Learn About Kidney Cancer

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Renal cell carcinoma, commonly known as kidney cancer, is a form of urologic cancer that is treated most effectively in its early stages. Increasing awareness about common kidney cancer symptoms and risk factors could lead to earlier diagnosis and better outcomes for people who have the disease. Below are some frequently asked questions about kidney care and answers from the experts at RWJBarnabas Health.

What is the function of the kidneys?

Located near the back of the body on either side of the spine, these bean-shaped organs act as high-grade filters for your blood. Composed of many layers, the kidneys remove extra minerals, salts, excess fluids and toxic substances from the body as wastes which are excreted as urine through thin tubes called ureters. In turn, the kidneys also deliver vitamins, glucose, amino acids and other important substances back into the bloodstream.

Other functions of the kidneys include controlling blood pressure and helping to ensure that there are sufficient red blood cells in the body.

Each kidney works independently from the other, so even though we are born with two kidneys, a person can function with just one.

What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer occurs when healthy cells in one or both kidneys change and grow out of control. This overgrowth of cells forms a mass known as a renal cortical tumor.
Noncancerous kidney tumors are known as benign tumors. They may grow but will not spread to other areas of the body.
Cancerous kidney tumors are classified as either indolent or malignant. Indolent kidney cancer tumors are assessed as dormant and most likely will not spread to other parts of the body. Malignant kidney cancer tumors are actively cancerous and will grow in size as well as spread to other parts of the body.

What are the main types of kidney cancer?

There are several types of kidney cancer. They include:

  • Renal cell carcinoma. This type of kidney cancer develops in the proximal renal tubules in the kidney’s filtration system. Making up approximately 85 percent of kidney cancer cases, this is the most common type.
  • Urothelial carcinoma. This type of kidney cancer occurs in the renal pelvis, which is the area where the urine accumulates before moving to the bladder. It makes up 5 to 10 percent of adult kidney cancers.
  • Lymphoma. Lymphoma is associated with enlarged lymph nodes in other parts of the body, and in some cases can create a lone tumor in the kidney.
  • Sarcoma. This rare type of kidney cancer begins in the soft tissue of the kidney, the connective tissue around the kidney, or the surrounding fat.
  • Wilms’ tumor. This type is most common in children and makes up approximately 1 percent of kidney cancers. As it mostly affects children, it often involves a different treatment approach than other forms of kidney cancer.

What are the risk factors for kidney cancer?

Lifestyle, hereditary and environmental factors that have been associated with an increased risk of developing kidney cancer. They include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of kidney cancer
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals including cadmium, benzene, asbestos or trichloroethylene
  • Having a long-lasting Hepatitis C infection
  • Having kidney stones
  • Inherited conditions, including the sickle cell trait, von Hippel-Lindau disease, leiomyoma-renal cell carcinoma, Birt-Hogg-Dube (BHD) syndrome
  • Males have an increased risk of developing kidney cancer
  • African Americans have a slightly higher rate of kidney cancer for unknown reasons

What are the signs and symptoms of kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer symptoms may vary from person to person, with many people showing no symptoms in the early stages. Blood in the urine is the most common kidney cancer symptom, which is detected in about 50 percent of the urinalyses performed on kidney cancer patients. Other signs of kidney cancer can include the following:

  • Lump in the kidney area
  • Persistent lower back pain or pain in the side
  • Recurring fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • The general feeling of low energy and poor health
  • The sensation of a bowel obstruction

Kidney cancer symptoms may be caused by cancer itself or by other conditions. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms noted above, it is best to discuss them with your doctor.

How can you screen for kidney cancer?

Early detection of kidney cancer leads to better patient outcomes. Screening allows a physician to detect the disease in its early stages, sometimes before kidney cancer symptoms appear. Screening tests for kidney cancer may include:

  • A physical exam to check for signs of the disease
  • Blood or urine tests to show abnormalities
  • Imaging tests, such as ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT scans or CAT scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify kidney tumors and masses
  • Genetic tests to detect inherited conditions that may increase a person’s likelihood of developing kidney cancer
  • A biopsy may follow other tests to obtain a tissue sample for confirmation of the tumor type

What is the treatment for kidney cancer?

People who are diagnosed with kidney cancer have several options for treatment. Surgery is the most common kidney cancer treatment. Depending on the stage and type of kidney cancer, an oncologist may opt for one of the following:

  • Laparoscopic surgery. This minimally invasive kidney cancer treatment is performed using keyhole incisions and robotic tools to remove the tumor. It is an option for those with early
    stages of kidney cancer.
  • Partial nephrectomy. This surgical kidney cancer treatment is possible during earlier stages of kidney cancer. It involves the removal of the tumor and immediately surrounding tissue.
  • Complete nephrectomy. This kidney cancer treatment is a surgical procedure performed in later stages of kidney cancer, involving the removal of the entire affected kidney.

Other kidney cancer treatments include:

Clinical trials may be available for qualifying patients.

Our team of oncologists, surgeons and medical specialists throughout New Jersey can help you understand even more about kidney cancer and kidney cancer treatment.

To schedule an appointment with a kidney cancer specialist at RWJBarnabas Health, 844-CANCERNJ or 844-226-2376.

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