If you asked most people what are the 10 most common cancers in both men and women, they probably wouldn’t name kidney cancer, also called renal cell carcinoma, as one of them. But it’s true. According to cancer.net, kidney cancer is the sixth most common cancer for men, and the eighth most common cancer for women. In 2019, an estimated 73,820 adults (44,120 men and 29,700 women) in the U.S. will be diagnosed with kidney cancer, resulting in an estimated 14,770 deaths.
Kidney cancer is often found by accident during routine imaging tests
Kidney cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people over 60 years old, and the symptoms typically don’t appear until later stages, or until the cancerous tumor is large. That’s why it’s so important to get a routine physical exam every year so that a urinalysis can be done. If it is determined that you do have kidney cancer, treatments include surgical removal of the tumor(s), radiation, chemotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, cryoablation, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
What functions kidneys perform
Although a person’s kidneys are rather small (about the size of a fist), they perform four very important functions in the body. They help:
- filter waste from your blood
- create urine
- control blood pressure
- create red blood cells
Your body can function normally with only one kidney, but when you have a tumor growing in or around one or both of them, your kidneys’ normal functions may be disrupted.
The 5 most common signs of kidney cancer
As mentioned above, kidney cancer often shows no signs until later stages, so it’s crucial to get a routine physical exam every year, including urinalysis. It’s also very important to alert your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms. With an early diagnosis, you can increase your chance of successful treatment and improve the long-term outlook of your condition. The best way to treat kidney cancer is to detect it early while the blood in the urine is microscopic.
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of kidney cancer, especially if you have a family history or other risk factors. These symptoms should not be ignored, especially if you have more than one of them. We have found this list from Healthline to be very helpful, and we share it here.
Blood in the urine
Blood in the urine is one of the most common symptoms of kidney cancer, appearing in 40-50% of cases, according to the Kidney Cancer Association. Even a small amount of blood can cause your urine to change color to pink, brownish or even red, and it can be inconsistent, appearing about every other day. However, sometimes the amount of blood is so small that it can only be detected by urinalysis (urine test).
Lower back pain
Only about 41% of people with kidney cancer report back pain, and of these, most don’t experience it until the cancer is in the later stages. The pain can range from a dull ache to a sharp stab on one side of your lower back or below the ribs on your back. Some people report pressure instead of an ache or sharp pain.
A mass or lump around your abdomen
A mass or lump in the abdomen, side or back can also be a sign of kidney cancer. It can feel like a hard, thickening or bulging bump under the skin. About 45% of people with kidney cancer have an abdominal mass. Be aware that kidney lumps are hard to feel, especially in the early stages, because the kidneys sit deep within the abdomen. You may not even see or feel the lump as the tumor grows. Also, keep in mind that not all lumps are cancer. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about a lump around your abdomen.
Anemia and fatigue
Fatigue due to cancer is different than just feeling tired from lack of sleep or having over-exercised. Cancer-related fatigue is persistent and interferes with daily activities. It can also intensify as time goes on. About 21% of people with kidney cancer have anemia, or low red blood cell count, which can exacerbate fatigue and also cause shortness of breath, dizziness and pale looking skin. Contact your doctor if you’re feeling unusually tired. He/she can perform tests to help diagnose the cause and find the right treatment.
Unexplained weight loss
About 28% of people with kidney cancer report weight loss. This usually happens quickly as the tumor spreads to other organs. If you have kidney cancer, you may suddenly lose interest in eating which usually contributes to weight loss.
How to know if you’re at risk of kidney cancer
Some people are more likely to develop kidney cancer than others, due to the following risk factors:
- age (as you get older, your chance of kidney cancer increases)
- high blood pressure
- treatment for kidney failure
- certain genetic or hereditary factors
- being male
If any of these factors apply to you, fortunately there are certain steps you can take to prevent or lower your risk for kidney cancer, including:
- manage your high blood pressure with lifestyle changes and medication
- maintain a healthy weight and diet
- don’t smoke (quit if you do)
- avoid frequent exposure to carcinogenic substances (such as pesticides, asbestos, radon and arsenic)
A blog about preventing kidney stones
We’ve written a very informative blog focusing on how to avoid developing a kidney stone(s), which you can read here.
Helpful websites we recommend
- National Kidney Foundation
- American Association of Kidney Patients
- American Kidney Fund
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Concerned that you may have kidney disease? Please come see us.
If you’re worried that you may have kidney cancer, or if you’re having any kind of pain or problem with your kidneys or urination, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health nephrologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, perform some tests, and together with you, decide on the best course of treatment, given your particular condition. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Rhonda Rubin, MD, a nephrologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners