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What is kidney cancer?

Whether you are a kidney cancer patient: recently diagnosed, currently undergoing, or have completed treatment for kidney cancer, or are a carer, or friend or family of a kidney cancer patient, we hope to offer you support and address some of your questions here.

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Symptoms and Diagnosis

The most common symptom is blood in the urine. Doctors call this haematuria. It may come and go and not every kidney cancer sufferer will have haematuria. Sometimes you won’t be able to see it, but it can still be detected by a urine test.

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Treating Kidney Cancer

When looking to discuss kidney cancer treatment options you should refer to your specialist team. Ideally, a team of specialists, called a multi-disciplinary team (MDT), will be responsible for your care and treatment in the cancer unit.

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Living with Kidney Cancer

People who are close to you may find it difficult to discuss your illness. And you may be afraid that if you talk to people about how you really feel they will be upset, or disappointed at your lack of stoicism, or embarrassed because they don’t know what to say. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?

The most common symptom is blood in the urine. Doctors call this haematuria. It may come and go and not every kidney cancer sufferer will have haematuria. Sometimes you won’t be able to see it, but it can still be detected by a urine test. Most people with blood in their urine do not have kidney cancer. It can be a sign of an infection, kidney stones, prostate problems or bladder cancer. However, it should always be investigated to find out what has caused it.

Most kidney cancers are too small to feel, but if you feel a lump or mass in the area of your kidneys you should tell your doctor straight away. You should also see your doctor about any persistent low back pain or pain, in your side between your ribs and hipbone (sometimes called the flank or loin). The sooner kidney cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat.

In the early stages of kidney cancer there may be no obvious symptoms. Many kidney cancers are found simply by chance when someone is being given a scan for another reason. More than half of adult kidney tumoursare detected when using an ultrasound scan to investigate symptoms, such as: high blood pressure, muscle wasting and weight loss, high temperature or fever, disorders affecting the nerves and muscles, inflammation, anaemia, abnormal liver function tests, and high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia).

Sometimes abnormal red blood cell counts and high blood pressure, or hypertension, can be symptoms of kidney cancer. Some patients experience a condition called polycythaemia, or thickening of the blood, which can also be a symptom of kidney cancer. Symptoms of polycythaemia are a bad headache and redness of the skin.

In about a third of patients, the kidney cancer will have already spread to other organs, such as the lungs, liver, brain and bones. These patients may experience symptoms of advanced kidney cancer, such as: a persistent cough, coughing-up blood (or haemoptysis), abnormal liver function tests, headaches and visual disturbances, or bone pain. You must see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

There are other symptoms, which can be more general and can also be caused by many other conditions, such as: weight loss, tiredness and running a persistent temperature and sweating heavily, especially at night.

For more information visit our kidney cancer symptoms page.

Can kidney cancer be cured?

A patient whose kidney cancer is confined to the kidney and has not spread into the lymph nodes or to other organs of the body, statistically stands the best chance of long-term survival. Some patients in this category will have their kidney and primary tumour removed by surgery and will never have any recurrence of the disease. In that sense they may be deemed ‘cured’. However, as with all cancers, there can never be complete certainty that cancer cells, carried through the lymphatic system and the blood, will not form into secondary tumours (metastases). Regular check-ups are essential for all kidney cancer patients, including those, who after surgery, are apparently free of disease.

According to medical statistics, patients in whom the disease has spread beyond the kidney are less likely to do well. If the disease has spread to one or more organs it is vitally important to have access to treatment that can stabilise or even eliminate secondary tumours. Some patients with secondary tumours respond well to further treatment (which is usually in the form of targeted therapy); others do not respond or respond only temporarily. We do not fully understand the reasons for this variation. One explanation is that kidney cancer cells vary in their level of aggressiveness from patient to patient. This relates mainly to the degree of abnormality of the cells, i.e. how different they are from normal cells. The higher the ‘grade’ of the kidney cancer cells, the more aggressive they are and the more likely they are to spread quickly. Some patients with secondary tumours live with their disease for a long time. A small proportion are ‘cured’ by treatment in the sense that their secondary tumours disappear completely. However even in these cases a recurrence can never be ruled out.

What are the causes of kidney cancer

With most cancers there is no direct cause and kidney cancer is no exception. For many people the cause of the cancer is never found. However, certain lifestyle factors can increase the risk of developing the disease;

How many people are diagnosed with Kidney Cancer each year?

Kidney cancer is the eighth most common cancer in adults in the UK, with 10,380 new cases diagnosed in 2012 and 4,252 deaths from kidney cancer in 2012. In UK men, it is the seventh most common cancer, with 6,459 new cases diagnosed in 2012, and in UK women it ranks tenth with 3,921 new cases diagnosed in 2012. This is a male to female ratio of 16:10 for incidence in the UK (data from Cancer Research UK).

It has been estimated that the lifetime risk of developing kidney cancer is 1 in 52 for men and 1 in 87 for women (Cancer Research UK).

Kidney cancer accounts for 4% of all new cases of cancer diagnosed in men and just fewer than 2% of all cancers in women in the UK (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer).

Kidney cancer is therefore a relatively rare cancer; however, some reports have indicated an increasing incidence globally, including the UK. This increase is due in part to the wider application of diagnostic imaging techniques leading to the incidental detection of asymptomatic kidney tumours.

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