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Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer - also called renal cancer - is a disease in which kidney cells become malignant (cancerous) and grow out of control, forming a tumor. Almost all kidney cancers first appear in the lining of tiny tubes (tubules) in the kidney. This type of kidney cancer is called renal cell carcinoma. The good news is that most of kidney cancers are found before they spread (metastasize) to distant organs. And cancers caught early are easier to treat successfully. However, these tumors can grow to be quite large before they are detected.

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist. They lie in your lower abdomen on each side of your spine. Their main job is to clean your blood, removing waste products and making urine.

Risk Factors

Doctors don't know the causes of kidney cancer. But certain factors appear to increase the risk of getting kidney cancer. For example, kidney cancer occurs most often in people older than age 40. These are some other risk factors for kidney cancer:

  • Smoking. If you smoke cigarettes, your risk for kidney cancer is twice that of nonsmokers. Smoking cigars may also increase your risk.
  • Being male. Men are about twice as likely as women to get kidney cancer.
  • Being obese. Extra weight may cause changes to hormones that increase your risk.
  • Using certain pain medications for a long time. This includes over-the-counter drugs in addition to prescription drugs.
  • Having advanced kidney disease or being on long-term dialysis, a treatment for people with kidneys that have stopped working.
  • Having certain genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease or inherited papillary renal cell carcinoma.
  • Having a family history of kidney cancer. The risk is especially high in siblings.
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals, such as asbestos, cadmium, benzene, organic solvents, or certain herbicides.
  • Having high blood pressure. Doctors don't know whether high blood pressure or medication used to treat it is the source of the increased risk.
  • Being black. The risk in blacks is slightly higher than in whites. No one knows why.
  • Having lymphoma. For an unknown reason, there is an increased risk of kidney cancer in patients with lymphoma.
  • Having these risk factors does not mean you will get kidney cancer. And it's also true that you can have none of them and still get the disease.

    What Are the Symptoms of Kidney Cancer?

    In many cases, people may have no early symptoms of kidney cancer. As the tumor grows larger, symptoms may appear. You may have one or more of these kidney cancer symptoms:

    • Blood in your urine
    • A lump in your side or abdomen
    • A loss of appetite
    • A pain in your side that doesn't go away
    • Weight loss that occurs for no known reason
    • Fever that lasts for weeks and isn't caused by a cold or other infection
    • Extreme fatigue
    • Anemia
    • Swelling in your ankles or legs

    Kidney cancer that spreads to other parts of your body may cause other symptoms, such as:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Coughing up blood
    • Bone pain

    Treatments for Kidney Cancer

    Once you have a diagnosis and know your stage of kidney cancer, you and your doctor can plan treatment. You may want to gather information to help you feel more informed about your decision. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist for treatment. This could include an urologist, a medical or radiation oncologist, or a surgeon. Before beginning treatment, many people find it helpful to get a second opinion about the diagnosis of kidney cancer and the treatment plan.

    Kidney cancer is one of the more common cancers to undergo spontaneous remission. However, the incidence is quite low (approximately 0.5%).

    There are several standard types of treatment for kidney cancer. In most cases, surgery is the first step. Even if surgery removes the entire tumor, though, your doctor may suggest an extra treatment to kill any remaining cancer cells that can't be seen.

    Surgery for kidney cancer

    These are the main types of surgery for kidney cancer. Which type you have depends on how advanced your cancer is.

    • Radical nephrectomy removes the kidney, adrenal gland, and surrounding tissue. It also often removes nearby lymph nodes. It is the most common surgery for kidney cancer and can now be done through a small incision with a laparoscope.
    • Simple nephrectomy removes the kidney only.
    • Partial nephrectomy removes the cancer in the kidney along with some tissue around it. This procedure is used for patients with smaller tumors (less than 4 cm) or in those patients in which a radical nephrectomy might hurt the other kidney.

    You can survive with just a part of one kidney as long as it is still working. If the surgeon removes both kidneys or if both kidneys are not working, you will need a machine to clean your blood (dialysis) or a new kidney (kidney transplant). A transplant is possible if your cancer was found only in your kidney and a donated kidney is available.

    If surgery can't remove your kidney cancer, your doctor may suggest another option to help destroy the tumor.

    • Cryotherapy uses extreme cold to kill the tumor.
    • Radiofrequency ablation uses high-energy radio waves to "cook" the tumor.
    • Arterial embolization involves inserting material into an artery that leads to the kidney. This blocks blood flow to the tumor. This procedure may be done to help shrink the tumor before surgery.

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