The kidneys are a unique organ. They are necessary for survival, but you can live with just one of them and, with medical intervention, you can also live if you lose complete kidney function. Yet kidney cancer – one of the most common cancers in the United States – takes the lives of thousands of Americans each year.
Craig Rogers, M.D., a urologic surgeon at Henry Ford Health, answers common questions about the kidneys, kidney cancer and what you can do to lower your risk of damaging them.
Q: What role do the kidneys play in the overall function of the body?
Dr. Rogers: The kidneys play several roles. The most important is that of filtering blood and waste products. If you lose complete kidney function, you have to go on dialysis to have this filtering done manually. The kidneys also help balance the amount of minerals in the blood, water content in the body and production of blood. And, the kidneys play a role in helping to regulate blood pressure.
Q: Can you provide some basics on kidney cancer?
Dr. Rogers: Kidney cancer is fairly common, and it primarily affects those over age 60. When kidney cancer is discovered, it’s usually by “accident” – and what I mean is that kidney cancer shows almost no symptoms, and it’s most often through conducting other tests, usually not related to the kidneys, that doctors discover the cancer.
Most often, kidney cancer only affects one of the kidneys (not both), and if it’s at a later stage and spreads, it’s more common for the cancer to spread to nearby lymph nodes or through the bloodstream to the lungs – not to the unaffected kidney. If found early enough, this is beneficial for many patients because we can remove the affected kidney and the tumor altogether.
Q: Are there any risk factors that could contribute to kidney cancer?
Dr. Rogers: Some of the most prevalent risk factors include smoking, being overweight and being exposed to harmful chemicals, from factory work, for example. In general, diabetes and high blood pressure are the top two culprits of poor kidney function overall, so maintaining a healthy diet and getting sufficient exercise are crucial.
Some of the risk factors people might think would be harmful – such as alcohol consumption and different medications – may not improve your health, but there isn’t a definitive link to the development of kidney cancer.
Q: What are the signs someone may have kidney cancer?
Dr. Rogers: Because the kidneys have a lot of responsibilities in the function of the body, numerous signs could indicate kidney cancer – or they could be a sign of something completely different. Like I previously mentioned, kidney cancer, for the most part, is symptomless – but some signs of more advanced cancer can include blood in the urine, pain on one side of your lower back that isn’t related to something else, anemia, unintentional weight loss or fatigue.
If you notice anything off, it’s best to check with your doctor. These symptoms could indicate a range of problems – or nothing unusual at all – so it’s best to determine the cause early in the event it is cancer so that we can treat it easier.
Q: What can I do to lower my risk?
Dr. Rogers: Because there is no preventative testing or definitive way to prevent kidney cancer, the best thing you can do is just take care of yourself. Eat healthy, workout regularly, quit smoking if you do smoke, and go to the doctor for regular check-ups and screenings. If you already have weak kidneys, some medications to avoid are nephrotoxic medications, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen and aspirin because these are metabolized through the kidney.
Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.
Dr. Craig Rogers is the Director of Robotic Renal Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Director of Urologic Oncology at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. He sees patients at these two locations.