Your kidneys are a pair of organs in your abdomen. Each kidney is about the size of a fist.
Your kidneys are part of the urinary tract. They make urine by removing wastes and extra water from your blood. Urine collects in a hollow space (renal pelvis) in the middle of each kidney. Urine passes from your renal pelvis into your bladder through a long tube called a ureter. Urine leaves your bladder through a shorter tube.
Your kidneys also make substances to help control blood pressure and to make red blood cells. Attached to the top of each kidney is an adrenal gland. A layer of fatty tissue and an outer layer of fibrous tissue surround the kidney and adrenal gland.
Tumors in the kidney can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer):
Kidney cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the kidney tumor. They can travel through lymph vessels to nearby lymph nodes. They can also spread through blood vessels to the lungs, bones, or liver. After spreading, kidney cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues.
When you get a diagnosis of kidney cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors usually can’t explain why one person gets kidney cancer and another doesn’t.
However, we do know that people with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to develop kidney cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. Studies have found the following risk factors for kidney cancer:
Common symptoms of kidney cancer include:
These symptoms may be caused by kidney cancer or by other health problems, such as an infection or a kidney cyst. People with these symptoms should tell their doctor so that any problem can be diagnosed an treated as early as possible.
If you have symptoms that suggest kidney cancer, your doctor will try to find out what’s causing the problems.
You may have a physical exam. Also, you may have one or more of the following tests:
If kidney cancer is diagnosed, your doctor needs to learn the extent (stage) of the disease to help you choose the best treatment. The stage is based on the size of the kidney tumor and whether the cancer has invaded nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary (original) tumor. For example, if kidney cancer spreads to a lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually kidney cancer cells. The disease is metastatic kidney cancer, not lung cancer. It’s treated as kidney
cancer, not as lung cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumor “distant” disease.
These are the stages of kidney cancer:
Common treatment options for people with kidney cancer are surgery, targeted therapy, and biological therapy. You may receive more than one type of treatment. The treatment that’s right for you depends mainly on the following:
Surgery is the most common treatment for people with kidney cancer. The type of surgery depends on the size and stage of the cancer, whether you have two kidneys, and whether cancer was found in both kidneys.
You and your surgeon can talk about the types of surgery and which may be right for you:
The surgeon removes the entire kidney along with the adrenal gland and some tissue around the kidney. Some lymph nodes in the area may also be removed.
The surgeon removes only the part of
the kidney that contains the tumor. People with a kidney tumor that is smaller than a tennis ball may choose this type of surgery.
There are two approaches for removing the kidney. The surgeon may remove the tumor by making a large incision into your body (open surgery). Or the surgeon may remove the tumor by making small incisions (laparoscopic surgery). The surgeon sees inside your abdomen with a thin, lighted tube (a laparoscope) placed inside a small incision. Sometimes a robot is
used. The surgeon uses handles below a computer display to control the robot’s arms.
The surgeon may use other methods of destroying the cancer in the kidney. For people who have a tumor smaller than 4 centimeters and who can’t have surgery to remove part of the kidney because of other health problems, the surgeon may suggest:
The surgeon inserts a tool through a small incision or directly through the skin into the tumor. The tool freezes and kills the kidney tumor.
The surgeon inserts a special probe directly through the skin or through a small incision into the tumor. The probe contains tiny electrodes that kill the kidney cancer cells with heat.
If one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney is usually able to do the work of both kidneys. However, if your remaining kidney isn’t doing a good job cleaning your blood, you may need dialysis. Some people may need a transplant with a healthy kidney from a donor.
People with kidney cancer that has spread may receive a type of drug called targeted therapy. Many kinds of targeted therapy are used for kidney cancer. This treatment may shrink a kidney tumor or slow its growth. Usually, the targeted therapy is taken by mouth. You may feel very tired while taking targeted therapy for kidney cancer. Other side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, sores on the lips or in the mouth, and high blood pressure.
People with kidney cancer that has spread may receive biological therapy. Biological therapy for kidney cancer is a treatment that may improve the body’s natural defense (the immune system response) against cancer. The treatments used for kidney cancer can slow the growth of tumors or shrink them. The biological therapy is injected intravenously or under the skin. The treatment may be given at the hospital or a doctor’s office. Other drugs may be given at the same time to prevent side effects. The side effects differ with the biological therapy used, and from person to person. Biological therapy commonly causes a rash or swelling. You may feel very tired during treatment. The treatment may also cause a headache, muscle aches, a fever, or weakness.
You can ask your doctor to help you find a clinical trial, what’s involved, and what to consider -- for instance, if you’d need to travel to take part. You can also check these websites for information.
Eviti Clinical Trials
This website, developed by the nonprofit Coalition of Cancer Cooperative Groups, is the leading cancer clinical trial search engine. You can search for cancer trials based on disease and location.
National Cancer InstituteThis website lists more than 6,000 cancer clinical trials and explains what to do when you find one that you think is right for you.
This website, a service of the National Institutes of Health, is a database of clinical studies worldwide.
This web site lists industry-sponsored clinical trials that are recruiting patients.
Pain and weakness. Your doctor will prescribe medication to relieve your pain, but you’ll need to allow time to rest and heal. It’s a good idea to keep a journal so you can track and describe your symptoms. If it gets worse, work with your doctor to adjust medications and fine-tune the dosage.
It’s important for you to take very good care of yourself before, during, and after cancer treatment. Taking care of yourself includes eating well so that you get the right amount of calories to maintain a good weight. You also need enough protein to keep up your strength. Eating well may help you feel better and have more energy.
Sometimes, especially during or soon after treatment, you may not feel like eating. You may be uncomfortable or tired. You may find that foods don’t taste as good as they used to. In addition, the side effects of some treatments (such as poor appetite, nausea, or vomiting) can make it hard to eat well. Your doctor, a registered dietitian, or another health care provider can suggest ways to help you meet your nutrition needs. Also, the NCI booklet Eating Hints has many useful ideas and recipes.
You’ll need regular checkups (such as every months) after treatment for kidney cancer. Checkups help ensure that any changes in your health are noted and treated if needed.
Kidney cancer may come back after treatment. Your doctor will check for return of cancer. Checkups may include blood tests, a chest x-ray, CT scans, or an ultrasound.
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