Renal cell carcinoma, also called kidney cancer, occurs when cancer cells form in the tubules of the kidney. Tubules are tiny tubes in the kidney that help filter waste products from the blood in order to make urine.
Kidney cancer is the seventh most common cancer in men and the ninth most common in women in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Risk factors include smoking, hypertension, obesity and hepatitis C.
Among the first signs of kidney cancer is blood in the urine. Sometimes a lump can be felt in the abdomen. To diagnose kidney cancer, a doctor will perform a physical exam and order imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI.
Your doctor will order a urinalysis and other lab work if they suspect cancer or other kidney disease. If a suspicious mass is detected, a biopsy will be done to look for malignant cells.
Once kidney cancer cells are identified, your medical team will determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is based on how much or how little the cancer has spread.
Stage 1 means the cancer is only in the kidney and that the tumor is 7 cm long or smaller. Stage 2 means the cancer is still contained to the kidney, but the tumor is larger than 7 cm.
Kidney cancer spreads through blood, lymph nodes, or the tissue near the original cancer cells. Stages 3 and 4 indicate that the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body.
In stage 3, the cancer is also present in a lymph node near the kidney or in a main kidney blood vessel or fatty tissue around the kidney. Stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another organ or other lymph nodes or tissue.
Your overall health is a key factor for predicting your prognosis after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. Kidney cancer patients tend to be older, which also affects survival rates.
But the biggest factor affecting a kidney cancer prognosis is the stage of the disease when it’s diagnosed. Chances of survival are much better if the disease is caught before it has spread and can be removed surgically from the kidney.
Survival rates for renal cell carcinoma are based on the percentage of people who live at least five years after the cancer is discovered. The percentages are determined by the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis.
The American Cancer Society reports the five-year survival rates are:
- stage 1: 81 percent
- stage 2: 74 percent
- stage 3: 53 percent
- stage 4: 8 percent
Treatment for kidney cancer depends on the stage of the cancer. If the tumor is small and the patient is eligible for surgery, a partial nephrectomy may be possible. This operation spares the kidney, but removes the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue. A full nephrectomy, in which an entire affected kidney is removed, may be necessary in more severe cases.
In cases where surgery is not an option, cryoablation may be a solution. Cryoablation is a procedure that involves the freezing of cancer cells.
Medication therapy is commonly used if the cancer has spread. These drugs help boost the body’s immune system. There also have been encouraging developments with drugs that target kidney cancer cells, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Currently, seven targeted therapy medications are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Targeted therapy drugs affect the pathways that help cancer cells grow.