About Kidney Cancer

What Is Kidney Cancer?

The kidneys are reddish-brown bean-shaped organs located just above the waist, one on each side of the spine. As part of the urinary system, their main jobs are filtering blood and making urine to get rid of body wastes. Renal cell carcinoma is a certain type of kidney cancer. It accounts for 90% to 95% of kidney cancers, but it’s not very common (occurs in 1 of 10,000 people yearly). Twice as many men as women have it, usually between 50 and 70 years old.

What Causes Kidney Cancer?

The cause is unknown. However, risk factors include cigarette smoking, radiation, and on-the-job exposure to petroleum products, asbestos, or steel plant emissions. People with von Hippel-Lindau disease, tuberous sclerosis, and polycystic kidney disease have an increased risk for this cancer.

What Are the Symptoms of Kidney Cancer?

Early disease may cause no symptoms. As the tumor grows, symptoms may include blood in the urine, lump or mass in the kidney area, tiredness, loss of appetite, weight loss, fevers, and pain in the abdomen (belly).

How Is Kidney Cancer Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a preliminary diagnosis by using special x-rays including computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasonography. The only way to confirm the diagnosis is with a biopsy. For a biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of the kidney and checks it with a microscope. CT or MRI is also used to learn the stage or extent of disease, which helps plan treatment. Staging tells the health care provider whether the cancer has spread and if so how far, such as to lymph nodes (glands) or lungs.

How Is Kidney Cancer Treated?

The most common treatment is an operation to remove the kidney (nephrectomy). The whole kidney, adrenal gland, tissue around the kidney, and lymph nodes may be removed. A procedure called arterial embolization may be used to shrink the tumor. It blocks the main blood vessel to the kidney so the tumor doesn’t get the oxygen-carrying blood and other substances that it needs to grow.

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. It can also be used to relieve pain (as palliative therapy) when kidney cancer spread to bones.

Chemotherapy (drugs for killing cancer cells) is generally not very helpful against kidney cancer. Immunotherapy involves the use of biological agents such as interferon, sunitinib, and bevacizumab. It is a newer treatment modality that has shown some success in the treatment of advanced kidney cancer.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Kidney Cancer:
  • DO understand that diagnosis and treatment of this cancer will need a team of doctors including your primary care health care provider, surgeon, oncologist (specialist in cancer), and maybe radiation oncologist (specialist in use of radiation to treat cancer).
  • DO call your health care provider if you see blood in your urine or you have pain or a lump in your abdomen.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have fever after surgery.
  • DO call your health care provider if you see drainage from the surgical incision site.
  • DON’T forget that all treatments have side effects. For example, surgery can cause pain and infection. Radiation can cause dry, red, itchy skin. Chemotherapy can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss, easy bruising, easy bleeding, and infections.
  • DON’T be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

Contact the following sources:

  • National Cancer Institute
    Tel: (800) 422-6237
    Website: http://www.cancer.gov
  • American Cancer Society
    Tel: (800) 227-2345
    Website: http://www.cancer.org

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor

Kidney Cancer: Treatment Questions

Talking with healthcare providers about cancer can be overwhelming. It can be hard to take in all of the information. It helps to be prepared. Make a list of questions and bring them to your appointments. Write the answers down in a notebook. Make sure you ask how the treatment will change your daily life, including your diet, and how you will look and feel after treatment. Ask how successful the treatment is expected to be, and what the risks and possible side effects are.

You may also want to ask a friend or family member to come with you. He or she can take notes and write down the answers, and also ask questions you may not think of. You can also ask your healthcare provider if you can record the conversation.

Below are some questions to ask during your appointments.

Deciding on a treatment

  • What kind of kidney cancer do I have?

  • What is the grade and stage of my cancer?

  • Has the cancer spread anywhere else in my body?

  • What are the treatment choices?

  • What treatment do you think is best for me?

  • What are the goals of the treatment you are recommending?

  • What is the success rate of this treatment for my type and stage of kidney cancer?

  • What is the life expectancy for someone with my stage of cancer receiving this treatment?

  • Are there any clinical trials that I can apply for?

Getting ready for treatment

  • What is the length of the treatment period?

  • How long will each treatment take?

  • Where do I have to go for the treatment?

  • Who will give me the treatment?

  • Does someone need to go with me during treatments?

  • Can I take my other medicines during treatment?

Coping during treatment

  • What side effects should I expect?

  • How long will side effects last?

  • Are there side effects that I need to call you about?

  • How do I reach you after hours and on weekends?

  • What can I do to ease the side effects?

  • Should I change my diet? What foods can't I eat?

  • Will I be able to go to work and be around my family?

  • Are there support groups nearby that I can join?

After treatment

  • How will I feel after the treatment?

  • What type of follow-up will I need after treatment? 

  • How will we know if treatment worked?

Kidney Cancer: Your Chances for Recovery (Prognosis)

What is a prognosis?

Prognosis is the word your healthcare team may use to describe your chances of recovering from cancer. Or it may mean your likely outcome from cancer and cancer treatment. A prognosis is a calculated guess. It’s a question many people have when they learn they have cancer.

Making a choice

The decision to ask about your prognosis is a personal one. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to know. Some people find it easier to cope and plan ahead when they know their prognosis and the statistics for how well a treatment might work. Other people find statistics confusing and frightening. Or they might think statistics are too general to be useful.

A doctor who is most familiar with your health is in the best position to discuss your prognosis with you and explain what the statistics may mean in your case. At the same time, you should keep in mind that your prognosis can change. Cancer and cancer treatment outcomes are hard to predict. For instance, a favorable prognosis (which means you’re likely going to do well) can change if the cancer spreads to key organs or doesn’t respond to treatment. An unfavorable prognosis can change, too. This can happen if treatment shrinks and controls the cancer so it doesn’t grow or spread.

What goes into a prognosis

When figuring out your prognosis, your doctor will consider all the things that could affect the cancer and its treatment. Your doctor will look at risk estimates about the exact type and stage of the cancer you have. These estimates are based on what results researchers have seen over many years in thousands of people with the same type and stage of cancer.

If your cancer is likely to respond well to treatment, your doctor will say you have a favorable prognosis. This means you’re expected to live many years and may even be cured. If your cancer is likely to be hard to control, your prognosis may be less favorable. The cancer may shorten your life. It’s important to keep in mind that a prognosis states what’s likely or probable. It is not a prediction of what will definitely happen. No doctor can be fully certain about an outcome.

Your chance of recovery depends on:

  • The type and location of the cancer

  • The stage of the cancer

  • Your overall health

  • Your treatment decisions

Understanding survival rates

Survival rates show how many people live for a certain length of time after being told they have cancer. The rates are grouped for people with certain types and stages of cancer. Many times, the numbers used refer to the 5-year or the 10-year survival rate. That’s how many people are living 5 years or 10 years after diagnosis. The survival rate includes people at these different stages:

  • People who are cancer-free or cured

  • People who have few or no signs or symptoms of cancer

  • People who are getting cancer treatment

What are the survival rates for kidney cancer?

Here are the 5-year survival rates for kidney cancer, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Overall, the 5-year survival rate for people with kidney cancer is about 74%.

  • For people whose cancer is found when it is only in the kidney, the 5-year survival rate is about 93%.

  • If kidney cancer has spread to nearby tissues or organs or the regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is about 66%.

  • If the cancer has spread to a distant part of the body, the 5-year survival rate is about 12%.

Talking with your healthcare provider

You can ask your healthcare provider about survival rates and what you might expect. But remember that statistics are based on large groups of people. They can't be used to say what will happen to you. No two people are exactly alike. Treatment and how well people respond to treatment vary.