Kidney cancer is a serious disease that can be very dangerous when it is not diagnosed early on. Fortunately, new technologies have made it easier to detect, which is especially important since the number of incidences of kidney cancer is increasing.
Kidney cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the kidneys, which are two bean-shaped organs located in the abdominal cavity. Each kidney is about the size of a fist, with one located on each side of the spine. At the time of diagnosis, the cancer may still be confined to the kidneys. However, some individuals are diagnosed after the kidney cancer has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body, which indicates a more advanced form of kidney cancer.
There are several types of kidney cancer, including:
- Renal cell carcinoma: The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma, which mostly affects older men. This is a specific type of kidney cancer which originates in the lining of the tubules of the kidney. Because this type of cancer spreads very easily to other parts of the body, including the lungs and other organs, it can be very dangerous. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about one-third of the patients who are diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma already have cancer in other parts of the body besides the kidneys.
- Transitional cell carcinoma: This is a less common type of kidney cancer found in adults. In fact, it is considered to be relatively rare in the medical field. Transitional cell carcinoma begins in the ureters, which connect the bladder and the kidneys, or the renal pelvis, which is a basin in the kidney which collects urine.
- Wilms’ tumor: This is a specific type of kidney cancer which is usually found in children. It is often associated with certain birth defects, such as urinary tract problems, an enlargement of one side of the body or a missing iris of the eye. Most cases occur when a child is about 3 years of age, with the oldest age of diagnosis being about 8 years old. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a Wilms’ tumor occurs in only about 1 in every 200,000 to 250,000 children.
One of the reasons that kidney cancer is often not diagnosed until its later stages is that there are few symptoms it is associated with it. Additionally, the signs of kidney cancer can easily be confused with other health conditions or physical problems. The following are some of the key symptoms of kidney cancer, many of which do not appear until the later stages of the disease:
- Blood in the urine, which may be pink, red or cola-colored
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling of the abdominal area
- Chronic back pain below the ribs
- Intermittent fever
- Unintentional weight loss
- Pale skin
- Intolerance of cold temperatures
- Excessive hair growth in females
- Swelling of the veins around a testicle in men
- Vision problems
Causes and Risk Factors
Kidney cancer is triggered by a mutation in the DNA of the cells found in the kidney. When this occurs, those cells begin to grow and divide very quickly, causing an accumulation of abnormal cells. The resulting mass is a tumor, which will continue to grow and may spread to other areas of the body when cells break off and metastasize to other parts of the body.
There are certain factors which may increase an individual’s risk of developing kidney cancer, including:
- Age: The risk of kidney cancer tends to increase as a person ages (with the exception of the Wilms’ tumor, which is only found in children). Most people diagnosed with kidney cancer are about 50-70 years old.
- Sex: Men are more likely to get kidney cancer than women are.
- Smoking: People who smoke are more likely to develop kidney cancer than non-smokers are. This risk is not permanent and can be reduced by quitting smoking.
- Exposure to chemicals: Being around certain chemicals all the time may increase a person’s risk of developing kidney cancer. This is particularly true for those who work with chemicals like asbestos or cadmium as part of their job.
- Treatment for kidney failure: Those who have had long-term dialysis to treat their chronic kidney failure are at a greater risk for developing kidney cancer.
- Certain health conditions: People with certain health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma and Von Hippel-Lindau disease, are more likely to get kidney cancer.
Although there is no sure way to prevent kidney cancer, taking the following steps can significantly reduce an individual’s risk for the disease:
- Quit smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables
- Treat high blood pressure
- Limit exposure to chemicals
There are several treatment options for kidney cancer. The most common initial treatment is having surgery to remove the affected kidney entirely. If the cancer is caught early on, the surgeon may opt to simply remove the tumor from the kidney instead.
Unfortunately, surgery is not always an option for all cases of kidney cancer. In these situations, doctors may recommend an embolization, which blocks the flow of blood to the tumor. Alternatively, they may suggest using special instruments to either freeze or heat the cancer cells in the tumor to destroy them.
Other treatment options include chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells) and biological therapy (using drugs to stimulate the body’s immune system). Talk to your doctor about all the possible treatment options to figure out what is the best choice for you.