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Renal Cell Carcinoma Prognosis: Life Expectancy and Survival Rates

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, PA-C on October 19, 2016Written by Heidi Godman on February 27, 2014

What is renal cell carcinoma?

Kidney cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the kidneys. Over 90 percent of kidney cancers are renal cell carcinomas (RCC), which start in the tubules of the kidneys. Tubules are tiny tubes in the kidneys that help filter waste products from the blood in order to make urine. The remaining 10 percent of kidney cancers start in the renal pelvis in the center of the kidney, which is where urine collects.

In the United States, kidney cancer is the seventh most common cancer in men and the ninth most common cancer in women, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What increases your risk?

Risk factors for developing renal cell carcinoma include:

  • smoking
  • hypertension
  • obesity
  • hepatitis C

What are the first symptoms?

One of the first symptoms of kidney cancer is the appearance of blood in the urine. And sometimes a lump can be felt in the abdomen.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose kidney cancer, a doctor will perform a physical exam and order imaging tests, such as:

  • ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI

Your doctor will order a urinalysis and other lab work if they suspect cancer or other kidney disease. If the lab and imaging tests reveal a suspicious mass, your doctor will do a biopsy to check for malignant cells.

Early stages of kidney cancer

Once kidney cancer is confirmed, 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 centimeters long or smaller.
  • Stage 2 means the cancer is still contained to the kidney, but the tumor is larger than 7 centimeters.

When kidney cancer metastasizes

Stages 3 and 4 indicate that the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. Kidney cancer spreads through blood, lymph nodes, or by direct extension of the original cancerous tumor into nearby tissue or structures.

  • Stage 3 means 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 distant lymph nodes.

Treatment options

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 advanced cases.

In some cases, where surgery is not an option, cryoablation may be a solution if the tumor is solid and in a contained area. Cryoablation is a procedure that involves the freezing of cancer cells.

Encouraging medication developments

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.

According to the American Cancer Society, there are seven targeted therapy medications for kidney cancer. Targeted therapies are drugs that target specific receptors or molecules along the cancer cell growth pathways that slow or halt cancer growth.

Factors affecting outlook

Your overall health is a key factor for predicting your outlook after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. People with kidney cancer tend to be older, which also affects survival rates.

The biggest factor affecting a kidney cancer outlook is the stage of the disease when it’s diagnosed. Chances of survival are much better when the disease is diagnosed before it has spread and can be removed surgically.

Survival rates for renal cell carcinoma are sometimes based on the percentage of people who live at least five years after the cancer is discovered. The percentages differ by the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis.

The takeaway

Renal cell carcinoma occurs when cancer cells form in the tubules of the kidney. The biggest factor affecting the outlook for kidney cancer is the stage of the disease when it’s diagnosed. People with early diagnoses have five-year survival rates up to 10 times greater than those with late-stage diagnoses.

Among the first symptoms of kidney cancer is blood in the urine. Sometimes you may feel a lump in the abdomen. If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.

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