The symptoms can be vague. Headaches, weight loss or gain, fatigue, and cold intolerance: Symptoms that might be dismissed as menopause or stress. But these symptoms can sometimes mask pituitary disease.
The Penn Pituitary Center was created to diagnose and treat people with pituitary disease. The center's multidisciplinary team of endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, neuroradiologists, interventional radiologists and neuro-opthalmologists are recognized internationally for their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of neuroendocrine diseases.
The pituitary gland is about the size of a pea and sits in a small cavity at the base of the brain. It produces major hormones that control bodily functions.
“If the pituitary gland’s functions are compromised by disease or a tumor, hormone production is impaired and an individual will experience symptoms,” says endocrinologist Julia Kharlip, MD.
"The symptoms may go unexplained for months or sometimes years until the problem is uncovered by an astute clinician or when the patient’s peripheral vision begins to be affected by a growing pituitary tumor," Dr. Kharlip continues. "The good news is that although these diseases are insidious, once diagnosed, they can be treated successfully, restoring quality of life and preserving vision.”
The Penn Pituitary Center provides the latest specialized care for patients with pituitary disease including:
- Cushing's disease
- Gonadotroph and other clinically nonfunctioning pituitary adenomas
- Pituitary and hypothalalmic lesions
- Diabetes insipidus
Because these are complex disorders, care of one patient involves multiple specialists.
“Seeing so many doctors may sound daunting, but our center coordinator makes navigating the multiple visits easier for families, often scheduling all appointments on the same day. All physicians at Penn have access to electronic medical records and images. Once a patient starts their journey, there is no more logging of the bulky stacks of handwritten notes or image envelopes from visit to visit," Dr. Kharlip said.
“Once all of us had a chance to evaluate the patient individually, the specific case is discussed among the team at a conference, where we can form a consensus of opinion about treatment plans from all disciplines,” says Dr. Kharlip. "When several treatment options are reasonable, we involve the patient in choosing the approach that is best for him or her."
Every person’s experience with pituitary disease is unique and deserves a treatment plan tailored to their needs. Consequently, patients with pituitary disease benefit from the observations and expertise of many medical fields including endocrinology, ophthalmology and neurosurgery.
“We can offer patients advanced care that community hospitals may not be able to offer because we have the expertise and technology only an advanced academic institution like Penn Medicine has,” says Dr. Kharlip.
Pituitary disease affects nearly 22 percent of the U.S. population. It is often caused by a tumor and surgery is almost always part of the treatment plan. The good news is most pituitary tumors are benign, or non-cancerous.
“Having surgery when the pituitary is damaged can be dangerous. Before surgery, the endocrinology team works with patients to make sure their hormones are at safe levels,” said Dr. Kharlip.
Sean Grady, MD, is the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Penn Medicine. He says the procedure to remove pituitary tumors is straightforward, but its complications can be substantial.
“Pituitary tumors are usually removed with minimally invasive techniques through a patient’s nasal cavity,” says Dr. Grady. “It requires no incisions, and patients usually go home within three days.”
But because of the tumor’s location within the brain, it’s important for patients to have their surgery performed by a team whose experience and expertise ensures the best possible outcomes.
“We perform two to three surgeries like this per week,” says Dr. Grady. “Not only does our surgical team have vast experience with this type of procedure, the entire team within Penn’s Pituitary Center is aware of the alternatives to surgery when surgery may not be the best option.”
After surgery, patients may receive radiation treatment to prevent recurrence or shrink any part of the tumor that could not be surgically removed.
“Penn offers patients the latest approaches in radiation treatment,” says Dr. Kharlip. “From Gamma Knife® radiation therapy, which delivers a single high dose of gamma radiation to the tumor, to proton therapy which is only offered in a handful of locations within the country, to traditional radiation therapy, patients have the benefit of Penn’s expertise throughout their entire treatment.”
For more information about the Penn Pituitary Center, or to make an appointment, please call 800-789-PENN (7366) or visit PennMedicine.org.