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Kidney Cancer: Symptoms, Stages, Causes, Medicines & Treatments

Commonly asked questions about kidney cancer:

What Is Kidney Cancer?

Kidney cancer is a broad term used to categorize four forms of cancer – renal cell, transitional cell, sarcoma, and Wilms tumor – that originate in the kidneys. Healthy individuals have two kidneys, bean shaped organs, located behind the abdominal organs on either side of the spine.

These organs clean the blood, turning the removed waste into urine to be disposed of. In addition to serving as a bodily filter, the kidneys produce hormones responsible for controlling blood pressuring and triggering the production of red blood cells by bone marrow.

Regardless of the specific type of kidney cancer, most cancerous growths are detected before metastasizing to other parts of the body. When caught in the early stages the cancer is often able to be treated rather successfully.

Successful treatment efforts are vital as the amount of kidney cancer cases have been steadily increasing over recent years. However, it is unknown if this indicates the cancer developing more frequently or more cases of it being detected sooner.

Regardless of why kidney cancer numbers have seen a rise in recent years, it is reported that now almost 63,000 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer each year with over 14,000 other victims succumbing to a kidney cancer related death.

According to the American Cancer Society these numbers make kidney cancer one of the ten most common cancers in both men and women. However, most diagnosed cancers occur in older individuals, rarely discovered in those under 45 with an average diagnosis age of 64.

What Are The Different Forms Of Kidney Cancer?

As stated prior, the term “kidney cancer” constitutes a category of cancers that originate in a kidney. While the different cancers within this category attack the kidney, they focus on different development processes and are found more commonly in certain demographics than others.

Renal Cell Carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma is what most individuals typically identify as standard kidney cancer, as it makes up almost 85% of all diagnosed instances of kidney cancer. As it’s name suggests, this cancer begins in the proximal renal tubules of the kidney. These tubules create the kidney filtration system, with each kidney have thousands of them.

Transitional Cell Carcinoma

Making up 10-15% of all kidney cancer diagnosis, transitional cell carcinoma begins in the renal pelvis – the area in which urine is stored prior to being moved to the bladder. Also called urothelial carcinoma, the cancer is medically similar to bladder cancer and thus is treated in similar fashion.

Sarcoma

Sarcoma of the kidney is perhaps the most uncommon form of kidney cancer diagnosed in any demographic of kidney cancer patients. The cancer begins its development in soft tissue, the thin layer of tissue surrounding the kidney, or fat that surrounds the kidneys.

Surgery is almost always used to treat this form of kidney cancer. However, because sarcoma frequently metastasizes other treatments are often paired with surgery.

Wilms Tumor

Wilms tumors are discovered almost exclusively in children and is treated in a different fashion than cancers that are found in adult patients. In being so different from adult-based cancers, Wilms tumors can be effectively treated with radiation and chemotherapy in addition to surgery.

Kidney Cancer Risk Factors

Who Is At Risk Of Developing Kidney Cancer?

Like other forms of cancer, there are multiple factors that can increase an individuals risk of suffering from kidney cancer development in their lifetime. These are referred to as risk factors and while they may not indicate causation, they may heavily indicate correlation with kidney cancer.

Some risk factors are present because of the actions of an individual with measures being available for an individual to prevent them. However, other risk factors occur out of an individuals control.

Some of the factors that are most often associated with abnormally high levels of kidney cancer cases include the following:

Age/Gender/Race

The age, gender, and race of an individual are very influential in determining the overall risk of developing kidney cancer. Regarding age, medical data suggests that as an individual gets older their risk will steadily increase. This can be seen by the fact that very few individuals younger than 45 are diagnosed with any form of kidney cancer.

Gender and race are two other major risk indicators as men are almost two times more likely to suffer from kidney cancer than their female counterparts. Additionally, African Americans and Native Americans are typically associated with a higher kidney development rate than individuals of other races.

Smoking

Smoking is one of the most impactful risk factors that can be controlled by the actions of the individual in question. The risk increase brought on by smoking is reportedly tied to the amount in which it is smoked and for what amount of time. With 30% of all male and 25% of all female kidney cancer cases tied to smoking habits, smoking alone can lead to this deadly development.

While refraining from smoking will lower the risk of developing kidney cancer, the years it will take to fully lower the risk should lead those in fear of kidney cancer to refrain from ever beginning a smoking habit.

Obesity 

Another example of a controllable risk factor, maintaining an unhealthily excessive weight will lead to the risk of kidney cancer development to experience a sharp increase. An unhealthy amount of fat on the body leads to problems relating to the production and function of various hormones. These hormonal issues, while unknown how, seem to spur the development of kidney cancer.

Hypertension 

Also referred to as high blood pressure, individuals who experience hypertension typically experience a higher rate of kidney cancer development than other demographics. However, it is not known for certain if this increase is caused by medicines that may be used to treat the condition, the condition itself, or a combination of both.

Kidney Failure

If an individual experienced kidney disease that potentially led to kidney failure, they may be at risk of developing kidney cancer in the future. This risk comes from the extensive damage experienced by the kidney in addition to the exposure to long-term dialysis.

Similar to hypertension, it is not known if the risk increases due to dialysis use, the kidney failure, or a combination of both.

Genetics 

Genetics and family history of kidney cancer are frequently cited in the medical community as risk factors. If first-degree relatives developed kidney cancer, it is likely that an individual inherited a genetic trait that may make them more susceptible to kidney cancer.

This risk especially increases if multiple extended family members were diagnosed and were diagnosed prior to their 50th birthday.

Medical History

An individual’s medical history can help indicate their risk of kidney cancer as well. Those who regularly took/take medications including Phenacetin, Diuretics, and analgesic pain pills have been found to suffer from kidney cancer more often than those who did/do not take those drugs.

Chemical Exposure

As is common for most cancers, prolonged exposure to dangerous toxins can lead to the body being exposed to DNA altering materials. While chemicals constitute a majority of these materials, the list can include cadmium (metal), herbicides, and organic solvents.

How Can I Reduce My Risk Of Developing Kidney Cancer?

With a number of the risk factors for kidney cancer being outside of an individuals control, it is important that all preventative measures within one’s control are pursued. These measures which will reduce the risk of developing kidney cancer are listed below.

      • Quit Smoking
      • Maintain A Healthy Weight 
      • Control High Blood Pressure 
      • Avoid Workplace Exposure To Harmful Materials

While pursuing these efforts may not eliminate the risk of kidney cancer, they can significantly lower the development risk and potentially the growth rate once developed.

Can Power Morcellators Cause Kidney/Abdominal Cancer?

Power morcellators are tools used by doctors in hysterectomies, as well as other minimally invasive procedures to remove uterine fibroids. Surgeons make small incisions to “morcellate” or chop up fibroids and tissue in order to cut them into smaller pieces. Surgeons then vacuum the residue out of the area.

The concern, however, is the morcellator has a possibility of spreading bits of the uterine or fibroid tissue to other tissues and organs, spurring on new growths.

The new growths can cause pain, infection, bowel obstruction or in some cases malignant cancer cells can become present. When cancer metastasizes, it infects other organs, such as the kidneys, liver, ovaries and lungs. This form of cancer is called metastasized leiomysarcoma and is classified as a stage III or IV cancer and has a much higher fatality rate.

Kidney Cancer Causes

How Do I Get Kidney Cancer?

The exact cause of any form of kidney cancer remains unknown although the process in which kidney cancer occurs is known in immense detail.

Once the DNA of kidney cells has been sufficiently mutated, the cells will begin to grow and multiply in an uncontrollable fashion. As the uncontrollable growth occurs, the cells will join together to form a tumor. After tumor development, kidney cancer becomes different from other cancers because of its high metastasize rate.

All cancers have the potential to spread to other areas of the body, but because kidney tumors grow to immense size they spread more quickly than other cancerous tumors.

Although what triggers the DNA mutations may not be know, it should be noted that besides the aforementioned risk factors, being subjected to power morcellator use has been noted to cause cancer in the abdominal area. Morcellators are devices used in myomectomy and hysterectomy procedures that may spread cancer cells when its rotating blades break up targeted tissue.

If dormant cancer cells are present, they may spread to other abdominal areas after being broken up by the morcellator. In some rare cases, these dormant cancer cells may end up in the kidneys and develop into kidney cancer.

Kidney Cancer Symptoms

Normally absent of any identifiable sign or symptom, kidney cancer is most often detected on accident when individuals undergo scans by medical professionals. If not detected by a medical professional in an early stage, the cancer will not be identifiable until it has entered later stages of development.

Once it has developed noticeable symptoms, they may include:

      • Bloody Urine 
      • Back Pain Below Ribs
      • Weight Los
      • Fatigue
      • Intermittent Fever
      • Mass In The Side Or Abdomen 
      • Cluster Of Enlarged Veins Around Testicle (Men)
      • Anemia
      • Swelling Of Legs And Ankles

If the kidney cancer has spread to other parts of the body, an individual may experience the aforementioned symptoms in addition to the following:

      • Shortness Of Breath
      • Coughing Up Blood
      • Bone Pain

Kidney Cancer Treatments

How Can Kidney Cancer Be Treated?

As for all cancers, no known cure has yet to be discovered to treat the disease. However, medical advances have allowed members of the medical community to take great strides in developing techniques that are extremely effective when utilized properly.

Because kidney cancer comes in four distinct forms, there are several different treatment methods that can be pursued, depending on the developmental stage of the cancer and health of the afflicted.

A kidney cancer treatment team will work to determine what the most effective route will be to treat the cancer. The options that will be considered include:

Kidney Cancer Surgical Treatments

Radical Nephrectomy 

A radical nephrectomy involves the removal of the entire kidney, in addition to the adrenal gland and surrounding tissue. If deemed necessary, the performing surgeon may also remove lymph nodes in the area around the cancer.

Partial Nephrectomy 

During a partial nephrectomy, a surgeon will isolate the tumor and proceed to only remove the tumor itself rather than the entire kidney. This surgery is a popular option for those whose kidney has only developed a small – smaller than a tennis ball – tumor.

The risk of developing chronic kidney disease is lowered once this surgery has been performed and new methods that involve small incisions are known to carry few side effects in addition to fast recovery times.

This surgical option is most commonly used when there is healthy tissue remaining in the kidney but a large tumor is present.

Kidney Cancer Non-Surgical Treatments

Freeze Cells (Cryoablation)

Cryoablation is a process in which the cancer cells are subjected to extreme cold that subsequently freezes and destroys them. The cold is administered through a metal probe that is place directly into the targeted area.

Once the probe has reached the target, it will release gas that has the ability to freeze the cells. Although this method is initially effective, the long-term safety and efficacy of the technique is relatively unknown.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding it, cryoablation is typically reserved for those who are unable to undergo surgical procedures or who have small tumors.

Heat Cells (Radiofrequency Ablation)

Radiofrequency ablation involves a needle being inserted through the skin and into the kidney tumor. Once the needle has made contact with the tumor, an electric current is channeled through the needle causing the cancer cells to heat and later burn.

Like cryoablation, there is little long-term data to determine the safety and efficacy of the treatment in the long term. However, the method is used in the same situations as cryoablation.

Biological Therapy 

Biological therapy is a method that uses an individuals own immune system against the growing cancer cells within the kidneys. A combination of drugs, that act as synthetic versions of chemicals in the body, are injected into the body to trigger an immune system response.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy is another treatment optioned used instead of a surgical procedure. This method blocks abnormal signals occurring in cancerous cells that trigger uncontrollable growth.

When injected, the drugs proceed to block signals that allow blood vessels to grow in the cancerous area. As the vessels die, the cancer can be isolated to the area of origin. Other drugs can be used to target nutrition sources to directly combat the ability of cancer cells to survive.

Radiation Therapy 

Radiation therapy is one of the most common cancer treatments regardless of the type or development stage of a cancer. The method uses x-rays or high-energy particles to kill any cancerous cells present.

The treatment is common for those who are hard to treat surgically or after surgery to ensure all cancerous tissue is eliminated.

Chemotherapy

Perhaps the most well known method to treat any form of cancer, chemotherapy uses drugs to identify and eradicate cancer cells. For bladder cancer, the therapy utilizes two different drugs administered through injection into a vein or through the urethra.

The method is used post-surgery or when a tumor needs to be reduced in size leading up to surgery.

How to Prevent Cancer

Cancer prevention can vary based on different research, and opinionated studies or news reports. However, these simple lifestyle changes can make a difference in the prevention of developing or forming cancer.

  1. Eat healthy
  2. Limit or stop your use of tobacco
  3. Have a balanced lifestyle
  4. Avoid risky behavior
  5. Visit your doctor
  6. Immunization
  7. Protect your skin from the sun

What Drugs are Used to Treat Kidney Cancer?

The following drugs and medications are in some way related to, or used in the treatment of kidney cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Afinitor
  • Aldesleukin
  • Avastin
  • Axitinib
  • Bevacizumab
  • Cabometyx
  • Cabozantinib-S-Malate
  • Everolimus
  • IL-2
  • Inlyta
  • Interleukin-2
  • Lenvatinib Mesylate
  • Lenvima
  • Nexavar
  • Nivolumab
  • Opdivo
  • Pazopanib Hydrochloride
  • Proleukin
  • Sorafenib Tosylate
  • Sunitinib Malate
  • Sutent
  • Temsirolimus
  • Torisel
  • Votrient

View Sources

  1. Kidney Cancer – National Cancer Institute 
  2. Kidney Cancer Statistics – American Cancer Society
  3. Types Of Kidney Cancer – Cancer Research UK
  4. Kidney Cancer Risk Factors – Medicine Net 
  5. What Causes Kidney Cancer? – American Cancer Society
  6. Kidney Cancer Symptoms – Mayo Clinic
  7. Kidney Cancer Treatment – Cancer.Net

References