Eleven Kidney Cancer Symptoms
Kidney cancer is notable for not always causing early, obvious symptoms. Although kidney cancer doesn’t get as much attention as some other cancer types, it’s among the top 10 cancers occurring every year.
Also known as renal cell cancer or renal carcinoma, kidney cancer most often occurs in people ages 60 and older. Men are twice as likely as women to have it, and African Americans face a higher risk than others. Smoking is a significant risk factor, doubling the risk of developing the disease. Family history also increases the probability.
Early detection makes a big difference – here’s what you should know about kidney cancer signs and symptoms.
1. No symptoms
Many people with early kidney cancer do not experience any symptoms that could alert them and prompt their doctors to investigate. The most common symptom, unfortunately, is no symptoms – or for it to be asymptomatic.
However, certain combined symptoms raise the possibility of kidney cancer. There’s a classic triad of symptoms: flank pain, blood in the urine, called hematuria, and a palpable abdominal kidney mass that you can feel when you press through the abdomen but that classic triad is quite rare. It occurs in less than 10% of patients, nowadays.
2. Flank pain
Flank pain is how doctors describe pain on one side of your back (or your flank). The right and left flanks are the parts of your side torso between your ribs and each hip. Kidney pain occurs higher in the back than typical low back pain, and is deeper. You might feel this pain under your ribs, to the side of your spine. Pain can range from sharp and stabbing to just a mild ache, or more of a feeling of pressure that doesn’t go away.
If you have persistent symptoms, like pain or bleeding in the urine, you shouldn’t ignore them. It’s much easier to go to your primary care doctor, have an evaluation and find out that everything is OK rather than ignoring something and finding out a year later that things are not OK.
3. Blood in urine
If you notice obvious blood in your urine, or see that it’s pink-tinged in color, your primary care provider will ask you to provide a sample to test. In other scenarios, testing may identify blood in the urine that isn’t otherwise apparent.
On a urinalysis, which is a test done with the kidneys, sometimes microscopic hematuria, which is blood that is too small to be seen by the naked eye, but can be seen under a microscope can be picked up. Sometimes the diagnosis can be found that way, If an hematuria that a patient hasn’t noticed yet has been seen.
4. Abdominal mass
During a physical examination, a doctor often feels or palpates your abdomen to detect abnormalities. He or she may feel a growth in your abdominal area. That could possibly be a renal or kidney mass, or tumor.
Masses may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Localized growths are confined to the kidney, whereas metastatic kidney masses have spread to other parts of the body. Kidney tumors can be solid or cystic, meaning they contain fluid.
When you catch kidney cancer early, it is very curable. And the majority of cancers are diagnosed when localizable and curable. Oftentimes, kidney tumors are first identified as incidental findings – through an imaging test for an unrelated health issue.
5. Incidental imaging findings
If you went to emergency department for stomach pain from an unrelated cause and an abdominal CT scan revealed a kidney mass, that would be an incidental finding.
Even chest imaging to evaluate the lungs for possible pneumonia could reveal kidney cancer by happenstance. You can see at least half of each of the kidneys when you do a CT of the chest, so that’s another way it could be an incidental finding.
An incidental finding of kidney cancer that would otherwise have been missed can represent a silver lining when it leads to early detection. Unfortunately, with kidney cancer, we’re lucky when we get it early. It’s almost always an accident.
6. Weight and appetite loss
If you’re rapidly losing weight without intending to do so, that can be a symptom for several types of cancer including kidney cancer. Similarly, a decrease in appetite for no obvious cause is also a general symptom for cancer. Let your doctor know about sudden weight or appetite loss, so it can be evaluated using your medical history and diagnostic testing, if indicated.
For now, a kidney cancer diagnosis is confirmed through a combination of blood and urine tests, imaging scans and biopsy results. A biopsy sample allows pathologists to check tumor cells under a microscope. Typically, biopsy samples are collected with long, thin needles, usually guided by ultrasound.
7. High blood calcium
Certain abnormal blood tests can be related to kidney cancer – although they can also indicate other types of cancer or conditions instead.
Hypercalcemia means a higher-than-normal level of calcium in your blood. Excessively high calcium levels in the blood are sometimes seen in patients with advanced kidney cancer.
High blood calcium may not always cause any symptoms, but it can lead to constipation, belly pain, appetite loss, nausea and vomiting, weakness and muscle pain. Extremely serious symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, seizures and loss of consciousness.
Decreased red blood cells or decreased hemoglobin in the bleed, or anemia, is another possible symptom. “If your blood counts are low, that’s a common condition you can get with many diseases, but it’s (also common) when you have metastatic kidney cancer, as well.
Anemia symptoms include paleness, fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, shortness of breath and a rapid heartbeat.
Another nonspecific symptom that may be due to any number of conditions, fatigue can be caused by kidney cancer or some of its treatments. Fatigue can feel like the following:
- Lack of interest in your usual activities.
- Overall weakness.
- Feeling of heaviness.
- Sleep difficulties or tiredness after waking.
- Memory, concentration, attention or thinking problems.
- Decreased ability to perform daily tasks.
If you experience fatigue during kidney cancer treatments, your oncology team can suggest ways for you to conserve energy and prevent fatigue as much as possible.
10. Genetic test results
Familial kidney cancer syndromes are fortunately rare, but they do exist. Certain gene mutations associated with kidney cancer can be inherited. One condition called von Hippel-Lindau disease causes a variety of cancer types. If someone is in a family that has a known mutation, for example the VHL gene, then the experts would screen those patients with (a test) like ultrasound because they know they’re at very high risk of developing kidney cancer.
If anyone does have a family member who has suspected or known kidney cancer, please encourage them to consider participating in research. This is the only way that you can continue to make advances to detect kidney cancer earlier and to develop more effective therapies.
11. Advanced signs of cancer’s spread
Advanced kidney cancer tends to spread to the lungs, bone and brain, Fan says. Coughing or shortness of breath, bone pain or stroke-like symptoms from a brain lesion can occur, But all of those symptoms are more commonly notgoing to be kidney cancer.
Therapy options are improving. Patients can live many years with metastatic kidney cancer. Notably, no treatments involve chemotherapy – but immunotherapies, or pills that target the tumor blood supply alone or in combination are used
A class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors works by blocking key proteins in cancer cells. Examples include sunitinib, sorafenib and bevacizumab. Some patients can be closely monitored without receiving active treatment, also known as surveillance.
In the last five to 10 years, there have been tremendous leaps in the treatments that are available to experts. Such that now experts have so many options to treat metastatic kidney cancer that sometimes it’s hard to know which one to use first.
Kidney Cancer Signs and Symptoms
Your doctor should investigate further if you experience any of these potential kidney cancer symptoms:
- Flank pain.
- Blood in urine.
- Abdominal mass.
- Incidental imaging findings.
- Weight and appetite loss.
- High blood calcium.
- Genetic test results.
- Advanced signs of cancer’s spread.