Fact: It is one of the ten most common cancers in both men and women.
What Is Kidney Cancer?
Kidney cancer -- also called renal cancer -- is a disease in which kidney cells become malignant (cancerous) and grow out of control, forming a tumor. Almost all kidney cancers first appear in the lining of tiny tubes (tubules) in the kidney. This type of kidney cancer is called renal cell carcinoma. The good news is that most of kidney cancers are found before they spread (metastasize) to distant organs. And cancers caught early are easier to treat successfully. However, these tumors can grow to be quite large before they are detected.
The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist. They lie in your lower abdomen on each side of your spine. Their main job is to clean your blood, removing waste products and making urine.
Common kidney cancer symptoms
The most common sign of kidney cancer is blood in the urine, known as hematuria. Other possible kidney cancer symptoms may include:
- Persistent pain in the side of the abdomen or the back, which is not the result of an injury.
- A mass or lump in the abdomen.
- Feeling fatigued.
- Unexplained, sometimes rapid, weight loss.
- A fever that is not due to an illness.
It's not clear what causes renal cell carcinoma.
Doctors know that kidney cancer begins when some kidney cells acquire mutations in their DNA. The mutations tell the cells to grow and divide rapidly.
The accumulating abnormal cells form a tumor that can extend beyond the kidney. Some cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to distant parts of the body.
Some common risk factors for kidney cancer include:
- Obesity: Excess weight, especially when caused by a high-fat diet, can increase a person’s kidney cancer risks.
- High blood pressure: People with high blood pressure are more likely to develop kidney cancer.
- Dialysis: People who receive long-term dialysis, which enables those without functioning kidneys to filter their blood through a machine, are more likely to develop kidney cancer.
- Smoking tobacco: The use of cigarettes, pipes and cigars can contribute to the likelihood of developing kidney cancer.
- Occupational exposure: Exposure to asbestos and/or cadmium (a type of metal used in the production of batteries, plastics, and other industrial processes) can increase the risk of developing kidney cancer.
Family history or inherited genetic syndromes: Kidney cancer risk factors increase for those who have a family history of the disease and those with the following inherited genetic conditions:
- Von hippel-lindau disease – caused by a genetic mutation that causes tumors in the kidney.
- Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma – a hereditary form of kidney cancer that is usually seen in both kidneys.
- Birt-hogg-dube syndrome – a skin disease that affects the hair follicles, which is associated with kidney tumors and air pockets in the lungs.
- Hereditary renal oncocytoma – this type of kidney tumor has a low risk of being malignant.
- Hereditary leiomyoma renal cell carcinoma – this rare gene mutation causes bumps on the skin, and in women it can cause large fibroids of the uterus.
Tests and diagnosis
Tests and procedures used to diagnose kidney cancer include:
- Blood and urine tests.Tests of your blood and your urine may give your doctor clues about what's causing your signs and symptoms.
- Imaging tests. Imaging tests allow your doctor to visualize a kidney tumor or abnormality. Imaging tests might include ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Removing a sample of kidney tissue (biopsy). In rare cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure to remove a small sample of cells (biopsy) from a suspicious area of your kidney. The sample is tested in a lab to look for signs of cancer.
Kidney cancer staging
Once your doctor identifies a kidney lesion that might be kidney cancer, the next step is to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. Staging tests for kidney cancer may include additional CT scans or other imaging tests your doctor feels are appropriate.
Then your doctor assigns a number, called a stage, to your cancer. Kidney cancer stages include:
- Stage I. At this stage, the tumor can be up to 2 3/4 inches (7 centimeters) in diameter. The tumor is confined to the kidney.
- Stage II. A stage II kidney cancer is larger than a stage I tumor, but it's still confined to the kidney.
- Stage III. At this stage, the tumor extends beyond the kidney to the surrounding tissue and may also have spread to a nearby lymph node.
- Stage IV. Cancer spreads outside the kidney, to multiple lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body, such as the bones, liver or lungs.
Treatments and drugs
Surgery is the standard of care for the majority of kidney cancers. Surgical procedures used to treat kidney cancer include:
- Removing the affected kidney (nephrectomy). Radical nephrectomy involves the removal of the kidney, a border of healthy tissue and the adjacent lymph nodes. The adrenal gland also may be removed.
Nephrectomy can be an open operation, meaning the surgeon makes one large incision to access your kidney. Or nephrectomy can be done laparoscopically, using several small incisions to insert a video camera and tiny surgical tools. The surgeon watches a video monitor to perform the nephrectomy.
In some cases, this surgery can be done robotically, which means the surgeon uses hand controls that tell a robot how to maneuver surgical tools to perform the operation.
- Removing the tumor from the kidney (nephron-sparing surgery). During this procedure, also called partial nephrectomy, the surgeon removes the tumor and a small margin of healthy tissue that surrounds it, rather than removing the entire kidney.
Nephron-sparing surgery can be an open procedure, or it may be performed laparoscopically or with robotic assistance.
Nephron-sparing surgery is a common treatment for small kidney cancers. It may also be an option if you have only one kidney.
When nephron-sparing surgery is possible, it's generally preferred over radical nephrectomy since retaining as much kidney tissue as possible may reduce your risk of later complications, such as kidney disease and the need for dialysis.
The type of surgery your doctor recommends will be based on your cancer and its stage, as well as your health. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection.
Treatments when surgery isn't possible
For some people, surgery isn't an option. In these situations, kidney cancer treatments may include:
- Treatment to freeze cancer cells (cryoablation). During cryoablation, a special needle is inserted through your skin and into your kidney tumor using X-ray guidance. Gas in the needle is used to cool down or freeze the cancer cells.
There are few long-term data about the safety and efficacy of cryoablation for kidney cancer. It's typically reserved for people who can't undergo other surgical procedures and those who have small kidney tumors.
- Treatment to heat cancer cells (radiofrequency ablation).During radiofrequency ablation, a special needle is inserted through your skin and into your kidney tumor using X-ray guidance. An electrical current is run through the needle and into the cancer cells, causing the cells to heat up or burn.
There are few long-term data about the safety and efficacy of radiofrequency ablation for kidney cancer. Radiofrequency ablation may be an option for people who can't undergo other surgical procedures and those with small kidney tumors.
Want to learn more?
The following are organizations and/or websites dedicated to providing information and education surrounding Kidney Cancer. These organizations are dedicated to research, education, awareness, and/or support. They are listed in Alphabetical order without any preference or prejudice. Listing these organizations is not a recommendation or referral in any regard for seeking treatment or consultation or support for treatment.
American Cancer Society
Cancer Research UK
Cancer Treatment Centers of America
Kidney Cancer Association
Information on this page taken directly from:
American Cancer Society
Cancer Treatment Centers of America