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Renal Cell Carcinoma - What Is Renal Cell Carcinoma?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Renal Cell Carcinoma


Updated May 16, 2014

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer, accounting for up to 90% of cases of the disease. In renal cell carcinoma, malignant cells are believed to arise from the tubules of the kidney.

The primary function of the kidney is to filter waste from our blood. About 50 gallons of blood enter our kidneys every day. They also process approximately two quarts of extra water. The wastes that are filtered, and the extra water, turn into urine. The urine then travels down tubes, called ureters and is stored in the bladder until excretion (urination).

Causes and Risk Factors of Renal Cell Carcinoma

We have yet to identify causes of renal cell carcinoma, but researchers have identified several known risk factors for the disease. A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood that we may develop kidney cancer. Renal cell carcinoma risk factors include:
  • being male
  • being over 50
  • being on dialysis
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease
  • smoking
  • family or personal history of kidney cancer or bladder cancer
  • long-term abuse of over-the-counter analgesics
  • Symptoms of Renal Cell Carcinoma

    Unfortunately, renal cell carcinoma symptoms usually do not appear until the disease has progressed. In fact, it is usually detected "accidentally" when another symptom or condition is being investigated.

    Symptoms of renal cell carcinoma include:
    • blood in the urine, either seen after urination or microscopically
    • abdominal mass
    • pain felt on the side or or lower back
    • unintentional weight loss
    • fatigue

    Diagnosis Renal Cell Carcinoma

    A palpable mass or the finding of a mass on an x-ray done for another reason are usually what leads a physician to suspect kidney cancer. The first step in diagnosing renal cell carcinoma is through various imaging tests and blood test. Ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, and intravenous pyelogram (IVP) are all imaging methods that may be used to help diagnose kidney cancer.

    Ultimately, it is a kidney biopsy that will confirm the presence or absence of cancer and what type it is. A kidney biopsy can be done through a fine needle aspiration biopsy technique.

    If cancer is found, more tests may need to be done to determine if the kidney cancer has spread to nearby tissues and organs. This is called staging.

    Treatment of Renal Cell Carcinoma

    Surgery to remove all of part of the kidney is standard treatment for renal cell carcinoma. People with early stage RCC are the best candidates for for surgery, but those who have a later stages of the disease may not be healthy enough to withstand surgery.

    Radiation therapy may be used to treat kidney cancer, but is often ineffective. Some tumors just don't respond well like other types of cancer. Radiation therapy is most often used palliatively, to relieve discomfort caused by the effects of the cancer spreading.

    Chemotherapy is is not commonly used in treating renal cell carcinoma. It is often used along with immunotherapy or when immunotherapy is not effective.

    Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a treatment option for many types of kidney caner. Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the immune system to help fight cancer. Common immunotherapy drugs used to treat kidney cancer include interferon or interleukin-2.

    Several targeted therapy drugs have been approved for use in some people with kidney cancer. These kind of drugs block and prevent the growth and spreading of malignant cells. They do this by attacking the cells directly or preventing the growth of blood vessels that provide tumors nourishment to grow. Approved targeted therapy drugs include:
    • Sutent
    • Nexavar
    • Avastin
    • Torisel

    Prevention of Kidney Cancer

    While there are no proven kidney cancer prevention methods, there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of kidney cancer.

    Quit Smoking or Don't Start. Smoking is a strong risk factor for renal cell carcinoma. As soon as you quit (it's never too late!), your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free. Quitting smoking is the best defense against lung cancer. Need help kicking the habit? Visit the About.com Smoking Cessation site.

    Know What You are Being Exposed to in the Workplace. If you are exposed to fumes, dust and chemicals in the workplace, you have a right to know what you are being exposed to. Gasoline, diesel exhaust, arsenic, beryllium, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas and chloromethyl ethers are all carcinogens and can be found in some work environments. Talk to your employer about limiting your exposure.

    Eat a Well-Balanced Diet. Eating a well-balanced diet is advantageous for many reasons. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but low in animal fats and salt helps prevent obesity, a risk factor for renal cell carcinoma.


    American Cancer Society. "What is Kidney Cancer". Detailed Guide: Kidney cancer. 06 Nov 2007. Accessed July 28, 2008.

    American Cancer Society. "How is Kidney Cancer Treated?". Detailed Guide: Kidney Cancer. 06 Nov 2007. Accessed July 28, 2008.

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