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Your kidneys are a pair of bean-shaped organs that lie behind your digestive organs in the lower back. Place your hands on your waist, with your thumbs on either side of your spine.  Your kidneys are located about where your thumbs rest, and are about the size of a clenched fist. Kidneys filter toxins and impurities from the blood, creating urine as a waste product. Fortunately, you only need one functioning kidney to live a normal life.  Kidney cancer comes in several varieties. The most common form in adults is called renal cell carcinoma, and it forms a tumor directly on the face of the kidney.  Transitional cell carcinoma that begins in the kidneys might also involve the ureters that carry urine to the bladder. Wilm's tumor is a type of cancer that most commonly appears in children. 

Causes

The medical community is not entirely clear on what causes kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma).  It is known that mutations to the DNA can start the process, programming some kidney cells to grow and divide in a very rapid manner.  This excited cell division forms a tumor that can extend into nearby tissues and organs. When cancer cells break off of the main body of the tumor, they can migrate to other distant sites, or metastasize.

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Prevention & Reducing Risks

As always, the risk of developing any type of cancer is reduced by living a healthy life style.  Many carcinogens are present in our everyday lives, so reducing exposure to them will lower your overall cancer risk.

Don't Smoke

Smoking is the single most implicated risk factor involving cancers of all kinds.   Many of the carcinogens in cigarette smoke are filtered by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. If you smoke, speak with your doctor about plans to quit. A number of very effective medications and strategies are available to greatly increase your chances of successfully quitting.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables

Colorful fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and fiber, and low in fat.  All three factors help your immune system fight cancer and lower your overall risk.

Healthy weight and blood pressure

Combining a proper, nutritional diet and a regular program of exercise is the best strategy for managing weight and reducing high blood pressure. Obesity places a tremendous load on the vascular system and predisposes patients to a variety of health risks, including cancer.  When diet and exercise fail to correct high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend a specialized medication to help bring it down.

Avoid chemical exposure

If you work in a profession that requires working with chemical compounds, be sure to follow all recommended safety precautions to avoid direct exposure. Even household chemicals carry some degree of risk that should be minimized wherever possible. And like the carcinogens in cigarette smoke, environmental chemical toxins find their way to the kidneys, where they can have cancerous consequences.

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Symptoms

Early stage kidney cancer usually doesn't present obvious symptoms. If  allowed to progress, eventually symptoms like these might appear:

  • Blood in the urine. Pink, red or cola colored
  • Chronic back pain. Below the ribs.
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Sporadic fevers

Always make an appointment to see a doctor should you become concerned about chronic or worrisome symptoms you otherwise can't explain.

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Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects kidney cancer, a number of testing procedures may be recommended to further rule in, or rule out, a malignancy.

Blood and urine tests

A broad range of blood and urine tests provide systemic clues about what's going on in your body. Some analyses will look for specific cancer markers while others are keyed to monitoring basic metabolic function. These tests are helpful in narrowing down the list of possible causes to your symptoms.

Digital Imaging

Frequently, cancer diagnosis involves use of computerized tomography, commonly known as a CT scan.  It's a type of X-ray that allows detailed examination of your kidneys, surrounding tissues, and any possible tumors.  A special dye is injected that highlights the structure of your kidneys, when imaged by a CT scan. No anesthesia is needed for this procedure.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive test that provides additional visual data helpful to diagnosis.

Biopsy

A biopsy collects suspect tumor tissue by inserting a needle directly into the tumor from outside the body.  Since surgery is usually the first-line choice of treatment, doctors often decline to perform biopsies in part because they often produce false-negative results. Usually, kidney biopsies are used for patients who aren't physically able to tolerate surgery, or for those in which the tumor is believed to be non-cancerous.

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Staging

If kidney cancer is confirmed, your doctor will want to precisely pinpoint its current state of development.  This is important because different stages of cancer require different treatments. You may undergo another CT scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), bone scan or additional chest X-rays to more accurately assess what's going on in your body.

Like all cancers, malignancies of the kidney are evaluated on a numerical I to IV scale.

Stage I

The tumor present is up to 2.75 inches (7 cm) in diameter and confined to the kidney itself.

Stage II

Any tumor larger than 2.75 inches, but still contained within the kidney.

Stage III

The tumor has spread beyond the kidney into surrounding tissues, adrenal gland or nearby lymph nodes.

Stage IV

Cancer has spread beyond the kidney to distant sites like the brain, bones, lungs or liver.

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