Mar 23, 2022 9:00 AM

Read time: 3 minutes


Benjamin L. Maughan, MD, PharmD
Benjamin L. Maughan, MD, PharmD

Kidney cancer is moderately common, the sixth-most prevalent cancer diagnosis for men and women. Benjamin L. Maughan, MD, PharmD, assistant professor in the division of medical oncology, answers common questions people ask him about how kidney cancer is diagnosed, identified, and treated.

What is the difference between lower back pain & kidney pain?

This can be difficult to differentiate. The best advice I think of to provide patients is that pain from cancer is progressive and eventually persistent. Standard back pain from osteoarthritis or other non-cancer sources can be persistent or cyclical but typically does not worsen over a short time. In contrast, cancer-related pain continues to worsen as the cancer grows. Early in the cancer disease process, the pain may be episodic but it does worsen over time.

What are some symptoms or early signs of kidney cancer? Is there a common symptom that occurs first?

Kidney cancer usually does not have early symptoms. As the cancer grows and expands, some patients will notice bloody urine that is painless. Other diseases can cause these symptoms, so please see a medical professional right away.

Can a kidney cyst turn into cancer?

No. Cysts are benign (not cancer) findings and do not change into cancer. There are some genetic disorders though that can cause both benign cysts and kidney cancers to grow independently.

How is kidney cancer diagnosed? Can it be detected early via an ultrasound or some other procedure?

The most common way to diagnose kidney cancer is through CT imaging which is typically obtained for other reasons. For instance, a patient seeing medical advice for severe or chronic abdominal pain may have a CT scan as part of that diagnostic process. If a mass is found, then a biopsy or immediate treatment (surgery or ablation) would be performed that leads to diagnosis of kidney cancer.

Is kidney cancer curable? What is the survival rate?

Yes. Kidney cancer is frequently curable. Due to the frequent use of CT imaging in the US and with improved kidney cancer treatment, kidney cancer is being caught earlier and the cure and survival rates for patients has improved. The SEER database shows that survival and cure rates greatly depend on the extent of the disease. For instance, with very small cancers the cure rates are over 90%. Meanwhile, very aggressive cancers that have already spread to the lymph nodes have a lower cure rate, below 40%.

If I have cancer in one kidney, what are the chances of it spreading to the other one? Are there other common areas in the body that it spreads?

Kidney cancer almost never metastasizes or spreads to the other kidney. Some patients with inherited forms of kidney cancer can develop other cancers that develop independently within one or both kidneys. Common places for kidney cancer to spread include the lungs, bones, and lymph nodes.

If I have a kidney removed, what is my quality of life like?

Most patients do not have any symptoms or quality of life changes after the kidney is removed and fully healing/recovery after surgery has taken place. Full recovery typically takes a few months depending on the type of surgery performed, with robotic or laparoscopic surgeries healing faster than open surgeries. Because one of the kidneys has been partially or fully removed, care should be taken to avoid kidney damage in the future.

Talk to your doctor if you have questions about breast cancer screening. You can contact the Cancer Learning Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute if you have questions about any cancer topic:

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