Kidney Cancer: Survival Rates and Prognosis
If you are diagnosed with kidney cancer, your prognosis is likely your primary concern. Depending on when you and your doctor discover the disease, you may have a very good chance of survival—meaning you will live at least five years after you are diagnosed with kidney cancer. Some people may even be cured of disease completely. Even better news: Treatments are constantly improving, so kidney cancer survival rates will likely increase with time.
Diagnosing kidney cancer in the early stages usually means a better prognosis as you consider your treatment options.
Staging Kidney Cancer
The stage of cancer refers to the size of the cancerous tumor and how much, if at all, the cancer has spread from its original site. Doctors rely on two types of kidney cancer stages: the clinical stage and the pathologic stage. Because the clinical stage is based on test results and a physical exam, your doctor can predict how much, if any, the cancer has spread.
Your doctor learns about the pathologic stage by actually looking at the cancer cells under a microscope. For kidney cancer, this usually happens after you have surgery to remove the tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. The prognosis is usually better for cancer cells that look more like normal cells and worse for cancer cells that look much different than normal cells.
By understanding your stage of kidney cancer, you and your doctor can determine your treatment options. The kidney cancer staging system involves three factors: how big the primary tumor is, whether nearby lymph nodes have been affected, and whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.
There are four stages of kidney cancer (I, II, III, and IV):
Stage I: The tumor is not bigger than 7 centimeters across and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant organs. Some doctors say the tumor must be only 5 centimeters or smaller to be considered stage 1.
Stage II: The tumor is larger than 7 centimeters across and has not spread.
Stage III: The primary tumor has spread to a major vein or into nearby tissue, but has not spread to the adrenal gland or beyond Gerota’s fascia, which is a fibrous envelope of tissue around the kidney. Or, the primary tumor has spread outside the kidney into nearby lymph nodes, but has not spread to distant lymph nodes or organs.
Stage IV: The primary tumor has grown beyond Gerota’s fascia and possibly into the adrenal gland or nearby lymph nodes. Or, the primary tumor may have spread into nearby lymph nodes, and has spread to distant lymph nodes or organs.
Kidney Cancer Prognosis
Knowing the stage of kidney cancer not only helps you and your doctor choose the most appropriate treatment, it will help your doctor give you a prognosis, or outlook for the disease. There are also other factors that affect the prognosis. The prognosis is worse for people who:
Have a high level of blood lactate dehydrogenase, which is an enzyme that helps your body make energy
Have a high blood calcium level
Have anemia (low red blood cell count)
Have kidney cancer that has spread to at least two distant sites in the body
Need systemic treatment, such as chemotherapy, less than one year after they are diagnosed with kidney cancer
Have trouble performing normal daily activities
People diagnosed during the early stages of disease have a better prognosis. The National Cancer Data Base estimates people with stage I kidney cancer have a five-year survival rate of at least 80%. Some staging systems indicate the stage I survival rate is as high as 97%. People with stage IV kidney cancer at diagnosis may have less than a 10% chance of surviving beyond five years. The current numbers are based on looking at thousands of cases of kidney cancer at least five years ago. However, cancer treatment, including for kidney cancer, is rapidly changing and cancer survival rates are improving.