Key Points about Kidney Cancer
- Your kidneys look like a pair of bean-shaped organs. They are about the size of a fist and are attached to the upper back wall of the abdomen, located on either side of your backbone.
- Your kidneys help remove excess waste from the blood. The waste becomes urine and leaves the kidneys through long tubes called the ureters.
- Kidney cancer strikes people usually between the ages of 65 and 74.
- Kidney cancer is twice as likely in men than in women.
Kidney cancer, also called renal cancer, starts in the kidneys – two bean-shaped organs about the size of a fist. Your kidneys help remove excess waste from blood. The waste becomes urine and leaves the kidneys through long tubes called the ureters. Kidney cancer can form in the lining of those tiny tubes inside your kidney.
There are several types of kidney cancer, including:
- Renal cell carcinoma - this type of kidney cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type in adults. It starts in the area of your kidney that filters blood.
- Renal pelvis carcinoma - this type of kidney cancer starts in the portion of your kidney in which urine is collected.
Kidney cancer causes
Kidney cancer is among the 10 most common cancers in men and women. Researchers continue to work to uncover the cause of kidney cancer and how to prevent it. But today, there is no known exact cause. Cancer is caused by DNA changes inside cells. Certain risk factors may contribute to the development of kidney cancer.
Kidney cancer risk factors
Understanding what raises your risk for certain cancers can help you make an informed decision about the risk factors you can change. Other risk factors, such as a person’s age or family history, cannot be changed.
Several factors may influence the risk of getting kidney cancer. These include:
- Advanced treatment for kidney disease
- Exposure to certain chemicals, such as trichloroethylene
- Family history of kidney cancer
- Genetics and hereditary conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
- High blood pressure
Kidney cancer symptoms
Many kidney cancers may not cause any symptoms – especially in the early stages. When kidney cancer progresses, symptoms may occur, including:
- A lump in your abdomen
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Hematuria (blood in your urine)
- Excessive fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Persistent back or side pain
- Recurring fevers
- Unexplained weight loss
Kidney cancer diagnosis
With kidney cancer, doctors usually find cancer during other screening if you’re being seen for a separate condition. Your urologist may use the following methods to help determine the cause of your symptoms:
- Medical history - this helps doctors understand your current symptoms and how long you’ve had them.
- Advanced imaging - imaging, such as ultrasound of the kidneys, uses sound waves to produce images of the inside of your body.
- Biopsy - this is a procedure that removes cells or tissues so they can be examined under a microscope. Doctors use a thin needle inserted into the tumor and a sample of tissue is taken.
- Blood tests or urinalysis - some blood tests and urinalysis can help diagnose kidney cancer by looking for an infection and blood or protein in the urine.
Kidney cancer treatments
The treatment for kidney cancer depends on the stage of cancer. The goal is to remove all the cancer cells while maintaining normal kidney function. Treatment may include:
- Chemotherapy - therapy that uses drugs injected into the vein, taken orally (by mouth) or applied to the skin to attack and kill cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy - medication therapy that stimulates your immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy - treatment that uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to destroy cancer cells.
- Surgery - there are different types of surgery approaches depending on whether the entire kidney is removed, called a nephrectomy, or only a part of the kidney. Surgeries include partial nephrectomy, simple nephrectomy and radical nephrectomy.
- Targeted therapy - medication therapy that uses your DNA to specifically target the cells that lead to cancer and stop cancer from forming and metastasizing (spreading).
- Tumor ablation - this type of treatment uses extreme heat or cold to ablate (destroy) a tumor. Both cryoablation and radiofrequency ablation can be used and performed in an outpatient setting.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a urologic oncologist for more specialized treatment.