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The Basics of Kidney Cancer

It seems that skin, prostate, breast, and lung cancer are all at the forefront of everyone’s minds because they are the most common types of cancer. But, in the U.S., it is estimated that about 73,000 people will be diagnosed with kidney cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The role of your kidneys is to filter and clean your blood, removing waste products through urine. “When the healthy cells in your kidney grow out of control, they form tumors,” said Joseph Mashni, Jr., MD, a surgical oncologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona.

The most common type of kidney cancer is clear cell renal cell carcinoma. It starts in the nephrons of the kidney—the cells that filter the blood. Most often there is no known cause, though smoking is a major risk factor. Another type, transitional cell carcinoma—also known as urothelial—is much less common. This type of kidney cancer starts in the part of the kidney where your urine collects and can affect the kidney, ureters or bladder. Wilms tumor is a rare childhood form of kidney cancer that usually develops in otherwise healthy children.

Signs and Symptoms

The tricky thing about kidney cancer is that it usually doesn’t present with symptoms. “Most kidney cancer is asymptomatic and found incidentally when looking for other things,” said Dr. Mashni.

Some symptoms can happen in advanced cases of kidney cancer, including:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Pain in one or both sides of the lower back
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Recurring fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Generally feeling ill

“These general symptoms can be indications of various health issues, so if you’re experiencing a combination of them, it’s best to consult with your doctor for the appropriate testing,” said Dr. Mashni.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Because kidney cancer is most often asymptomatic, it is usually found while searching for another condition. “Kidney tumors or lesions may be detected on an ultrasound, CT or MRI, which would then lead to removing or performing a biopsy on the tumor or lesion,” said Dr. Mashni.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer that is in the kidneys only, your specialist will likely recommend surgery to remove the tumor, called a partial nephrectomy, or removal of the entire kidney. “Tumor or kidney removal is done either laparoscopically or with a traditional incision,” according to Dr. Mashni. If the cancer has spread, chemotherapy that targets mutated genes commonly found in kidney cancer may be recommended, or immunotherapy. “If your kidney tumor is relatively small, a freezing technique called cryotherapy, or using controlled heat called radiofrequency ablation, is an option,” said Dr. Mashni. “Radiation treatment is not often used, though can be in very select cases.”

Looking for more information on your risks of getting kidney cancer? Schedule an appointment with a Banner Health expert to discuss any symptoms or concerns.

Cancer Kidney Imaging