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Renal cell carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common form of kidney cancer, accounting for over 60,000 new cases and 14,000 deaths a year, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute. Risk factors include exposure to toxins, such as cigarette smoke, some herbicides, cadmium and solvents like trichloroethylene, as well as family history. Most renal cell carcinomas are clear cell renal cell carcinomas (CCRCC), which are often treated with targeted drugs and immunotherapy. Knowing the precise type of kidney cancer may help your doctor make more personalized treatment recommendations.

When diagnosed early, when the cancer is limited to the organ, renal cell carcinoma may be treated with surgery to remove the affected kidney. About one-third of renal cell carcinoma patients are diagnosed with metastatic disease, meaning the cancer has progressed beyond the kidney to other areas of the body, such as the lungs or bones.

Common renal cell carcinoma symptoms

Because the kidneys lie deep within the body, kidney tumors may go unnoticed until a routine blood or urine test uncovers abnormalities, or an imaging test for another indication reveals them. Symptoms and signs of renal cell carcinoma include:

  • Back pain
  • Blood in the urine
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Protein or excess calcium in the urine
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever

NOTE: These symptoms may be attributed to conditions other than cancer. It is important to consult with a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis.

Advanced treatments for renal cell carcinoma

Surgery: Removal of the organ and surrounding tissue, called radical nephrectomy, or removal of the tumor, called cytoreductive nephrectomy, may be recommended, depending on the location, size and features of the tumor.  Depending on the size of the tumor, laparoscopic or robotic surgical techniques may be available.

Targeted drug therapy: Since 2006, targeted agents have been used to treat patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma. Those with the clear cell type of renal cell carcinoma may be treated with drugs such as temsirolimus, which may block blood vessel growth in tumors.

Immunotherapy:  A type of immunotherapy drug called a checkpoint inhibitor is often used to treat metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Previously, immunotherapy drugs (such as interleukin-2 and interferon) were the main tools used to fight renal cell carcinoma, often in combination with surgery.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs are typically not a first-line treatment for renal cell carcinoma, but they may be recommended if other options do not yield adequate results.

Radiation: Radiation therapy may be recommended to relieve symptoms for renal cell carcinoma patients who cannot tolerate surgery.

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