The Effects of Metastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma on the Body

Medically reviewed by Seunggu Jude Han, MD on October 9, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson on October 17, 2017

Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located near your back. Each day, they filter wastes and extra water from your blood to produce urine. The kidneys also release hormones that regulate blood pressure and other body functions. Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) can start in the filtering tubes of your kidneys. From there, it can grow and spread to other parts of your body.

Renal cell carcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in the tiny filtering tubes of the kidneys. “Metastatic” means the cancer has spread outside of the kidneys. It may have reached lymph nodes or organs like the brain and lungs. When cancer spreads, it can affect many different parts of your body.

Urinary system

Cancer can damage the kidney and interfere with its ability to filter wastes out of the blood. One common symptom of renal cell cancer is blood in the urine.

Respiratory system

Renal cell carcinoma can spread to the lungs. It can block the airways, preventing enough oxygen from getting to your body. Symptoms of metastatic renal cell carcinoma in the lung include a cough, shortness of breath, and pain or pressure in your chest.

Digestive system

Renal cell cancer can spread to your liver. The liver filters toxins out of your blood and produces bile, a digestive fluid. Cancer in the liver can block the flow of blood and bile. It can lead to symptoms like appetite loss, weight loss, jaundice, nausea, and vomiting.

Skeletal system

Bone is one of the most common sites for renal cell carcinoma to spread. Cancer causes pain in the bones. It also can weaken them and increase the risk of a fracture.

Circulatory and cardiovascular systems

The kidneys produce hormones like erythropoietin, which helps make red blood cells, and renin. These regulate blood pressure. Cancer in the kidneys can lead to a lack of enough red blood cells, called anemia. Red blood cells transport oxygen to your body’s tissues. When you don’t have enough of them, you’ll become tired, pale, and short of breath. Renal cell cancer can also release substances that increase your blood pressure.

One of the places kidney cancer can spread is to the vena cava — a large vein that carries oxygen-poor blood from your body back to your heart. If the tumor blocks this vein, it can be life-threatening.

Immune system

Metastatic renal cell carcinoma sets off the body’s immune response, which can produce a fever in some people. The immune system’s focus on the cancer can divert it from other important tasks, like fighting infections.

Cancer can spread to the lymph nodes — small glands in areas like the neck, under the arms, and in the groin — that are part of the immune system. The lymph nodes normally help trap viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders. When you are sick or you have cancer, they can swell up.

Nervous system

Sometimes renal cell carcinoma can spread to the brain. Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the brain include headaches, seizures, numbness, tingling, weakness, and trouble speaking. As the cancer grows, it can also press on nerves in your back or side and cause pain.

Reproductive system

A tumor can block blood flow through veins called the pampiniform plexus inside a man’s scrotum. The veins become enlarged, which is called a varicocele. Sometimes a varicocele can cause pain and affect a man’s fertility.

The takeaway

Once renal cell cancer spreads, it is harder to treat, but you still have many options. Doctors treat this type of cancer with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, biologic therapy, and immunotherapy. Your doctor will help you choose a treatment based on where in your body the cancer has spread, and your overall health.

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