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Kidney cancer

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Kidney cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers in the UK. Known medically as renal cancer, it is more common in men than women and it’s rare in people under the age of 50. Each year in the UK around 12,000 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer.

There are several different types of kidney cancer but the commonest type is known as renal cell cancer. Others include transitional cell cancer, and Wilm’s tumours and clear cell sarcomas that only occur in children.

You have two kidneys, one on either side of your tummy (your flanks) and slightly to the back. Their job is absolutely critical in keeping us alive - they balance up the salts (sodium, potassium and chloride) in our blood and excrete out any excess in urine. They filter out toxins into the urine and balance out fluids by making the urine more concentrated or more watery, depending on what we need.

Signs that might alert you to a problem in the kidneys are blood in the urine or a lump in one of your flanks. It’s confirmed with blood tests, urine tests and scans.

What symptoms should I look for?

As with many cancers, there aren’t often any clear symptoms in the early stages and kidney cancer is often identified through tests looking for something else. Symptoms of kidney cancer include blood in your urine, a lump or swelling on the abdomen and a mild but persistent pain in the lower back or side. You may have anaemia or a poor renal function on bloods taken for another reason. 

You may get other non-specific symptoms like weight loss, back pain, loss of appetite and feeling tired and lethargic, but these can point to any number of conditions and cancers. 

What causes kidney cancer?

It’s often difficult to determine a specific cause for kidney cancer. Certain factors increase your risk. There are ones you can’t control, such as certain genetic conditions, like tuberous sclerosis, or if a close family member has renal cancer. Kidney disease increases the risk, especially if you require dialysis for kidney failure, or you have conditions that lead to kidney disease, such as high blood pressure and type 1 diabetes. Thyroid cancer is also a known risk factor, as are smoking being over 60, male, obese, work with chemicals such as asbestos or take long-term pain medication.

If you think you are at increased risk, you can discuss this with your doctor. If you have been diagnosed with kidney disease, it’s important to keep up with your regular check-ups to monitor this, via weight and blood pressure checks and blood tests.

What will my doctor do?

You should see your doctor with any concerning symptoms such as blood in your urine, pain in your side, sweats and high temperatures, tiredness or abdominal lumps and bumps. They will ask about your symptoms, your family history and check any other medical conditions or medications. They will examine your abdomen, looking for any pain or swelling.

They will ask you for a urine sample looking for any simple signs of kidney disease or damage, and also to exclude any urine infection. They will do a set of bloods, particularly looking at how well the kidney is performing, the urea and electrolytes (known by doctors as “U’s and E’s”), and to assess any anaemia from the full blood count.

Further tests may include an ultrasound scan of the kidneys, ureters and bladder. If there is an immediate concern for kidney cancer, your doctor will refer you urgently to a kidney specialist called a urologist. They may perform a cystoscopy, which is where a thin tube with a camera is passed into your urinary tract to look at your bladder and take samples of the tissue or they may perform a CT scan to gain more information. 

How is kidney cancer treated?

As with all cancers, the treatment depends on the type of kidney cancer present, the size of the tumour, whether it has spread to other areas of the body and how fit you are overall. 

Surgery is the main treatment for most people, to remove either part - or all - of the affected kidney. Medication that helps stop the growth and spread of cancer (called biological therapy or immunotherapy) can be started and the two most common ones used here are called interferon and aldesleukin. Radiotherapy can also be undertaken with high energy radiation used to halt or destroy cancer cells, especially if your health is poor.

Other treatments such as cryotherapy (using freezing) or radiofrequency ablation (using heat) may be appropriate, where they are designed to destroy cancer cells. Embolisation is another option, where the blood supply to the cancer is blocked off, and this can be used instead of surgery. 

Most people want to know whether they will survive a particular cancer. This is a tricky question, as so much depends on an individual’s risk factors, age and general health, and on the type of tumour, how far advanced it is and whether it has spread. As a general impression, 80% survive to a year or more and 65% survive to 5 years or more but as a general rule the more advanced the cancer at diagnosis the lower the long-term survival rate.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023
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