Kidney cancer

Every year, nearly 8,500 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer, and more than 3,500 people die from the disease.

It affects twice as many men as women and is most common in middle-aged and older people, although there is an uncommon form (Wilms' tumour, also known as nephroblastoma) that affects very young children.

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Kidney cancer symptoms

Kidney cancer occurs when cells begin to grow and divide abnormally, forming a lump, or tumour. Tumours can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body, although they can press on surrounding organs, affecting their function. Malignant tumours can spread. Sometimes cells break off from the original tumour and spread to other organs in the body through the blood stream or lymphatic system, growing new tumours there.

The underlying cause of kidney cancer is rarely discovered. Usually only one kidney is affected

Kidney cancer is often discovered by chance when a patient who has no symptoms has a scan or ultrasound for some other reason. Noticeable symptoms can include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Painful spasms in the groin or abdomen (due to blood clots forming)
  • A lump in your abdomen
  • Dull ache in your side
  • Persistent high fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight loss

See your GP or consultant if you have any of these symptoms. Other conditions can cause similar symptoms, such as an infection or stones in the bladder or kidneys. Most people with the above symptoms will not have cancer of the kidney.

Kidney cancer diagnosis

Your GP will start with a physical examination, a urine test, and sometimes a blood test. You may then be referred to a hospital for further tests, such as:

Cystoscopy and nephro-ureteroscopy

  • A tiny tube camera is passed through your urethra and bladder into the kidney.
  • Surgeons can then see any abnormal cells, and in some cases take samples or even remove small tumours.

Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)

  • A harmless dye is injected into your bloodstream.
  • It collects in the kidney, ureters and bladder, allowing doctors to clearly see any abnormalities in scans.

Ultrasound scan

  • Sound waves passed through your abdomen help create a computerised image of your internal organs.
  • This shows any size changes to the kidneys, which may mean there is a cyst or tumour.

Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • CT scans are X-rays of the body from different angles, which can be put together on a computer to form a cross-sectional image.
  • MRI uses magnetic fields instead of x-rays to produce images.

Chest X-rays and bone scans

  • If kidney cancer has already been diagnosed, these tests can help to determine whether the cancer has spread.

Arteriography

  • Harmless dye is injected into the large artery that leads to your kidney.
  • On X-ray, this shows up blood vessels that might be feeding a tumour.

Biopsy

  • Tissue or cells from a suspected tumour are taken out using a thin needle.
  • The cells are sent to a laboratory to be tested for cancer.

Kidney cancer treatment

Treatment depends on a number of factors, including your general health, the type and size of the tumour and how far it has spread, if at all. The main treatment for cancer of the kidney is surgery, but radiotherapy and hormonal treatment are advised in some cases.

Surgery (nephrectomy)

  • Surgical removal of the whole kidney.
  • With very small cancers only part of the kidney may be removed.
  • It is possible to continue a completely normal life with only one kidney, as the remaining kidney can cope with the work of two kidneys.
  • Robotic surgery and keyhole surgery techniques are becoming more common in the UK.

Radiotherapy

  • Targeted radiation is used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Rarely used to treat kidney cancer, but it can be very helpful if the tumour has spread.

Hormone treatment

  • Progesterone may help to control cancer cells that have spread beyond the kidney.

Biological treatments (or immunotherapy)

  • Encourage the body's immune system to attack the tumour.
  • Substances such as interferon alpha and interleukin-2 are given via injection several times per week.
  • Side effects often similar to having flu.

Chemotherapy

  • Anticancer medicine destroys cancer cells by stopping their growth and division.
  • Usually offered if the cancer has spread beyond the kidneys.
  • Sometimes combined with biological treatment.
  • Nausea, vomiting and hair loss are the most usual side effects, although not all types of chemotherapy have side effects.

Need more information?

Speak to your GP if you recognise any kidney cancer symptoms, or if you want to talk about treatment options.

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