5 Things to Know About Kidney Cancer

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  • More than 50,000 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer each year, and if you or someone you love is one of them, you’ll want to find out as much as you can about the disease. While information about kidney cancer is always changing and improving, some things stay the same. Risk factors, symptoms and diagnosis, the outlook, treatment options, and prevention are among the top things you need to know. 

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    You can manage some kidney cancer risk factors.
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    While there aren’t any risk factors that guarantee someone will develop kidney cancer, some genetics and lifestyle choices contribute to the probability. Some things you can’t change: Men are about twice as likely to develop renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer. A family history of kidney cancer, some genetic diseases, and race, especially for African Americans and American Indians, are also risk factors. Other things that raise your risk of cancer—such as smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity—you may be able to get under control. Workplace exposure to chemicals such as asbestos, lead, cadmium, dry-cleaning solvents, some herbicides, benzene, organic solvents, and petroleum products may also increase your risk for renal cell carcinoma.

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    You don’t need a biopsy for a kidney cancer diagnosis.
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    Signs and symptoms of kidney cancer include blood in the urine, pain, or a lump on your side or lower back, which could indicate a mass on the kidney. Fatigue, loss of appetite, and unexplained fever could also point to cancer, though these can be associated with other health issues and don’t necessarily indicate cancer. If you have these symptoms for an extended time, it may be time to see a doctor. To get a diagnosis, you’ll probably have several lab tests, including a urinalysis, and imaging tests, such as a CT scan, MRI, PET scan, or ultrasound, which can often confirm the disease. Biopsies are usually not necessary for a kidney cancer diagnosis.

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    If caught early, kidney cancer can often be cured.
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    Kidney cancer survival rates can be more than 80% if caught in the earliest stage. Survival rates are usually highest with a successful surgery to remove all or part of the kidney, called a nephrectomy. The later the diagnosis, however, the lower the rate of survival, down to less than 10% if it’s caught in the last stage. Doctors categorize the development of kidney cancer into four stages. In stage I, the tumor is relatively small and hasn’t spread outside the kidney. In stage II, the tumor is still only in the kidney but has grown larger. Stage III indicates the tumor has spread into surrounding tissue or a nearby lymph node. The most serious stage of kidney cancer is stage IV, when the tumor has spread to multiple lymph nodes or to other parts of the body.

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    Surgery may be the best treatment plan for kidney cancer.
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    Surgery is often the first choice for treating kidney cancer because it offers the best survival rate. The surgeon may take out your whole kidney (radical nephrectomy) or just some of it (partial nephrectomy) to remove the mass and, if necessary, surrounding tissues. Sometimes, though, surgery isn’t possible. In that case, patients have other choices. Ablation, which either heats or freezes a tumor to destroy it, is an option. Other common cancer treatments, including targeted therapy and immunotherapy, may also be used. Radiation therapy isn’t a first choice because it can damage healthy kidneys, and chemotherapy is rarely used because it’s usually not effective at fighting kidney cancer. 

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    Healthy lifestyle choices help prevent kidney cancer.
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    While there are risk factors you can’t change, you can take control of some lifestyle choices that increase your chance of developing kidney cancer. The biggest risk factor is smoking, so if you smoke, quit—the sooner, the better. Talk to your doctor if you need help developing a cessation plan. If you’re overweight, ask your doctor about an appropriate exercise plan and a wholesome diet to help you maintain a healthy weight. And make sure your blood pressure is under control. If it’s high, talk with your doctor about ways to lower it, such as weight loss, exercise and improved diet. If those aren’t enough to control your blood pressure, you might also need medication.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 9
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.