Risk Factors and Symptoms of Kidney Cancer
The American Cancer Society estimates that over 57,000 new cases of kidney cancer were recorded in the United States this past year. The incidence of kidney cancer seems to be increasing, although the reason behind this pattern is unclear. Luckily, recent improvements in diagnosis and treatment options have allowed patients to live with the disease.
Kidney cancer is a cancer that originates in the kidneys, the two small, bean-shaped organs located behind the abdominal organs, on each side of the spine. The main function of the kidneys is to filter blood and help rid the body of excess salt, water, and waste products. The products of this filtration process are converted into urine, which travels through long, thin tubes, known as the ureters, to the bladder where it is stored until urination. Although we have two kidneys, it is possible to live with only one. Individuals who do not have any kidney function undergo a process known as dialysis, which is an artificial way of filtering the blood.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma (RCC), which accounts for 9 out of 10 cases of kidney cancer. Like all cancers, renal cell carcinoma begins as a small tumor which grows in size. Tumors can be found in both kidneys, and multiple tumors can be found in each kidney. Most kidney cancers are detected during procedures for other diseases or conditions. Some tumors are found before they have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized), which is beneficial since the cancer can be hard to treat once it has metastasized.
Unfortunately, kidney cancer rarely causes symptoms in the early stages. In the later stages, symptoms may include blood in the urine, persistent back pain, a small mass or lump on the lower back, weight loss, fatigue, and intermittent fever. It is important to realize that the presence of these symptoms should not always be interpreted as kidney cancer. For example, there are numerous other causes of blood in the urine, but the presence of one or more of these symptoms should always be brought to the attention of a healthcare professional.
Although it is not yet clear exactly what causes kidney cells to become cancerous, researchers have identified certain risk factors that appear to increase the risk of developing kidney cancer.
• Age: The risk of developing renal cell carcinoma appears to increase with age; it occurs most commonly in people over the age of 60.
• Sex: Men are more likely to develop the disease than women, although reasons for this are unknown.
• Smoking: Smokers have an increased risk of developing kidney cancer. The risk increases the longer an individual smokes.
• Obesity: People who are obese are at greater risk than people who maintain a healthy weight.
• Chemicals in the workplace: Workers who are exposed to certain chemicals such as asbestos, cadmium, and trichloroethylene may have an increased risk.
• Treatment for kidney failure: People who receive long-term dialysis have a greater risk of developing kidney cancer.
If your physician suspects you may have kidney cancer or you are at high risk for developing the disease, a complete medical exam will be performed, including blood and urine analysis. Imaging tests are used to exam the inside of the body and may be used to test your kidneys for growths or tumors. Examples of imaging tests are ultrasounds and computerized tomography (CT) scans. If a questionable growth is found, your physician may order a biopsy, a procedure that removes a few cells from the selected area. These cells are examined under a microscope to determine whether or not they are cancerous.
If cancerous cells are found, surgery is usually the initial method of treatment. Surgeons may remove the cancerous portion of the kidney or the entire kidney, depending on the size of the tumor and the progression of the cancer. Drug therapy and surgery are also options for recurring kidney cancers and cancers that have spread to other areas of the body. Nexavar™ and Sutent™ are two new drugs used to treat kidney cancer. They work by blocking signals in cancer cells that allow abnormal proliferation. Specifically, the targeted signals allow blood vessel growth to cancerous cells. Without the nutrition provided by the blood vessels, the cancerous cells will not be able to grow and spread. These drugs are examples of recent improvement in treatment options and provide hope for kidney cancer patients.
Taking steps to improve your health may help you reduce your risk of kidney cancer. It is important to have a healthy and active lifestyle. If you are a smoker, tell your doctor you want to quit and discuss options that will help you achieve your goal. Aim to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. This will help ensure that your body is receiving the adequate amount of vitamins and nutrients. Regular exercise is an important and beneficial way to maintain a healthy weight. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week such as brisk walking, running, or riding a bike. At your next appointment, ask your doctor to check your blood pressure. If it is high, discuss ways to lower your numbers such as diet changes or weight loss. Remember, a lifestyle containing sufficient amounts of healthy foods and regular exercise can greatly decrease your risk for developing kidney cancer, as well as other diseases and conditions.