Kidney cancer is usually renal cell carcinoma which is a cancer that affects the lining of the small tubules inside the kidneys. It is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults and usually afflicts men between the ages of 50 to 70. It has no known cause.

Risk factors for renal cell cancer or kidney cancer include having been on dialysis before, having a family history of kidney cancer, having high blood pressure, having a genetic predisposition, having a horseshoe kidney, being a smoker, or having Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which is a hereditary disease involving multiple body areas.

The symptoms of renal cell carcinoma include blood in the urine, back pain, abdominal pain, enlargement of the testicular veins (called a varicocele), pain in the flank area, swelling of the abdomen, or weight loss you hadn't intended to lose. You can also have cold intolerance, constipation, paleness of the skin due to a lack of erythropoietin and anaemia, excessive hair growth in women and changes in your vision.

Both kidneys can be involved in kidney cancer. This is because renal cell cancer spreads quickly and often spreads first to the other kidney. It also spreads to the lungs, the liver and other organs. About a third of patients with renal cell cancer already have metastases at the time they are diagnosed.

The diagnosis of kidney cancer involves finding a mass in the kidney or liver. A new varicocele can be part of the diagnosis and will show up in the scrotum. This is especially true of a varicocele that only occurs on the right side of the testes. Common tests performed in the evaluation of kidney cancer include a CT scan or MRI scan of the abdomen, which will show the kidneys. A blood chemistry examination will show abnormalities of the kidney function, the CBC count may show anaemia, an IVP will outline the presence of a kidney cancer and liver function tests can tell if the liver is involved in cancer. A renal arteriogram can further define the presence of the kidney cancer and an ultrasound of the kidney can do the same thing. Urinalysis can show kidney cancer cells in the urinalysis. If there are metastases, a CT scan or MRI scan of the abdomen can show spread of cancer and a bone scan or chest x-ray can show if it has spread to bone and lung, respectively.

Treatment of kidney cancer involves removing all or a portion of the kidney, which may mean removal of the ureter and bladder along with lymph node removal of nearby lymph nodes. Surgery to remove metastases is done in some cases where the metastasis is easy to get to and large enough to make a difference. Radiation does not often work in renal cell cancer so this is rarely used. Hormone treatments can slow the growth of the cancer. Chemotherapy tends not to work well in renal cell cancer so it is not often used. A drug called interleukin 2 or IL-2 works to help the body's own immune system get rid of the cancer cells. This is called immunotherapy. IL-2 is very toxic to the body so it is reserved for people in whom it seems to be helping and can tolerate the drug. There are biologic agents such as Avastin that work in kidney cancer and other therapies, such as Nexavar and Sutent are new and seem to be helpful in kidney cancer.

The prognosis of kidney cancer depends on the stage of the cancer and whether or not all metastases can be removed through surgery. Because other methods of treatment tend not to work, it is vital to get rid of as much tumour as possible, even metastatic disease, through surgical means.

Complications of renal cell carcinoma include having a high calcium level, having high blood pressure, having a high red blood cell count or low blood cell count, having liver abnormalities due to liver metastases, and spread of the cancer throughout the body.

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The author of the substantive medical writing on this website is Dr. Christine Traxler MD whose biography can be read here