11 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Kidney Cancer

  • Doctor
    Kidney Cancer: More Common Than You Think
    Kidney cancer isn’t on many people’s radars, but it should be. As far as cancers go, “Kidney cancer is actually a relatively common cancer. It just doesn’t get the publicity of other cancers,” says Michael Johnson, MD, assistant professor of urology and oncology at Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins. What’s more, most people with kidney cancer don’t have symptoms, so they’re diagnosed at an advanced—and more lethal—stage. Fortunately, early diagnosis and treatment can make kidney cancer largely survivable. Here’s what real doctors who specialize in nephrology want you to know about kidney cancer.

  • Man with doctor
    1. “Kidney cancer is one of the most common cancer diagnoses.”
    At least 64,000 cases of kidney cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year. “[Kidney cancer] accounts for about 3% of all cancer,” says Michael Blute, MD, assistant professor of urology at the University of Florida. That makes it the third most common type of cancer diagnosed among adults, behind lung and prostate cancer.

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    2. “Most kidney tumors are found by accident.”
    Symptoms of kidney cancer, including flank pain, blood in the urine, or a palpable mass in the flank or belly, only appear in later stages of the disease, when the cancer is less treatable. Fortunately, the majority of diagnoses today are made before then, often by chance. New and improved imaging technologies are uncovering kidney cancer “at lower stages, where symptoms are uncommon,” says Dr. Blute. People drop in for, say, an MRI after a car accident, and a scan picks up a mass. That’s a big change from 20 years ago, when most people were diagnosed only because they experienced late-stage symptoms.

  • Doctor with senior female patient
    3. “Not all kidney masses are cancerous.”
    About 1 in 4 abnormal growths found in the kidneys are benign cysts, according to the Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins. What’s more, about 40% of people in their 60s and 70s have noncancerous cysts on their kidneys, says Rob Stein, MD, an associate professor of surgery and urologist at Cleveland Clinic. “Most doctors are aware of kidney cysts, so they won’t even send patients to a urologist. And there’s no follow-up, since they don’t rupture or cause other problems,” he explains.

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    4. “You can manage some kidney cancer risk factors—but not all.”
    Lifestyle habits can affect your kidney cancer risk. “Current smokers are at twice the risk of kidney cancer,” says Dr. Blute. Being obese and having high blood pressure also increase your risk—one more reason to keep these vital stats in check. Also talk to your doctor about risk factors you can’t control, such as family history. Men and adults over 40 also have higher risk of kidney cancer. The majority of people diagnosed with kidney cancer are older than age 50, with a median age of roughly the mid-60s, says Dr. Blute. Why the increased risk with age? When old cells in our bodies die, our bodies make new cells. Sometimes, the genetic information for the new cell is not always copied correctly from the old cell. Over the length of a lifetime, people accumulate enough genetic mutations that occasionally, one new cell keeps growing and growing and never dies. “That’s what cancer is: an accumulation of mutations,” says Dr. Stein.

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    5. “Doctors almost never screen for kidney cancer.”
    Even if you have multiple risk factors, it’s unlikely you’ll get screened, since the disease is so rare in the general population. If, however, an immediate family member (your mother, father or grandparent) is diagnosed with kidney cancer, doctors will likely perform genetic testing to find out if that person is a carrier for one of a few rare genetic mutations that can be passed on to you. “If hereditary kidney cancer is identified, that person would see a genetic counselor, who would suggest whether family members should be screened with a blood test,” says Dr. Stein.

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    6. “Kidney disease and kidney cancer are linked.”
    One in three survivors of kidney cancer either had or will develop kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. People with acquired kidney disease who go on dialysis have a much higher risk of kidney cancer than the general population, explains Dr. Blute. So to delay or prevent going on dialysis, he suggests people who are diagnosed with kidney disease have frequent follow-ups with a nephrologist.

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    7. “Biopsies usually aren’t necessary to diagnose kidney cancer.”
    Most kidney tumors are diagnosed with a CT scan or an MRI; only about 10% are biopsied. “Biopsies are not 100% accurate,” says Dr. Stein. “It could say it’s not cancerous when it is. We might also get false negative result if we didn’t hit the tumor itself.”

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    8. “Most kidney cancer treatments are minimally invasive.”
    When a tumor is less than 4 centimeters, doctors may use cryotherapy (freezing the tumor) or radiofrequency ablation (heating it) to remove it. Both of these procedures involve little more than a needle prick. For larger tumors, doctors suggest either partial nephrectomy (removing just the tumor) or radical nephrectomy (removing the whole kidney). New technology in nephrology has made even these surgeries minimally invasive. “A majority of partial and radical nephrectomies can be done using robotic assisted laproscopic surgery and much smaller incisions,” says Dr. Stein. “This decreases complications and improves recovery.” For ablative therapies, patients may spend at most the night in the hospital, says Dr. Blute. For nephrectomies, most people stay in the hospital for 2 to 3 days and recover in one month, says Dr. Stein.

  • African man talking to doctor
    9. “Some metastatic kidney cancers can be cured.”
    Even if kidney cancer has spread, if there are only one or two cancerous lesions it may be possible to remove them and fully treat the cancer. “That’s the case with kidney cancer and not many other cancers,” says Dr. Stein. Otherwise, newer forms of an oral medicine similar to chemotherapy, known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors, have “demonstrated a significant survival benefit over the older [medicines] we had,” he says.

  • Doctor checking medication used by leukemia patient
    10. “Chemo for kidney cancer isn’t common.”
    Chemo is common following some cancers, like breast cancer, because studies have found it helps people survive longer -- but the same isn’t true for kidney cancer. “Chemotherapy isn’t that great for these types of tumors,” says Dr. Johnson. “And they don’t respond to radiation.” “[Removing kidney cancer surgically] is the only thing that’s been found to give a better outcome in terms of people living longer,” says Dr. Stein. Chemo is generally only recommended if the cancer has spread, he adds.

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    11. “Survival rates are high if the cancer is caught early.”
    The treatments and prognosis for kidney cancer depend on the staging of the cancer. If kidney cancer is caught in stage I, the 5-year survival rate is 95%; stage II kidney cancer survival rates are between 85 to 90%, says Dr. Blute. About 60% of all kidney cancer patients are diagnosed in stages I or II, he adds.

11 Things Doctor Want You to Know About Kidney Cancer

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Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 9
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