Early kidney cancer can be difficult to spot. That’s why it’s important to understand kidney cancer risk factors and any possible symptoms of the disease.
Your kidneys are crucial for maintaining health. The two bean-shaped organs sit on each side of your spine, just below your rib cage, where they filter blood to remove toxins and transform waste into urine that’s flushed out of your body.
These important kidney functions can be disrupted by injuries, infections, kidney disease, and another serious health problems. Symptoms kidney cancer are sometimes hard to catch early.
More than 76,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer in the U.S. annually, and about 14,000 die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Kidney cancer is sometimes not diagnosed until it has progressed because it may cause few symptoms early on — or the symptoms it does cause may be mistaken for benign, temporary problems.
But there’s good news about kidney cancer prevention and treatment.
First of all, you can eliminate or control many risk factors for this malignancy. What’s more, recognizing symptoms that may be signs of kidney cancer and seeing your doctor can go far in helping spot a kidney malignancy early, when treatment can be most effective.
There are several types of kidney cancer
Kidney cancer develops when healthy cells in one or both kidneys grow out of control. Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is by far the most common kind of kidney cancer, comprising nine out of 10 these malignancies, according to the American Cancer Society. Other forms of kidney cancer are rare and primarily related to genetic conditions.
RCC usually develops as a single tumor within a kidney. There can be two or more tumors in one kidney, however. Sometimes there are multiple tumors in both kidneys.
Renal cell carcinoma has several sub-types. For example, capillary renal cell carcinoma is a common subtype of RCC, marked by finger-like projections in part or all of the tumors. Clear cell renal cell carcinoma is another sub-type, named after how the tumor looks under a microscope. The cells in the tumor appear clear, like bubbles, the National Cancer Institute explains.
The treatment for various types of kidney cancer depend on the type, sub-type, and causes (including whether there is a genetic component to the disease).
Early kidney cancer often does not show obvious symptoms. There may be signs that are easy to dismiss at first because they can be caused by conditions other than cancer.
It’s far better, however, not to guess but talk to your doctor about any of these signs and symptoms that may indicate kidney cancer:
- Blood in the urine (hematuria)
- Feeling unusually tired
- Low back pain, especially on one side, that isn’t caused by an injury
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss when you have not been dieting
- A lump on the side or lower back
- Persistent fever not caused by a known infection
- A low red blood cell count (anemia)
- Swelling of the ankles and legs
Cancer specialists at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey urge paying attention if you experience any of these potential kidney cancer symptoms and getting them checked promptly. If kidney cancer is the cause, it’s your best shot at catching the disease early, when treatment can be most effective.
Several kidney cancer risks are tied to lifestyle, meaning you have some control over them.
For example, smoking increases your risk of developing several types of cancers, including renal cell carcinoma. The risk appears related to how much you smoke, the American Cancer Society points out. Your best move is to never smoke at all, and, if you do smoke, work with your doctor on smoking cessation.
People who are significantly overweight also have an increased risk of developing kidney cancer. Researchers aren’t sure why, exactly, but obesity may result in certain hormone changes that lead to RCC.
Eating a healthy diet and regular exercise can not only help keep weight under control but also help prevent or lower high blood pressure, too. In turn, healthy lifestyle habits can lower your risk for kidney disease because hypertension is associated with increasing the odds of developing RCC.
Some studies have linked the over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen, especially when taken over long periods, to an increased risk of kidney cancer. So, make sure your doctor is aware of how much acetaminophen you take, while sharing information about all your other medications and supplements (some may impact kidney health).
You don’t have any control over some factors that raise your chance of kidney cancer. It’s important, however, to remember that having these risk factors doesn’t mean you are automatically destined to have kidney cancer. In fact, many people with no known risk factors for the disease don’t develop the malignancy.
On the other hand, knowing your family history and anything in your own personal health history that can raise your risk of kidney cancer makes sense. Knowledge can help you and your doctor know how often to check your kidney health and what tests — such as scans — you maybe need to proactively look for kidney cancer. It’s also another reason why you should have any possible kidney cancer symptoms investigated promptly.
People with a strong family history of RCC have a higher chance of developing kidney cancer, especially if you have a sister or brother who has been diagnosed with this type of malignancy. It’s not known whether the heightened risk is due to shared genetic make-up, the American Cancer Society points out, the result of siblings being exposed to the same carcinogens in their environment as children.
Some rare diseases are associated with an increased incidence of kidney cancer, including:
- Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which causes several kinds of tumors and cysts in different parts of the body and is linked to an increased risk of RCC
- Hereditary leiomyoma-renal cell carcinoma, which is associated with the development of smooth muscle tumors and the potential development of RCC
- Familial renal cancer, which can result in not only tumors of the head, neck, and thyroid but also the development of kidney cancer before age 40
If you have advanced kidney disease, especially if you need dialysis (a treatment to remove toxins from your body when your kidneys don’t function properly), you have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer. So, it’s extra important to follow all recommendations for checkups and to report any new symptoms to your doctor.
Another risk factor, which may have been unavoidable because of a person’s work, is exposure to trichloroethylene, a chemical used in a host of manufacturing processes. Many people were likely not aware of that exposure, especially if they worked in manufacturing before the potential dangers of the chemical were recognized. Studies in recent years, however, strongly suggest trichlorethylene increases the risk for kidney cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Let your doctor know if you were exposed to trichlorethylene in your work regularly or think you might have been.
Research and improvements in treating kidney cancer have progressed in recent years. Many treatment options are now available for patients with the disease. Urologic oncologists are doctors who specialize in treating and diagnosing cancer of the urinary tract and are trained to use a variety of technologies designed to treat kidney cancer while sparing healthy tissue.
Treatments, depending on the stage, type, and sub-type of kidney cancer, may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In addition, immunotherapy is an important advancement in the treatment of many kidney cancers. Also called biotherapy or biologic therapy, immunotherapy uses substances that help boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer, the National Cancer Institute explains.
September 13, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN