Did you know that you can live with only one kidney? It’s true, but that doesn’t make your kidneys any less important. Actually, these two bean-shaped organs in your lower back have tremendous responsibilities—filtering waste from your blood, controlling fluid balance, and regulating electrolytes in your body. Even though you can manage without one, a kidney with a tumor is a completely different story. Unfortunately, recognizing the signs of kidney cancer can be tricky; so you’ll need to know what you’re looking for.
When you think of common cancers, you probably don’t instantly think about your kidneys. According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer is, in fact, one of the top ten most common cancers in both men and women. This year, nearly 64,000 new cases will be diagnosed.
Common Signs of Kidney Cancer
Because your kidneys are located deep within your lower back, signs don’t always present themselves right away. Small, subtle changes could signify a dangerous tumor. If you have kidney cancer, you may notice one or more of these common signs.
1. Urine changing color
One obvious sign of a kidney problem is blood in the urine. However, seeing red isn’t the only color change that could happen.
Sometimes, if the tumor is not as advanced, you may only notice your urine darkening in color, and you might not think anything of it. Instead, take note of any changes in your urination, especially if you know you’re drinking enough fluids.
2. Less energy/weight loss
Anywhere that cancer is involved, you will usually notice a change in your energy. Fatigue makes sense in these cases because your body isn’t working at an optimal level.
If you have had a noticeable shift in your energy lately, you’re getting tired during small activities or you’re tired no matter how much rest you get, tell your doctor about your fatigue.
3. Lower back pain
As the tumor grows, you may find yourself dealing with lower back pain. This pain can be chronic and aching, or it may come and go as a shooting pain. Either way, most people don’t feel lower back pain until the cancer has advanced considerably.
Another important function of your kidneys is signaling the body to make more red blood cells. If you’re kidneys aren’t functioning properly, the problem can lead directly to anemia. You may notice worsening fatigue, a general weak feeling, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or difficulty concentrating.
5. Chronic fever
As your body deals with nutritional deficiencies and fights off cancer, you may notice an intermittent fever. The fever won’t be related to a cold or any other known infection. This symptom does indicate a general inflammation in your body, an ideal breeding ground for cancer.
Discovering the Problem
First, you’ll likely need several blood tests. Although your doctor won’t be able to tell if you have a tumor, the blood tests will reveal important signs like anemia or kidney failure. The tests will also give him an idea of your general wellbeing in case of surgery.
Next, you will need imaging tests to give your doctor a clear picture of the tumor’s location, size and stage. While many imaging tests can prove useful, your doctor will likely use a CT scan or an MRI. The CT scan gives the most detailed picture of all, but he may opt for an MRI if the cancer has spread to major blood vessels.
Last, your doctor may issue a biopsy or further X-rays and imaging if the cancer has spread to other areas. Otherwise, you won’t usually need a biopsy for the kidney cancer itself. CT scans and MRIs will give your doctor the needed information for treatment.
Once your doctor confirms a diagnosis, you’ll need to discuss your treatment. In most cases, you will require some form of surgery to at least remove the tumor.
Sometimes, your doctor may decide to watch the tumor for a few months, especially if the tumor is small. Small tumors can turn out to be benign growths on the kidney, and your doctor may not want to put you through treatment if it isn’t needed. This option is usually used for older or already weakened patients.
Last, you may opt for several alternative therapies such as cryotherapy or radiofrequency ablation, which use extreme heat or cold to kill the tumor.
In the past, doctors have also used immunotherapy to boost the body’s immune system. However, this method often comes with serious side effects. As with most cancers, you may also need a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells.
Kidney cancer may not be the first type that comes to mind when you think of diseases to watch for, but it does affect thousands of people each year. Because symptoms are not always obvious, it can prove tricky to diagnose in its early stages. The most important thing is that you tell your doctor if you notice any abrupt changes in urinary habits, weight or energy level right away.