Diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor, Whitney Wynn beats the odds

Whitney Wynn had experienced strange symptoms for years, but her primary care physicians didn’t suspect cancer. Her recurrent yeast infections were dismissed as “just women’s problems” although they were later attributed to the high levels of cortisol being secreted by her tumor.

By the time she was diagnosed with cancer at age 27, her adrenal tumor was secreting so much testosterone that she was balding like a middle-aged man, her bra size had shrunk, and her menstrual cycle had ground to a halt. 

She finally got some answers after she was referred to an endocrinologist, who ordered a CT scan. Doctors in Bellingham, where Wynn lived, were baffled because the findings were so rare: stage III adrenal cortical carcinoma in a twentysomething. They referred her to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington Medical Center. 

Within two weeks of her September 2017 visit, she was scheduled for surgery overseen by Dr. Nicole Zern, whom Wynn calls “my hero.” In Dr. Zern’s hands, Wynn finally felt safe. “Her whole team was this big badass bunch of lady surgeons and that made me feel really comfortable to be around so many smart, empowering women,” says Wynn. 

Wynn had expected to have much of her liver, kidney and part of her bowel removed, along with the tumor, during surgery. But Dr. Zern and her team were able to remove only the tumor and some lymph nodes, leaving Wynn with a “lovely half-moon scar” on the front of her abdomen. “I attribute the beautiful scar to my female surgeons, who knew that I wanted to look good,” says Wynn. 

Whitney Wynn climbing Mt. Baker the day before her surgery.
Whitney Wynn climbing Mt. Baker the day before her surgery.

Dr. Alan Failor, Wynn's endocrinologist at SCCA, says that Wynn’s cancer is incredibly rare: one in a million. In more than three decades in practice, he has seen only a few dozen cases. Stage III patients such as Wynn have a 40 percent chance of survival at one year. “It’s a pretty grim discussion because there’s not a whole lot of light and upside,” says Dr. Failor. “I want to maintain a level of hope, but I don’t want to mislead. It can be difficult to find that balance.”  

Wynn’s prognosis was so dire that she was introduced to Dr. Keith Eaton, who was intended to treat her once her disease recurred. But Wynn has beaten the odds: cancer-free since her surgery nearly four years ago, she never had to see Dr. Eaton on a regular basis. Despite not being his patient, Wynn has stayed in touch with Dr. Eaton, with whom she found common ground since he too is a cancer survivor. “I have talked to him about how to wrap my mind around such a bad prognosis,” she says. “You can really count on your doctors here to hold you up when you don’t have anything else to hold onto.” 

Because adrenal cortical carcinoma is so unusual, it makes it difficult for oncologists to advise patients and offer comprehensive guidance. “Unlike with breast cancer or colon cancer where there are lots of clinical trials, we can’t give people solid numbers with this type of cancer,” says Dr. Failor. “Instead of hard numbers, a lot of the treatment plan is driven by expert opinion. I tell people, ‘Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know, and here are the options.’” 

The most commonly recommended treatment, the chemotherapy drug mitotane, is particularly tough on patients. It can cause extreme nausea, severe dizziness and off-the-wall fatigue—and it’s not clear if it’s effective. Wynn took mitotane for two years, but she got tired of feeling sick all the time and stopped the drug in 2020. “She decided the better part of valor was to stop and hope for the best,” says Dr. Failor. 

So far, Wynn is thriving. She has regular imaging appointments to make sure the cancer has not recurred. In the meantime, she is nannying while she weighs various career options. Before her diagnosis, she was an oceanography researcher, and she’s trying to decide if she wants to return to the lab. “I’m not sure what I will do in the future, but I am so happy right now,” says Wynn, who loves to play the piano and is now strong enough to run and lift weights. “Every day it’s like seeing a rainbow. For so long, first being sick and then on chemotherapy, I didn’t remember it was possible to feel this good.”