Cushing syndrome (CS) caused by ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) production (EA) poses major challenges diagnostically by mimicking the pituitary-dependent form of CS and therapeutically by producing severe, life-threatening hypercortisolemia. This retrospective follow-up study describes the clinical characteristics and course of EA in a large referral center. Computer-based cross-index codes for EA, CS, and bilateral adrenalectomy were used to identify patients treated at the Mayo Clinic between 1956 and 1998. EA was confirmed in 106 patients. Gender distribution showed a slight female predominance (61:45). Bronchial carcinoid was the most frequent cause of EA (25%), followed by islet cell cancer (16%), small-cell lung carcinoma (11%), medullary thyroid cancer (8%), disseminated neuroendocrine tumor of unknown primary source (7%), thymic carcinoid (5%), pheochromocytoma (3%), disseminated gastrointestinal carcinoid (1%), and other tumors (8%). No tumor was found in 16% of patients. Altogether, 28 patients were managed medically, and the others underwent curative tumor resection (13 patients) or bilateral adrenalectomy (65 patients). Surgically treated patients had longer survival, but this was most likely affected by treatment bias. The diagnoses of CS and ACTH-secreting neoplasm were usually concurrent, although, there were remarkable cases in which the two conditions were diagnosed several years apart. Curative resection of the tumor producing EA was possible in a small proportion of patients (12%). When curative resection is not possible, patients who are reasonable surgical candidates are likely to benefit from adrenalectomy. Additional experience with bilateral laparoscopic adrenalectomy should increase the number of patients who benefit from adrenal-directed surgery.
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