Each year, about 28,000 Americans find out they have kidney cancer. The most common type of kidney cancer in adults is renal cell cancer. A less common type is called transitional cell cancer. The most common type of kidney cancer in children is Wilm’s tumor.
While scientists are working to find the causes of kidney cancer, they do not yet know exactly what causes this disease. Kidney cancer is not a contagious disease; you cannot “catch” it from someone else. The risk of kidney cancer increases with age, and it occurs most often between 50 and 70. Kidney cancer affects almost twice as many men as women. In addition, it is somewhat more common among African American men than white men. Other possible risk factors for kidney cancer include:
- Some occupational exposures, such as coke oven workers in steel plants or asbestos in the workplace
- Some types of radiation treatment, such as that used for disorders of the uterus.
- Heavy, long-term use of phenacetin, a pain relieving drug, which is no longer sold in the U.S.
- Long-term dialysis treatment
- An inherited disorder called Von Hippel Lindau Disease.
In the early stages, kidney cancer usually causes no obvious signs or symptoms. However, as the tumor grows, symptoms may include:
- blood in the urine
- a lump or mass in the kidney area
Less often, patients may have a pain in the side that doesn’t go away, high blood pressure or anemia (a decrease in the number of red cells in the blood).
These symptoms can also be caused by less serious problems such as a cyst or an infection. If you have any of these symptoms, check with your doctor. The doctor will do some tests to find out what is causing your problem.
The doctor will check your general health and may perform blood and urine tests. The doctor may also feel the abdominal area for lumps or masses. The doctor usually orders tests to picture the kidneys and nearby organs. These may include:
- CT scan, MRI or ultrasound, which can show the presence of a tumor and help determine whether it is benign or malignant.
- An IVP (intravenous pyelogram) a series of x-rays that are taken after a dye has been injected.
If the diagnosis is still in doubt after the above tests, a needle biopsy or cyst aspiration may be done to check a sample of tissue under the microscope for cancer cells. .
If kidney cancer is found, the doctor will determine the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. This may involve more MRI and x-ray studies of the tissues and blood vessels in and around the kidney. Arteriography, a series of x-rays of the blood vessels, may be done to help determine if it will be possible to remove only part of the kidney, or if the entire kidney will need to be removed. A chest x-ray can help to show whether the cancer has spread to the lungs, and bone scans can show whether it has spread to the bones.
Treatment depends on the stage of the disease, the patient’s general health and age and other factors. You may be treated by a team of specialists including a urologist, an oncologist (cancer specialist) and a radiation oncologist. Kidney cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation therapy, biological therapy, and chemotherapy or hormone therapy. Sometimes, a combination of methods may be used.
Surgery: The most common treatment for kidney cancer. Most often, the whole kidney is removed along with the adrenal gland and the tissue around the kidney. Some lymph nodes in the area may also be removed. The remaining kidney is usually able to perform the work of both kidneys. In some cases, the surgeon only removes the part of the kidney that contains the tumor.
Arterial embolization: This procedure is sometimes done before surgery to make surgery easier. A special gelatin sponge material is injected through a plastic tube to clog the main kidney blood vessel. This shrinks the tumor by taking away the oxygen-carrying blood and other substances it needs to grow.
Radiation Therapy: This treatment uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Doctors sometimes use it to relieve pain when kidney cancer has spread to the bone. Most often, this treatment is given on an outpatient basis in a hospital or clinic five days a week for several weeks.
Biologic Therapy: This is also called immunotherapy. It is a form of treatment that uses the body’s natural ability (immune system) to fight cancer. Interleukin-2 and interferon are types of therapy used to treat advanced kidney cancer. Many people having biologic therapy stay in the hospital during treatment so that the side effects can be monitored.
Chemotherapy: This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Although useful in the treatment of many other cancers, chemotherapy has shown only limited effectiveness against kidney cancer.
Hormone Therapy: This is used in a small number of patients with advanced kidney cancer. Some kidney cancers may be treated with hormones to try to control the growth of cancer cells.
Eating well during cancer treatment means getting enough calories and protein to help prevent weight loss and regain strength. Patients who eat well often feel better and have more energy. Some people find it hard to eat well during treatment. They may lose their appetite or have side effects like nausea, vomiting or mouth sores, which can make eating difficult. For some people, food tastes different. Others may not feel like eating because they feel uncomfortable or tired. Doctors, nurses and dietitians can offer advice for healthy eating during cancer treatment.
Many people with kidney cancer take part in clinical trials (treatment studies). Doctors conduct clinical trials to learn about the effectiveness and side effects of new treatments. In some trials, all patients receive the new treatment, but in others, doctors compare different methods by giving the new treatment to one group and the standard treatment to another group. If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, speak to your doctor.
Because treatments damage healthy cells and tissues in addition to the cancer cells, they often cause unwanted side effects. The side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Also, side effects may not be the same for everyone. Doctors and nurses can explain possible side effects of treatment, and they can help relieve problems that may occur during and after treatment. Tell your doctor about any side effects you are having as some may need immediate medical attention.