About the Kidneys

Also called renal cancer, kidney cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably.

The kidneys are bean-shaped organs about the size of your fist. There are normally two and they lie deep in the lower abdomen on either side of the spine. They perform many critical functions, including:

  • Filtering the blood and in helping maintain normal levels of important minerals and electrolytes
  • Helping control water content in the body
  • Contributing hormones into the circulation that can affect blood pressure

The kidneys have collecting systems for gathering urine and are connected to long muscular tubes, called ureters, that transmit urine into the bladder for storage and later excretion.

About Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the kidneys. Kidney cancer is also called renal cancer. Kidney cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably. There are several types of kidney cancer. The most common is renal cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 90% of kidney cancers.

As the cancer grows, cells may break away from the original site and spread (metastasize) to other tissue or organs. It is much more difficult to treat once it has spread.

Kidney cancer seldom causes symptoms in its early stages. However, if it is found and treated early, there is a good chance for a full recovery. Many kidney cancers are found during exams and procedures that are done for another illness.

Facts About Kidney Cancer

Following are some facts about kidney cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 65,000 new cases of kidney cancer in 2012. They estimate approximately 13,600 deaths from kidney cancer in 2012.
  • According to the Cleveland Clinic, kidney cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers.
  • According to the American Cancer Society, only 8% of patients with the most severe form of renal cancer survive 5 years.
  • Duke University Medical Center researchers found that current and former smokers are more likely to have advanced kidney cancer (where cancer has entered lymph nodes or otherwise spread). Quitting smoking lowered the chances of developing severe kidney cancer.


Risk Factors and Symptoms

Risk Factors for Kidney Cancer

Following are some risk factors for developing kidney cancer:

  • Between the ages of 50 and 70
  • Family history of kidney cancer
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Overweight
  • High blood pressure
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Long-term dialysis
  • Exposure to radiation or industrial chemicals
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • von Hippel-Lindau disease
  • Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma
  • Hereditary renal oncocytoma

Reducing the Risk

There are no proven methods for preventing kidney cancer; however the following steps may reduce your risk:

  • Don’t smoke or quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in fat
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid exposure to environmental toxins
  • Reduce high blood pressure

Symptoms of Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer seldom produces symptoms in its early stages. In its later stages, the most common symptom is blood in the urine. You may notice the blood during urination, or it may be detected in a urinalysis done by your physician.

Following are other potential symptoms of kidney cancer:

  • Persistent, unexplained pain in your back below your ribs
  • Mass in the area of your kidneys
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Intermittent, unexplained fever
  • Swelling of the ankles and legs

These symptoms, including blood in the urine, may be caused by other illnesses also. If you have any of these symptoms, promptly consult your primary care physician to determine the cause.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing Kidney Cancer

Both MRI and CT are used to evaluate kidney abnormalities such as cysts and cancers. Both are excellent tools to help stage cancers, once diagnosed. Ultrasound is also often used to characterize kidney problems with the added benefit of no radiation.

CT urograms (an x-ray exam using contrast material) are also used to evaluate patients with certain types of cancer. This study provides diagnostic information about the kidneys, ureters and bladder with one test and has largely replaced a combination approach with multiple exams used in the past for certain types of patients.

Nuclear medicine renal scans play an important part in the staging and follow-up of cancer patients.

Treating this Condition

Radiofrequency ablation is a non-surgical way to shrink malignant tumors in the kidneys. Imaging techniques are used to guide a catheter through the blood vessels to the site of the tumor, where heat is applied directly to the tumor site to destroy the diseased tissue.

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