The kidneys are reddish-brown bean-shaped organs located just above the waist, one on each side of the spine. As part of the urinary system, their main jobs are filtering blood and making urine to get rid of body wastes. Renal cell carcinoma is a certain type of kidney cancer. It accounts for 90% to 95% of kidney cancers, but it’s not very common (occurs in 1 of 10,000 people yearly). Twice as many men as women have it, usually between 50 and 70 years old.
The cause is unknown. However, risk factors include cigarette smoking, radiation, and on-the-job exposure to petroleum products, asbestos, or steel plant emissions. People with von Hippel-Lindau disease, tuberous sclerosis, and polycystic kidney disease have an increased risk for this cancer.
Early disease may cause no symptoms. As the tumor grows, symptoms may include blood in the urine, lump or mass in the kidney area, tiredness, loss of appetite, weight loss, fevers, and pain in the abdomen (belly).
The health care provider makes a preliminary diagnosis by using special x-rays including computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasonography. The only way to confirm the diagnosis is with a biopsy. For a biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of the kidney and checks it with a microscope. CT or MRI is also used to learn the stage or extent of disease, which helps plan treatment. Staging tells the health care provider whether the cancer has spread and if so how far, such as to lymph nodes (glands) or lungs.
The most common treatment is an operation to remove the kidney (nephrectomy). The whole kidney, adrenal gland, tissue around the kidney, and lymph nodes may be removed. A procedure called arterial embolization may be used to shrink the tumor. It blocks the main blood vessel to the kidney so the tumor doesn’t get the oxygen-carrying blood and other substances that it needs to grow.
Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. It can also be used to relieve pain (as palliative therapy) when kidney cancer spread to bones.
Chemotherapy (drugs for killing cancer cells) is generally not very helpful against kidney cancer. Immunotherapy involves the use of biological agents such as interferon, sunitinib, and bevacizumab. It is a newer treatment modality that has shown some success in the treatment of advanced kidney cancer.
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