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Kidney Cancer: What You Need To Know

The month of March celebrates kidney cancer awareness. Also known as renal cancer, it is one of the most common cancers and affects people of all ages. Here are some symptoms you can watch out for, treatments you can go through, and actions you can take to help raise awareness.


What is kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer occurs when cells in the kidneys mutate and form tumours. Your kidneys are each approximately the size of your fist, and located behind the abdomen on the left and right of your spine.

There are multiple types of kidney cancer, the most common being renal cell carcinoma. This typically occurs in adults, but can affect youths as well, though children are more likely to develop Wilms’ tumour, which is almost never present in adults.

Renal cell carcinoma, also known as RCC, comprises 9 out of 10 kidney cancer cases. Usually, it consists of one tumour in the kidney, but can occur in the form of multiple tumours, and can also affect both kidneys. If only one kidney is affected, the kidney can be removed; it is possible to live with only one functioning kidney. There are different forms of RCC as well, depending on the type of cancer cell. The most prominently occurring form is clear RCC, making up 70% of RCC cases. Other forms are more rare, including papillary RCC and chromophobe RCC.

Apart from RCC, there is also TCC (transitional cell carcinoma) and renal sarcoma, but they are considerably rarer.

The kidney cancer diagnosis rate has increased over the years, and cases are more and more commonly present, especially in adults above the age of 50.


What causes it?

There are multiple factors that can cause kidney cancer to develop, and they are often, but not always, avoidable.

  • A family history of kidney or other cancers. Kidney cancer genetics can be inherited, so if your family members have had cancer before, it’s a good idea to begin regular screenings as you age.
  • Smoking. A direct correlation has been proven between smoking and most cancers. Quitting smoking decreases your risk drastically, though it is better not to smoke at all.
  • Obesity. Being overweight, or a BMI > 30 increases the chance of developing RCC, and can cause the body to produce hormones that may cause it. Ensure you maintain a healthy diet and weight to reduce your risk.
  • Alcohol consumption. The recommended daily alcohol consumption is 2 glasses per day for men, and 1 per day for women. Regularly overconsuming alcohol can increase the risk of kidney cancer, and can damage the kidneys overall.
  • High blood pressure. Also known as hypertension, it can increase the risk, and medication to lower your BP will likely not reduce your risk factor for cancer. Keep your blood pressure normal by reducing your fat and cholesterol intake.
  • Dialysis. For chronic kidney diseases or failures, permanent dialysis may be required and can lead to kidney cancer.
  • Other kidney diseases. Advanced kidney disease, kidney infections, benign kidney tumours, and other abdominal diseases can all increase your chances of contracting cancer.
  • Sex. RCC is twice as common in men than in women, especially since men are more likely to smoke and overconsume alcohol.
  • Race. African-Americans have a slightly higher tendency to be affected by kidney cancer.


What are the symptoms?

In its early stages, symptoms may not be noticeable or appear at all. If you notice two or more of the following symptoms, contact your GP for a cancer screening as soon as possible:

  • Blood in the urine; reddish or darkened urine
  • Prolonged pain in the lower back or on one side
  • Persistent fever or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss and/or loss of appetite
  • Swelling or a lump(s) on one side of the lower back; typically only in very late stages
  • Anaemia


How can I get tested?

Talk to your doctor if multiple symptoms persist. They may refer you to a cancer or screening specialist.

The first step is a blood test – your blood will be drawn and tested for cancer. You may also go through imaging, CT scans, and if unnatural cell activity is detected, PT and MRI scans as well. Finally, to confirm the presence of cancer, a biopsy will be carried out: the doctor may extract sample cells from your kidney to test in a lab.


What treatment is available?

For early stage kidney cancer, the primary treatment is surgery.

For small tumours, the doctor may be able to remove the affected cells and potentially the tissue nearby either through a biopsy or through abdominal surgery. If a large area in only one kidney is affected, removing the entire kidney may be required, but this should not affect the functionality of the other kidney.

For later stage cancers, the tumour may have spread beyond the kidney(s) to the rest of the abdomen and other parts of the body. Though surgery may be carried out, additional treatments are often required.

Cryotherapy involves destroying cancer cells by freezing them, and is a form of targeted treatment – it can be carried out in specific areas. Alternately, radiofrequency ablation uses excessive heat to do the same.

Kidney cancer is different from most other cancers in that the kidney affected by the cancer can be removed without too much damage done to the rest of the body. Embolisation is a procedure by which blood flow to the cancer affected area is cut off. This may cause the kidney to stop functioning, but it can be removed without the cancer spreading to the rest of the body since it will die, or at least, stop reproducing.

Radiotherapy helps to shrink or destroy the cancer by targeting gamma rays at the area, while immunotherapy strengthens your immune system to fight it. Other medical therapies can be used, not to cure the cancer, but to prevent it from spreading and causing more harm.

It is likely you will be prescribed a combination of these treatments, depending on what your doctor sees best fit according to the effect the cancer has already had.


What else can I do?

An orange ribbon symbolises kidney cancer, so make sure to sport one this month to show your support for kidney cancer awareness, prevention, and its survivors.

Share resources on kidney cancer diagnosis and statistics – share this post, and others on, on social media to spread the word to your family and friends who may need it. Donate to and support cancer charities, hospitals, and research foundations.

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the faster it can be treated, so watch out for symptoms, and raise awareness on the issue.

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