Cancer occurs when cells in the body start growing out of control. It can originate anywhere in the body. When it originates in one of the kidneys, it is called kidney cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer is among the 10 most common cancers for both men and women. In 2018, more than 63,000 new cases were diagnosed, and nearly 15,000 Americans lost their lives to the disease.
Unfortunately, there often aren’t many early warning signs of kidney cancer. Many of the signs and symptoms can be easily caused by other diseases. This is why it is important to undergo regular physical exams. This is particularly true if you are older, as the average age at which someone is diagnosed with kidney cancer is 64; and the disease is exceedingly rare in individuals who are under the age of 35.
Early Warning Signs of Kidney Cancer
Nine out of 10 cases of kidney cancer are renal cell carcinomas. These most commonly form one tumor in a single kidney, but they can also cause several tumors in one or even both kidneys.
Some of the most common early warning signs of kidney cancer include:
- Lower back pain on one side of the body;
- Blood in the urine;
- Loss of appetite;
- Unexplained weight loss or losing weight without intentionally dieting;
- A mass or lump on the side of the body or on the lower back;
- Anemia, and;
- A fever that arises without infection and that won’t go away.
Treatment options for kidney cancer vary depending on the stage of the disease. Therefore, if it is determined that you do have kidney cancer, doctors will start by determining which stage the disease is at and prescribe a treatment plan from there.
With stage I kidney cancer, the cancer is contained to the kidney. If the tumor or tumors are quite small, active surveillance may be prescribed. In this case, the tumors will be monitored via imaging tests, such as ultrasounds and CT scans on a regular basis. If any growth is detected, additional treatment will be sought. If the tumors show no signs of growth, however, no additional treatment may be necessary.
If a tumor or tumors are actively growing within the kidney, surgery is commonly prescribed. Typically, those with stage I kidney cancer, which is also known as renal cancer, typically undergo what is known as a partial nephrectomy. This means that part of the kidney is removed. This surgery is most commonly used for tumors that are up to seven centimeters, or about three inches, in size.
With stage II kidney cancer, the cancer that originated in one or both kidneys often spread into nearby large veins or lymph nodes. As with stage I, surgery is the most common treatment option. Unlike with stage I cancers, active surveillance is not an option because the cancer has already spread into nearby veins or lymph nodes.
Because stage II kidney cancers have typically spread into nearby lymph nodes and large veins, a partial nephrectomy isn’t always enough. This surgery, which involves removing part of the kidney, may still be performed to treat stage II kidney cancer. However, if the tumors within the kidney are too large, a radical nephrectomy, which involves removal of the entire kidney, is typically prescribed. In this case, nearby lymph nodes where the cancer has potentially spread may also be removed. Additionally, any nearby lymph nodes that have become enlarged may also be removed as a precautionary measure.
When kidney cancer progresses to stage III, the cancer has spread beyond the kidneys and is now into nearby lymph nodes and veins. In fact, it is quite common for kidney cancer to spread into nearby large veins, and this necessitates additional surgery to remove the cancer from those sites as well.
If it is determined that cancer has spread into the veins, you may have to be put on a bypass machine or a heart-lung machine, so the cancer cells can be removed from those areas. This is because doctors will need to temporarily stop your heart while removing cancer cells from those large veins.
Following surgery for stage III kidney cancer, targeted therapies may be prescribed if you are deemed to be at high risk for recurrence. Commonly, patients are prescribed sunitinib (Sutent®), a targeted drug, for about a year following surgery.
If you are unable to undergo the necessary surgery for kidney cancer, other local treatments may be used. These include radiofrequency ablation, radiation therapy, arterial embolization, and cryotherapy.
When kidney cancer progresses to stage IV, it has grown outside of the kidney and has usually spread to distant organs and lymph nodes. Treatment options at this stage depend on your overall health and on how extensively the cancer has spread. In very rare cases, if the main tumor seems to be removable and the cancer has only spread to one other area, removal of the kidney and metastasis, or outside spread, is sometimes an option in otherwise healthy individuals. Even if the cancer has spread extensively, removing the tumor may still help.
Whether or not surgery is performed at this stage, targeted therapy and immunotherapy are most commonly prescribed. It should also be noted that complementary and alternative therapies are often used by patients to get relief from symptoms and to take a more proactive role in the process. These therapies may include things such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, art therapy, and natural supplements.
Get Checked Early and Often
If you have noticed any of the early signs or symptoms of kidney cancer, it is important to seek medical care as quickly as possible.
Various methods may be used to achieve a diagnosis. Kidney cancer can sometimes be detected through a physical exam. Minute traces of blood can be detected in the urine through urinalysis, a complete blood count can check red blood cell levels, and blood chemical tests can check for abnormal liver enzyme levels and other potential signs of cancer. Unlike with most other types of cancer, biopsies are not typically performed to diagnose kidney cancer.
By undergoing regular physical exams and checkups, you are more likely to detect kidney cancer when it is still at an early and more treatable stage. If you are over the age of 60, it is especially important to go in for regular checkups because kidney cancer almost exclusively strikes older people.