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What is Kidney Cancer?

Parts of the kidney
Parts of the kidney
Image © 2003 Fairman Studios, LLC.

Cancer is when cells in the body grow out of control. These cells can form a tumor or damaged tissue. If cancer cells grow in the kidney, it is called kidney cancer.

  • The most common kidney cancer in adults is renal cell carcinoma. It forms in the lining of very small tubes in the kidney.
  • Cancers found in the center of the kidney are known as transitional cell carcinoma.
  • Wilms tumor is a kidney cancer that very young children can get.

On average, people are diagnosed with kidney cancer at around age 64. It’s rarely found in people younger than age 45. Generally, our lifetime risk for developing cancer in the kidney is about 1 in 63 (1.6%)1. This risk is higher in men than in women.

With timely diagnosis and treatment, kidney cancer can be cured. To learn more about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options and common questions, read on.

Basic Facts about Kidney Cancer

The terms "tumor," "mass," or "lesion" are used to describe an abnormal growth in the kidney. Tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). A fluid-filled sac, called a cyst, is the most common growth found in a kidney. Cysts are mostly not cancerous. Solid kidney tumors can be benign, but most often are found to be cancer.

Kidney cancer is one of the top 10 most common cancers diagnosed in the United States. In 2015, about 61,560 people will be diagnosed. About 14,000 people will die from this disease. Of the people who are diagnosed early (stage I or II cancer), 75-80% will survive.

Male Urinary Tract
Male urinary tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

Female Urinary Tract
Female urinary tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

How Kidneys Function
How Kidneys Function
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health

What Happens Under Normal Conditions?

Healthy kidneys work around the clock to clean our blood. The kidneys look like 2 bean-shaped organs. They are found near the middle of the back below the rib cage. They are surrounded by a protective sac called the Gerota's fascia and a layer of fat. The renal artery brings “dirty” blood into the kidney. The renal vein takes clean blood out to the heart.

Our kidneys are our body’s main filter. They clean about 150 quarts of blood daily. Every day, they remove about 1-2 quarts of water and waste from the blood in the form of urine. Urine then moves into the kidney’s collecting system, the renal pelvis. It flows from there through the ureters to the bladder to be stored. Eventually it is pushed out of our bodies through the urethra.

The adrenal glands are on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands regulate blood sugar, potassium, body fluids and sex hormones. They control our stress response by producing a hormone called adrenaline. They create a hormone called erythropoietin that helps to produce red blood cells.

As a filter, the kidney controls many things to keep us healthy:

  • Fluid balance
  • Electrolyte levels (e.g., sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, acid)
  • Waste removal in the form of urine
  • The regulation of blood pressure and red blood cell counts

When the kidneys are damaged they may not work well. In most cases, some damage won’t cause too many problems. But, major damage may need more treatment, like dialysis.

1 Information cited from: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/kidneycancer/detailedguide/kidney-cancer-adult-key-statistics