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The kidneys are two small organs located behind the abdomen, on each side of the spine. By producing urine, kidneys remove toxic by-products and excess fluids from the body, which helps maintain a critical balance of salt, potassium and acid.
Cancer can form in the small tubes inside the kidney, which are used for filtering blood, and in the center of the kidney where urine collects. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 51,000 new cases of kidney cancer are diagnosed in the United States yearly.
Early Detection for Kidney Cancer
Most kidney cancers are found while they are still confined to the kidney. However, some cannot be detected until advanced stages due to lack of symptoms and no recommended screening tests for those who are not at risk. Kidneys are located deep inside the body, so tumors cannot be seen or felt during routine exams.
Kidney cancer may be detected during certain medical examinations for those who are at an average risk, through urine tests and imaging tests like MRIs, CT scans, and ultrasounds. Often, these cancers are found incidentally during unrelated imaging tests. Even though screening is not required, kidney cancer has a high survival rate because it is usually found at an early stage.
Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Cancer
Early stages of kidney cancer usually do not cause symptoms, but advanced stages have a few tell-tale signs. These include:
- A lump or pain on the side or lower back
- Blood in urine
- Loss of appetite
- Low red blood cell count
- Persistent fever not caused by an infection
- Unintentional weight loss
Many of these signs are symptoms for other benign conditions, such as a bladder or urinary tract infection or kidney stone. It is still important to see your primary care physician if any of these symptoms are present.
Treatment Options for Kidney Cancer
Treatment options for kidney cancer depend upon the staging of the cancer (how large and whether it has spread) and the patient's age and general health. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are all potential treatment options. Kidney cancer is relatively resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. As a result, the standard treatment for localized kidney cancer is removal of the kidney or kidney tumors.
The three forms of surgical treatment are:
- Partial nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the cancer within the kidney and some of the tissue around it. A partial nephrectomy may be done to prevent loss of kidney function when the other kidney is damaged or has already been removed.
- Simple nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the kidney only.
- Radical nephrectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the kidney, the adrenal gland, surrounding tissue and, usually, nearby lymph nodes.
It’s important to discuss all treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. Doctors who treat kidney cancer can be urologists, medical oncologists, or radiation oncologists.