Kidney Cancer

Cancer of any kind can be one of the worse things a person will be diagnosed with. Fortunately, kidney cancer is a highly curable disease. With the advancement of imaging techniques, cancers are being diagnosed in the earlier stages.

Who is most likely to get kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is a common urologic malignancy that tends to occur in individuals over the age of 40 with the average age being 64. Men are twice as likely than women to get kidney cancer. Most kidney cancers occur spontaneously, although some are associated with hereditary conditions, including von Hippel-Lindau disease and hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma (RCC) which is when a single tumor is in only one of the kidneys making it possible to treat with just surgery. People can survive and live a normal life with one kidney.

What are the risk factors for kidney cancer?

  • Gender – Males are twice as likely to get kidney cancer
  • Smoking – Smoking doubles a person’s risk for getting kidney cancer
  • Obesity – Being overweight puts you at risk for many conditions including cancer
  • Environment – Exposure to asbestos and cadmium are known to increase risk
  • Genetics – A family history of kidney cancer increases the likelihood of developing kidney cancer
  • High blood pressure
Hereditary risks from a faulty gene include:
    • Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome
    • Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome
    • Hereditary leiomyomatosis and RCC syndrome
    • Hereditary papillary RCC
    • Lynch syndrome


What are the symptoms of Kidney Cancer?

In the early stages of kidney cancer, there may not be any symptoms but when they do occur, they may include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Lower back pain on one side
  • A lump on your side or lower back
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Recurrent fevers
  • Ankle and leg swelling

These symptoms are also present in other conditions. If you are concerned and experiencing symptoms it is recommended that you consult with your physician.

Diagnosis of Kidney Cancer

People who are at average risk of kidney cancer are generally not screened. A routine urine test during a medical exam may find blood in the urine which would lead to further testing. However, many conditions such as stones may cause blood in the urine as well.

CT (computed tomography) scans and MRI’s often detect small kidney cancers. However, both of these are expensive. Doctors may use ultrasound as well to detect early cancers.

Biopsies for kidney cancer are sometimes not needed. Imaging can provide enough information in most cases. When imaging isn’t clear enough to make a diagnosis then a biopsy may be needed.

Often, kidney cancer is discovered during tests for evaluating some other illnesses. These are usually diagnosed at early stage when no symptoms were present.

Stages of Kidney Cancers

Early Stage:

The cancer is only in the kidney or surrounding tissue. It has not spread beyond the kidneys. Early stage cancer can be cured by surgically removing it.

Advanced Stage:

Cancer that has spread beyond the kidneys is considered advanced stage. When the cancer affects other vital organs such as lymph nodes or lungs, it is the advanced stages.

What is the 5-year survival rate for people with kidney cancer?

The 5-year survival rate for people with kidney cancer is 75%. However, survival rates depend on several factors, including the type, cell type, and stage of the cancer when it is first diagnosed. Early stage cancer can be successfully treated with surgery.

How is kidney cancer treated?

1. Surgery

Radical Nephrectomy: removing the entire kidney is called radical nephrectomy.

Partial Nephrectomy: removing only the cancer and a small “margin” of surrounding tissue a partial nephrectomy. By removing the cancer (versus the entire kidney, a patient’s long-term kidney function is improved with a much lower risk of developing kidney disease.

Removing the entire kidney is a much simpler surgery than a partial nephrectomy. Whenever possible “partial nephrectomy” is preferred. It is important to be treated by an experienced urologist who specializes in kidney cancer. Laparoscopic and robotic surgeries, which are minimally invasive, can be performed with a partial nephrectomy. Using these methods reduces risk and pain.

2. Targeted Therapy – Drugs

Targeted drugs are aimed at addressing the changes in cells that cause cancer. These are often used when standard chemo medications do not work. These are used in the advanced stages of cancer and there are several different options a patient can be treated with.

3. Radiation

When a patient isn’t healthy enough to have surgery or only has one kidney, radiation may be a possible therapy. When used for kidney cancer external beam therapy is usually used. This is when the radiation is focused on the cancer from a source outside of the body.

4. Chemotherapy

Chemo generally isn’t effective treating kidney cancer. It is mostly used when other treatments have failed.

5. Immunotherapy

In contrast to targeted drugs, immunotherapy is using medicines to boost a person’s immune system resulting in destruction of cancer cells.

Who treats kidney cancer?

  • Urologists: physicians who specialize in treating diseases of the urinary system are urologists.
  • Radiation Oncologists: Doctors who specialize in radiation treatment of cancer.
  • Medical Oncologists: a doctor that treats cancer using medicines such as chemo, targeted therapy or immunotherapy.

At Washington Urology Dr. Pham and Dr. Takayama both specialize in treating kidney cancer.