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Kidney Cancer

Your kidneys play an essential role in the body. Their primary function is to filter the blood to remove waste. That waste becomes urine so that it can be removed from the body. 

Sometimes, masses or tumors can grow inside the kidneys. These growths can contain cancer (malignant) cells or completely benign, meaning they do not contain cancer cells. While any cell type in the kidney can become cancerous, the most common type of cancer is renal cell carcinoma since it begins in cells in the main portion of the kidney.

What is Kidney Cancer?

Kidney cancer is when any cell in the kidney divides rapidly, creating a tumor. There are multiple types, depending on which cells start the process. The main types include:

Renal Cell Carcinoma: Renal cell carcinomas are the most common cancerous tumors in the kidneys. This type of cancer accounts for 90% of all kidney cancers. It can classified into subtypes:

  • Clear cell carcinoma - most common
  • Papillary renal cell carcinoma - second most common
  • Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma
  • Additional rare types:
    • Collecting duct renal cell carcinoma
    • Multilocular cystic renal cell carcinoma
    • Medullary carcinoma
    • Mucinous tubular and spindle cell carcinoma
    • Neuroblastoma-associate renal cell carcinoma

Renal Sarcoma: This rare cancer arises in the connective tissue cells inside the kidney.

Wilms Tumor (Nephroblastoma): The most common type in children but rare in adults.

Transitional Cell Carcinoma: This type of cancer develops within the renal pelvis of the kidney, where the urine collects before it moves into the ureter and the bladder. It is much less common than renal cell carcinoma.

What Causes Kidney Cancer?

There is no specific cause for kidney cancer, but there are several things that may increase your risk of developing cancer over time. The risk factors for this type of cancer include:

  • Smoking: Smoking cigarettes is a significant risk factor for the development of kidney cancer.
  • Age: Most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 40.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop kidney cancer than women.
  • Obesity: Being overweight can increase your risk of many different medical conditions, including kidney cancer.
  • High blood pressure: Increased blood pressure has been associated with the development of kidney cancer.
  • Genetic factors: Certain genetic syndromes or a family history can increase your risk.

What are Kidney Cancer Symptoms?

Most kidney cancers do not have symptoms in the early stages, but they may be noticed as the tumor progresses. Some symptoms include:

  • Blood in the urine (hematuria)
  • Pain on your sides between the hips and ribs
  • Low back pain that does not go away
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever without infection or night sweats
  • Low blood counts (Anemia)

How are Kidney Cancers Diagnosed?

Most kidney masses are found by chance. Unfortunately, there are no routine laboratory tests to detect kidney cancer. If you are experiencing any concerning symptoms your doctor can run several different types of tests to determine what might be causing your symptoms. Some of the tests you can expect include:

  • A physical exam
  • Laboratory work to look at your kidney function and blood counts
  • A urine sample to check for blood, protein, or infection
  • Ultrasound of the kidneys
  • CT scan or MRI
  • Biopsy if a mass or tumor is detected on these tests

Kidney Cancer Prognosis and Treatment

The prognosis depends on the stage of the cancer and how aggressive it may be. The stage of your cancer can range from stage 1 cancer (only infiltrating the kidney) all the way to stage 4 cancer (spread to other parts of the body). Kidney cancer treatment varies based on the type of cancer and its stage.

Typically, surgery to remove the tumor is the first treatment option, especially in the early stages. The entire kidney may be removed (radical nephrectomy) or only a portion (partial nephrectomy).

Other treatment options are available, including:

  • Targeted Therapy: Medications designed to stop the growth of the cancer cells by interfering with their division process may be used to slow down the growth or prevent spread. This therapy may be helpful in advanced cases or for individuals who can’t have surgery.
  • Immunotherapy: Similar to a vaccine, medications help your body identify and kill the cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: In some instances, radiation therapy may be helpful in destroying cancer cells, though it is rarely used on its own for this type of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: Can be challenging to treat using chemotherapy, but it may be done in cases when the cancer has spread or surgery isn’t possible.

Depending on the type of cancer, the stage of cancer, and other factors, many of these treatments may be used at the same time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is kidney cancer curable?

If found in its early stages, certain types may be curable.

Is kidney cancer hereditary?

Yes, in some cases. If you have a family history, you are more likely to develop cancer throughout your life.

What is the survival rate of kidney cancer?

The survival rate depends on many factors, but generally speaking, the 5-year survival rate for this type of cancer is approximately 77%.

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