surgery, medication, and/or radiation therapy are options for treating pituitary tumors. Pituitary tumors rarely alter your lifespan; however, regular followup is required after treatment to monitor for recurrence.

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