While it doesn’t get as much attention as more common cancers like those of the breast, skin, or prostate, kidney cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers among adults. Roughly 55,000 American men and women are diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer each year, and roughly 1 in 4 of them will die from the disease, according to the CDC.
When people talk about kidney cancers, they’re usually referring to a type called renal cell carcinoma, or RCC, which makes up around 85% of all kidney cancers, says Dr. Jihad Kaouk, MD, a surgeon at Cleveland Clinic and a professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University. RCC usually shows up as a tumor in the lining of one of your kidney’s tubules.
Tubules? Kidney anatomy can get confusing in a hurry. But understand that you have two kidneys, each about the size of a fist, which filter your blood of waste products and toxins. Your kidneys also help balance the chemical composition of your blood, Kaouk explains. Along with managing your blood health and urine production, your kidneys also produce hormones that help you digest food, and that encourage your bone marrow to produce red blood cells.
So yeah, your kidneys are important. How can you tell if they’re in trouble? Keep reading.
You see red.
Your back or sides ache.
“Pain or pressure in the back or sides can by a sign,” Kaouk says. But again, this symptom only manifests when the RCC is very advanced. “The kidney mass would have to be large and pressing into other surrounding tissues [for you to feel pain],” he adds.
Also, many people first learn they have kidney cancer when they undergo a CT scan or MRI for back or abdominal pain. But Kaouk says, in most cases, that pain is actually being caused by some other issue, and discovery of the kidney tumor is incidental.
You’re dropping pounds.
Your blood isn’t quite right.
Kidney tumors can lead to anemia, electrolyte or calcium imbalances, and other blood-related issues, Kaouk explains. Not to sound like a broken record, but those are also not specific to RCC or other forms of the kidney cancer. If they turn up, kidney cancer isn’t the most likely cause.
After a kidney cancer diagnosis…
Depending on when doctors catch your cancer, removing the mass of infected cells—a surgical procedure known as a “nephrectomy”—is usually the first and most effective form of treatment, Kaouk says. “We remove the cancerous part, and leave the good part,” he says.
If the cancer is caught early, he says the procedure often has “excellent outcomes.” Even if your doctors don’t spot your cancer right away, RCC isn’t as aggressive as most cancers, Kaouk explains. Your prognosis will likely by positive.