What is Kidney Cancer?

Kidney cancer is a disease that most often starts in the kidneys. When healthy cells in one or both kidneys turn cancerous to form a lump (called a tumor). The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located just below the rib cage, one on each side of your spine. Healthy kidneys filter blood to remove waste and extra water to make urine. Kidney cancer, also known as renal cell carcinoma, forms when healthy cells in one or both kidneys grow out of control.

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults. RCC usually starts in the lining of tiny tubes in the kidney called renal tubules. RCC often stays in the kidney, but it can spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, or brain.

There are many types of RCC tumors. Some grow and spread fast, and others grow more slowly and are less likely to spread.

Risk factors

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar and diabetes
  • Family history of kidney cancer

Signs and symptoms

Like most cancers, kidney cancer is silent and shows no symptoms in the early stages. Therefore, during an abdominal (belly) imaging test for other complaints, kidney cancer is usually found by chance. 

Symptoms include:

  • Blood in the urine 
  • Pain in the lower back
  • A lump in the lower back or side of the waist
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats, fever, or fatigue

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on your stage of kidney cancer (4 stages), general health, age, and other factors. 

Treatment options:

  • Surgery: The most common treatment for kidney cancer – most people with early-stage cancer (stages 1, 2, and 3) can be cured with surgery.
  • Partial nephrectomy: Only the tumor or the part of the kidney with the tumor is removed to leave behind as much of the kidney as possible.
  • Radical nephrectomy: The entire kidney is removed. If needed, the surrounding tissues and lymph nodes may also be removed.
  • Thermal ablation: Kills the tumor by burning or freezing it. It is often used for small tumors in people who are not good candidates for nephrectomy surgery.
  • Active surveillance: When a tumor is less than 4 centimeters (1½ inches), regular monitoring and testing are done.

What can you do if you have kidney cancer?

People experiencing the symptoms listed above should tell their doctor to diagnose and treat any problem as early as possible. There are many treatment options available for patients with kidney cancer. Meeting with a urologic oncologist will help determine the best treatment for you based on the size of the tumor and whether or not it has spread outside the kidney. 

  • Discuss all your treatment options with your medical team. Your medical team may include:
  • A urologist (a surgical doctor who treats the urinary system)
  • An oncologist (a doctor who specializes in cancer)
  • A radiation oncologist (a doctor who treats cancer with radiation)
  • A nephrologist (a kidney doctor)
  • An oncology nurse, social worker, and other healthcare professionals

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