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What Causes Kidney Cancer?

smoking causes kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is a disease that causes the cells in certain tissues of the kidneys to grow abnormally and form malignant tumors.  They tend to spread rapidly and destroy surrounding healthy tissues.  These tumors can also spread to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system and the bloodstream.

The most common type of cancer that affects the kidneys is known as renal cell carcinoma (or renal cell cancer).  This occurs in the cells lining the kidneys and it accounts for approximately eighty five percent (85%) of all kidney tumors.

Transitional cell cancer is a less common form of cancer that affects the kidneys. Typically, this cancer starts in the renal pelvis or/ and the ureter.  Both the renal pelvis and the ureter are lined with cells called transitional cells.  These are the cells that are affected by transitional cell cancer.

The precise causes of kidney cancer are not exactly known.  Statistics suggest, however, that it occurs twice as often in men than in women and is slightly more common in Caucasian males.  It most often develops in adults between the ages of 50 and 70, and is more common in urban, industrialized areas.

There is also a strong association between cigarette smoking and cancer of the kidneys.  Smoking doubles the risk of developing renal cancer.  There has also been some association with certain types of pain-killers that contain a chemical called phenacetin.

Other possible risk factors include:

  • exposure to asbestos and cadmium

  • family history of the disease

  • long-term dialysis

  • obesity

  • diet high in fat

What are the SYMPTOMS of Kidney Cancer?

In the early stages, there may be no obvious symptoms. As the condition progresses, however, possible signs may include blood in the urine and a lump in the abdomen. Some people experience loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, constipation, weakness and fatigue.

Common symptoms of renal cell carcinoma include:

  • blood in urine (hematuria);

  • painful urination;

  • pain in the lower back or on the sides;

  • abdominal pain;

  • lump or hard mass that can be felt in the kidney area;

  • unexplained weight loss;

  • fever;

  • weakness;

  • fatigue and

  • high blood pressure.


Having some of these symptoms may not necessarily mean that you have cancer of the kidney.  There are other illnesses or conditions that can also account for some of these symptoms.  If, however, any of these symptoms are experienced, a doctor should be promptly consulted for investigation and determination of the cause(s).


Early detection is essential to effectively treating this disease!


A diagnostic examination for kidney cancer includes a thorough medical history and a complete physical examination.  A doctor will usually probe the abdomen for lumps and may order blood tests, if he or she suspects that a tumor or tumors may be present.  These tests are used to check for changes in blood chemistry caused by substances released by the tumor.

Laboratory tests may reveal abnormal levels of iron in the blood.  Also, low red blood cell count (anemia) or a high red blood cell count (erythrocytosis) may accompany kidney cancer.  Sometimes a patient may also have high calcium levels.

These are the preliminary tests and indicators.  Based on the results the doctor may order an intravenous pyelogram (IVP).  This is an x-ray test in which a dye is injected into a vein in the arm.  The dye travels through the body and it outlines the kidneys, ureters, and the urinary bladder.  On an x-ray image, the dye reveals any abnormalities of the urinary tract.

Renal ultrasound is a diagnostic test that uses sound waves to form an image of the kidneys.  Imaging tests such as computed tomography scans (CT scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be used to check whether the tumor has spread to other organs or areas outside the kidney.

The final test used to positively identify kidney cancer is a kidney biopsy.  A small piece of tissue is removed from the tumor and examined under a microscope.  The biopsy gives information about the type of tumor, the cells involved and the aggressiveness of the tumor.

If after completing all the various tests a doctor diagnoses kidney cancer, a course of treatment is then determined, based on the stage of the cancer and other factors as well.


Treatment may not be exactly the same for each person.  It depends on several factors including the location, size, stage of the tumor, patient's age, general health and medical history.

The primary treatment for renal cancer, which has not spread to other parts of the body, is surgical removal of the diseased kidney (nephrectomy).  In most cases cancer only affects one kidney.  It is therefore possible to remove one kidney without diminishing the function of the other remaining healthy kidney.

Radio therapy is another form of treatment for kidney cancer.  It involves exposing the cancer cells to high-energy gamma rays, which generally destroy cancer cells with minimal damage to the normal tissues.  Side effects are nausea, tiredness, and stomach upsets.  These symptoms are normally short term and disappear once the treatment is over.

Radiation therapy has been shown to alleviate pain and bleeding, and is used mainly in circumstances when the cancer is inoperable.  It has not proven to be very successful in destroying the cancer cells, therefore, radiation therapy is seldom used.

Treatment of kidney cancer with anticancer drugs (chemotherapy) has not produced very good result either.  However, new drugs and new combinations of drugs continue to be tested in clinical trials.

In addition to these conventional treatments, alternative treatments have been receiving much attention within recent times.  Treatments such as homeopathic medicine and nutrition are being increasingly considered by patients.  (The ideas behind homeopathic medicine are similar to those of vaccinations; however, they are using natural ingredients to ward off symptoms.)

Because kidney cancer is often caught early and it sometimes progresses slowly, the chances of surgical cure are good.  Ultimately though, the best treatment is always prevention.  Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle is the best way to lower one's risk of this cancer and other deadly kidney diseases.

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