Kidney cancer (renal cancer) is a lump created by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells that starts in your kidney
You have two kidneys, which are bean-shaped organs found near the middle of your back, either side of your spine. Your kidneys are part of your urinary system. They filter your blood to remove excess water and salt as well as waste products, which are removed from your body in your urine.
Your kidneys also produce three important hormones, which are chemicals produced by your body.
Kidney cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the UK. About 9,600 people are diagnosed each year. Most people who get kidney cancer are over 60 and it affects more men than women. It’s rare for people under 50 to get kidney cancer. However, a type of kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour (also known as nephroblastoma) affects very young children.
Usually only one of your kidneys is affected. Cancer can grow through your kidney and spread to other parts of your body (through your blood or lymphatic system). Your lymphatic system is made up of the tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease. These include your bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.
There are several types of kidney cancer. Renal cell cancer (RCC) is the most common in adults. More than eight in 10 people with kidney cancer in the UK have this type. In RCC, the cancerous cells are in the lining of your tubules. These are the smallest tubes inside your kidneys that help to filter your blood and make urine.
Other types of kidney cancer include the following.
This factsheet will focus on RCC.
In the early stages, you probably won't have any symptoms of kidney cancer. As the cancer grows, the most common symptom is blood in your urine.
It’s possible that you might feel a lump or swelling in your back, although most kidney cancers are too small to feel.
Other symptoms of kidney cancer may include:
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
The exact reasons why you may develop kidney cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, there are a number of things that can increase your risk of developing kidney cancer.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP may test a sample of your urine with a dipstick to check if there is any blood in it. He or she may also take a blood sample for testing.
Your GP may refer you to see a urologist. A urologist is a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the urinary system. You may then be offered further tests, which may include the following.
If your doctor diagnoses kidney cancer, you may need further tests to find its size and exact position.
The type of treatment you have will depend on the type and size of your cancer, and whether it has spread.
Surgery is the main treatment for kidney cancer. If kidney cancer is at an early stage, it may be possible to cure it with surgery. If your cancer has progressed, surgery can control its growth and relieve your symptoms.
Your surgeon may remove your whole kidney and nearby lymph nodes in what is called a radical nephrectomy. Alternatively, he or she may just remove the affected part of your kidney in a partial nephrectomy.
You can have open surgery, in which your surgeon will make one large cut in your abdomen (tummy). Alternatively, you may be able to have keyhole surgery.
Other surgical treatments may be suitable if you have smaller kidney tumours, or if you aren’t healthy enough to have conventional surgery. These include the following.
Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. Your doctor may offer you this treatment to shrink your cancer if it’s causing you pain. You may also have it to treat cancer that has spread to other parts of your body, such as your bones or brain.
Targeted therapy (also called biological therapy) uses medicines that are designed to stop cancer cells growing. For example, they might block signals that tell cells to grow, or stop the cancer from making new blood vessels. Your doctor may offer you targeted therapy if your kidney cancer has spread or after surgery to remove your tumour. You may be invited to take part in a clinical trial of a new targeted treatment.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy isn't often used to treat kidney cancer, but your doctor might offer it to you in combination with another treatment.
You may be able to reduce your risk of developing kidney cancer if you make changes to your lifestyle. These include:
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2014.
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For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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