Knowing your risk

Kidney cancer isn’t as common as breast or lung cancer. For most people, the chance of getting kidney cancer in their lifetime is less than 2 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Your risk increases if you smoke, are obese, or have been exposed to chemicals, such as asbestos and benzene. Sometimes, kidney cancer can run in families. If you’re at high risk, talk to your doctor and watch out for symptoms.

When someone has skin cancer, they might see an unusual growth on their skin. Breast cancer is sometimes found when a woman discovers a lump in her breast, and it’s more often found on routine mammogram screening. Because the kidneys are so deep inside the body, it’s harder to find kidney cancer just by looking or feeling for growths.

Although mammograms and colonoscopies can screen for breast and colorectal cancers, no screening test is available for kidney cancer in people who aren’t at high risk for the disease.

Imaging tests like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can spot cancer in the kidneys. Yet these tests are costly, and they often can’t differentiate between kidney cancer and noncancerous growths.

Usually, doctors only recommend CT or MRI scans for people who are at very high risk for kidney cancer because of an inherited condition, like von Hippel-Landau disease.

Kidney cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until the tumor has already grown. The most common symptom of kidney cancer is blood in the urine, or hematuria. If the amount of blood is too small to see with the naked eye, your doctor can find it on a urine test.

It’s important to remember that noticing blood in your urine doesn’t mean you have kidney cancer. Other conditions, such as infections or kidney stones, can also cause this symptom.

Blood in the urine is the main symptom of kidney cancer, but there are other signs. Other symptoms include:

  • pain in the side or lower back
  • feeling a mass on your abdomen, side, or lower back
  • a fever
  • night sweats
  • fatigue
  • an overall sick feeling
  • losing weight without trying
  • swelling of the ankles

Other illnesses, such as the flu, or a back injury can cause many of these symptoms. But if these symptoms don’t go away, talk to your doctor.

During an exam, your doctor will look for other symptoms of kidney cancer that you couldn’t find on your own. They might press on your abdomen to check for a lump. Or tests might show high blood pressure or a low red blood cell count (anemia).

Your doctor will perform tests to find out if you have kidney cancer or another condition that can cause the same symptoms.

Many different tests can help your doctor diagnose kidney cancer:

  • Urine tests can find traces of blood in the urine.
  • Blood tests can detect chemicals that the kidneys are supposed to remove from the body.
  • CT, MRI, and ultrasonography create pictures of the kidneys and allow doctors to look for growths that may be cancerous.
  • A biopsy involves removing a piece of tissue from the kidneys to be examined under a microscope for cancer.

If you have kidney cancer, your doctor will find out how advanced it is and whether it has spread to other parts of your body. This is called staging. It helps your doctor determine the right course of treatment for you. They’ll also refer you to a cancer specialist.

Many different treatments are available for kidney cancer. Radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery can help stop the cancer and improve your long-term outlook.