Kidney Cancer Facts

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Female doctor with illustration of kidneys over tablet
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What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the kidney or renal pelvis, an area of the kidney that connects to the ureter. Kidney cancers make up about 4% of all new cancer cases; it is currently the 8th-leading type of cancer. In most cases, there are no signs or symptoms of kidney cancer until it has grown enough to create a noticeable symptom.

Symptoms of kidney cancer can include:

What are the different types of kidney cancer?

The most common type of kidney cancer—about 90% of cases—is renal cell carcinoma (RCC). Kidney oncologists identify RCC down to the subtype because it can make a difference with treatment. Subtypes of RCC include clear cell, papillary, and chromophobe, among others.

Other types of kidney cancer include:

  • Transitional cell carcinoma, which starts in the renal pelvis

  • Wilms tumor (nephroblastoma), which is a type of childhood cancer

  • Renal sarcoma, a rare type of kidney cancer

Who gets kidney cancer?

Studying kidney cancer from previous years reveals these statistics:

  • 16 in 100,000 men and women (approximately 74,000 in the United States) develop kidney cancer annually.

  • Men are twice as likely as women to develop kidney cancer. The lifetime risk of developing kidney cancer is 1 in 48 men and 1 in 83 women. Male predominance is likely related to risk factors for kidney cancer, including smoking and workplace exposure to cancer-causing compounds.

  • Kidney cancer is most common in the 55- to 74-year old age group; the median age is 64.

  • Kidney cancer is more common in people of African American, American Indian, and Alaska Native descent compared to Caucasian Americans.

Can you die from kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer survival rates are improving, but the disease still takes the lives of about 14,000 people a year (projected as 2.4% of all cancer deaths in 2019). A common cancer statistic about prognosis is 5-year relative survival, which is the percentage of people with kidney cancer who survive at least five years from the time they were diagnosed relative to people of the same age who do not have kidney cancer.

For people diagnosed with localized kidney cancer (cancer has not spread from the initial kidney site), the 5-year relative survival rate is good: 92.5%. However, the rate drops to 12% when the cancer has already spread to distant sites (stage 4 kidney cancer) at the time of diagnosis. A cancer cure is generally not possible at this stage.

How does kidney cancer affect quality of life?

Kidney cancer patients today have the benefit of numerous studies looking at health-related quality of life (HRQoL), specifically for symptoms of kidney cancer and advanced kidney cancer. Researchers also investigate the effect of different treatments on the cancer and the patient’s HRQoL. Healthcare professionals can use the results of these studies to discuss treatment options with the patient.

HRQoL is a measure of how the patient feels or perceives their physical, mental and functional ability and vitality in relation to the disease itself. The kidney cancer-related QoL questionnaire asks the patient to respond to such statements as “I have bone pain,” “I am able to work,” and “I am bothered by side effects of treatment.”

Not surprisingly, researchers find that disease progression is associated with reduced quality of life. A kidney cancer treatment plan—whether surgery, non-surgical interventions, or drug therapy—typically focuses on slowing disease progression, which is associated with higher quality of life. This is especially important for patients with a poor prognosis.

What causes kidney cancer?

There is no single cause of kidney cancer. Cancer biologists know that certain types of gene mutations can change a normal cell to grow abnormally, but it usually takes mutations in many genes to cause cancer, including kidney cancer. There are multiple factors that increase the chance of mutations that could lead to kidney cancer.

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking

  • Obesity, wherein the cancer risk may be linked to hormone changes

  • Exposure to cadmium, a heavy metal; trichloroethylene, an organic solvent; chlorophenol pesticides and chlorophenoxyl herbicides

  • Family history of kidney cancer, particularly a sibling

  • Hypertension or possibly long-term use of the medicine to control it

  • Advanced kidney disease and dialysis

  • Hereditary syndromes that increase the risk of cancer. However, the syndromes are rare and the kidney cancer they can cause also is rare.

How are you diagnosed with kidney cancer?

Imaging tests are the main method of diagnosing kidney cancer and planning treatment. Computed tomography (CT scan), MRI, and ultrasound are common.

Other imaging procedures include:

  • Angiography

  • Bone scan

  • Chest X-ray

  • Positron emission tomography (PET), a scan that uses a very small amount of a radioactive substance to detect cancer cell growth and possible spread to other areas

A biopsy may be part of the diagnosis, but it would likely occur after surgical removal of the tumor (if that is part of treatment). Urine tests can help rule out other causes of symptoms, such as infection.

What are the stages of kidney cancer?

There are four stages of kidney cancer:

  • Stage I (1) kidney cancer is contained within the fist-sized kidney. The tumor is 7 centimeters (cm) or smaller. (This is 2.8 inches or smaller.)

  • Stage II (2) kidney cancer is inside the kidney and has not spread outside of it. The tumor is larger than 7 cm.

  • Stage III (3) kidney cancer is growing beyond the kidney, either to soft tissues around the kidney or one or more lymph nodes near the kidney.

  • Stage IV (4) kidney cancer has grown and spread beyond the kidney to distant sites (lymph nodes or organs such as a lung).

What are the different treatments for kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer treatment varies greatly by stage, patient age and overall health, and patient preferences. The aim of kidney cancer treatment is to shrink the tumor and cure the cancer if possible, while preserving the patient’s quality of life.

For stage I and II, surgery to remove the tumor and possibly the entire kidney is often the first-line treatment. Targeted drug therapy after surgery for several months can help reduce the risk of cancer coming back.

Active monitoring/surveillance may be an appealing option for certain patients with slow-growing, small tumors. Imaging tests monitor the tumor size and active treatment begins if or when it grows.

For stage III, doctors use localized treatments, such as freezing, heat ablation, or focused radiation therapy to kill the tumor, followed by drug therapies. Surgical removal may still be possible in some cases.

For stage IV kidney cancer, first-line treatment is usually immunotherapy, a type of targeted therapy. Chemotherapy is a second-line treatment because it does not work as well on kidney cancer cells as other types of cancer cells. Surgery is an option in rare cases where the tumor can be removed.

Additional kidney cancer facts

New cases of kidney cancer and renal pelvis cancer have stayed relatively constant after rising steadily through 2010. The number of deaths annually is decreasing, bringing hope to the newly diagnosed and thousands of people living with kidney cancer.

March marks Kidney Cancer Awareness month.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 28
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.
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