Learn more from urologic oncologist Bradley Leibovich, M.D.
I'm Dr. Brad Leibovich, urologic oncologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of kidney cancer: What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or for someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. First, let's talk about the kidney. You have two of these bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They sit right behind your abdominal organs with one on each side of the spine. It's their job to filter excess water, salt, and waste products from your body, turning those substances into urine. Like other organs, kidneys are made up of cellular tissue. Sometimes the cells in this tissue behave irregularly. Changes in their DNA make them grow in abnormal ways, forming tumors. This is how cancer develops. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma. About nine out of 10 kidney cancers are this type. With improvements in technology, thankfully, come improvements in treatment. So in an encouraging turn, kidney cancer has never been more treatable than it is today.
The average age of those diagnosed with kidney cancer is 64. It is about twice as common in men as it is in women. The exact causes of kidney cancer, like many other cancers, are not known. However, we do know that certain things can increase your chances of developing kidney cancer. Older age, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, long-term dialysis, and a family history of kidney cancer can all increase your risk.
Unfortunately, kidney cancer is often hard to diagnose, as it doesn't have clear signs or symptoms in its early stages. Over time, the following may develop: Blood in your urine, which may appear pink, red or cola colored. Pain in your back or side that does not go away. Loss of appetite. Unexplained weight loss. Persistent tiredness. Fever. Or night sweats. If you're worried that you may be experiencing these symptoms, please talk to your doctor.
The way doctors evaluate kidney tumors may include one or more of the following tests and procedures: Blood and urine tests. Imaging tests like ultrasounds, x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, which can help visualize the tumor or abnormality. On occasion, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. This involves removing a small sample of tissue from the tumor with a needle for further testing. If it's determined that you have kidney cancer, the next step is staging that cancer. Staging is a medical term to describe how advanced your cancer is. Specific tests for staging could include further CT scans or other imaging tests. Once the doctor has enough information, they'll assign a Roman numeral ranging from 1 to 4 to indicate the stage of your cancer. The lower end means your cancer is confined to the kidney. The higher means the cancer is considered advanced and may have spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body.
There are a few small upsides to kidney cancer versus others. The fact that we have two kidneys, and our bodies typically only need one to function normally, means that in many occasions, if the kidney cancer is localized and hasn't spread to other parts of the body, not only are the odds of surviving very good, but typically we do not have any negative impact on quality of life from the treatment for kidney cancer. For most, surgery is the first step. Depending upon the stage and severity of cancer, surgeons may remove the affected kidney altogether - a procedure known as a nephrectomy or radical nephrectomy. Sometimes they may opt to remove the tumor from the kidney. This is known as a partial nephrectomy or kidney-sparing or nephron-sparing surgery. In addition to surgery, some kidney cancers are destroyed by non-surgical methods. Cryoablation is a treatment that freezes and kills cancerous cells. Radiofrequency ablation is a treatment that causes the mutated cells to heat up, in effect disintegrating them. The best treatment for you depends on a handful of factors, including your overall health, the kind of kidney cancer you have, whether the cancer has spread and your preferences for treatment. Together, you and your medical team can decide what's right for you.
Learning you've been diagnosed with cancer is never easy. But there are ways to cope with the daily challenges of processing your disease, treatment and recovery. Learning about your condition can help you feel comfortable when it comes to making decisions. Taking care of yourself is another. Stay active. Sleep well. Eat healthy. And if you feel up to it, keep doing the things you enjoy. Reach out to others. Your doctor can help you find a support group. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, depressed or anxious. Sometimes talking to a mental health specialist can make all the difference. Remember, with the right treatment, the right team and the right mindset, there's always a road forward. If you'd like to learn even more about kidney cancer, here are our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.