World Kidney Cancer Day: All you need to know about the disease

Written by Dr (Col) Ranga Rao Rangaraju

Every year, June 17 is celebrated as World Kidney Cancer Day to raise awareness about the disease. Functionally, the kidneys remove waste products and water from the blood. These are emptied into the bladder as urine through the ureters. Kidneys are also important endocrine organs for water and salt metabolism, maintaining blood pH and also play a vital role in vitamin D metabolism.

Kidney cancer is the 13th most common cancer in the world. In adults, the most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma (RCC). RCC is responsible for nearly 180,000 deaths worldwide each year. However, other less common types of kidney cancer may also occur. Young children are more likely to develop a type of kidney cancer called Wilms tumor.

The pair of organs looks like beans, is located in the abdomen. (Source: Getty)

When does kidney cancer occur?

Kidney cancer can occur when healthy cells in one or both kidneys stop functioning properly and form a lump (tumour). Fortunately, most cases of kidney cancer can be detected before they start to spread (metastasize) to other organs.

Studies have shown that the incidence of kidney cancer is increasing. This can be attributed to the growing popularity of imaging techniques such as: computed tomography (CT) scans. These tests can lead to the accidental discovery of kidney cancer. The cancer, which is detected at an early stage, is usually still small and confined to the kidney. It is also easier to treat.

Symptoms to keep in mind

Kidney cancer usually has no early-stage symptoms. It can often even go unnoticed, as there is usually no pain. Because kidneys are also deeper in the body, it is also difficult to see or detect the tumors by physical examination.

However, over time, signs and symptoms may appear. Some of these include blood in your urine. It can appear pink, red or even black. It is important to note that the blood passage is painless; constant back or side pain that doesn’t go away; unexplained weight loss; loss of appetite and persistent fever and fatigue.

One should consider seeing a doctor if they have any of these symptoms or signs of concern.

Constant back or side pain is a major symptom of kidney cancer (Source: Getty/Thinkstock)

What Causes Kidney Cancer?

There is no definitive answer. Doctors and medical experts know that kidney cancer begins when kidney cells develop mutations in their DNA. The changes cause the cells to grow and divide quickly. The accumulation of these abnormal cells forms a tumor. These can be benign or malignant. Benign tumors are usually not life-threatening and can be cured. While malignant tumor can then even exceed the kidney. The cells can break loose and even spread to other parts of the body and can be life-threatening.

However, there are certain factors that can increase the risk. Among which:

*Smokers are at greater risk of kidney cancer than non-smokers. The risk decreases after one stops smoking. People who are obese also have a higher risk of developing kidney cancer compared to people of a healthy weight.
*Medical history: High blood pressure (hypertension) also increases the risk of developing kidney cancer. Recipients of long-term dialysis for the treatment of chronic renal failure are also at greater risk. Certain hereditary syndromes can also lead to an increased risk of kidney cancer, such as those with Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome, von Hippel-Lindau disease, tuberous sclerosis complex.

The risk of kidney cancer is also greater if close relatives have also had the disease. Finally, the risk of developing kidney cancer also increases with age.

Treatment options

Surgery is usually enough to remove the cancer. For cancers limited to the kidneys, this may be the only treatment needed. But if the cancer has spread to other parts, additional treatments may be needed.

There are multiple approaches to treatment. These depend on factors such as a person’s general health, the type of kidney cancer they have, whether the cancer has spread, and a person’s preferences for treatment.

Surgery – Surgery is the first treatment for most kidney cancers. The goal of the surgery is to remove the tumor while maintaining normal kidney function, if possible. Depending on the type of cancer and the stage it is in, the doctor will advise whether a partial removal will work or whether the entire affected kidney should be removed.

When cancer spreads beyond the kidneys, such as into the lungs, bones, or elsewhere, the treatment would be targeted therapy or immunotherapy.

Targeted therapy – Targeted drug treatments target certain abnormalities that are present in the tumor. By specifically blocking these abnormalities, the treatment can cause the cancer cells to die. A doctor should first determine by testing the cancer cells to see which targeted drugs are most likely to be effective.

Immunotherapy – Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. The body’s immune system may not attack the cancer because the cancer cells produce proteins that help them hide from detection. Immunotherapy works by disrupting this process. Immunotherapy is also growing in acceptance because it can work on many different types of cancer. It trains the immune system to remember cancer cells. This immune memory can result in prolonged remissions, even long after treatment is completed.

Radiation therapy – This type of therapy uses powerful beams of energy from sources such as protons or X-rays to kill cancer cells. It is also sometimes used to reduce or control pain in affected bones or brain.

Kidney cancer detected in early stages is curable, and newer advances in the treatment of advanced cancers have allowed the cancer to be controlled better and for a longer period of time. If you want to consult an expert for kidney cancer, you can go to an oncologist or a urologist.

The author is chairman – Paras Cancer centers, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram

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