Myths and Facts About Kidney Cancer

It’s among the 10 most common cancers in both men and women.

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Despite the fact that kidney cancer is one of the top 10 most common cancers in the United States among both men and women, it’s not a type of cancer that many Americans know much about.

So let’s start with the basics: Here are some of the most common myths and facts about kidney cancer you should know.

MYTH: Renal cell carcinoma is the only type of kidney cancer.

It’s not surprising this myth exists, considering 90 percent of kidney cancers are renal cell carcinoma. Carcinoma is a type of cancer tumor that begins in the lining of an organ—in this case, the cells on the lining of the kidneys. However, there are other types of kidney cancers, as well as subtypes of those cancers.

“Occasionally you can have other types of tumors within the kidney. You can lymphomas of the kidney or sarcomas and you can also have transitional cell carcinomas of the kidneys, which are cancers that begin in the ureters or the tubes that connect the kidney down to the bladder,” says Rujuta Saksena, MD, hematologist and oncologist.

FACT: Kidney cancer is more common in men.

Kidney cancer is actually *twice* as common in men than in women. This is possibly because men have higher levels of androgens (male sex hormones) in their body, which may make them more susceptible to the cancer. In fact, studies have found women with polycystic ovary syndrome (which causes elevated levels of androgens) have an increased risk of kidney cancer.

Additionally, kidney cancer is more common as you get older: The average age of diagnosis is 64, and it’s uncommon to get kidney cancer before age 45.

MYTH: Kidney cancer is treated like all other cancers.

When it comes to kidney cancer, chemo and radiation—two of the most common treatments for other types of cancer—are rarely used.  “Unfortunately, things like chemotherapy and radiation really just don't work for kidney cancer,” says Joseph Pazona, MD, urologist.

“But if you're fortunate enough to be diagnosed quickly, then we can often use a surgery to cut out the tumor and patients are often cured,” says Dr. Pazona. “In more advanced cases, we use something called immunotherapy to help slow down the cancer and keep people alive longer.”

FACT: You can function with only one kidney.

Treatment for kidney cancer often includes surgery to remove an entire kidney. Even though the kidneys are important—they remove waste and excess water from the blood, which then becomes urine—your body can totally get by with just one. That’s why people can donate one kidney to someone in need of a transplant. (Learn more about how the kidneys work here.)

In fact, some people don’t have any functioning kidneys, but they can survive thanks to dialysis—which is a medical treatment that purifies and removes waste from the blood for you.

MYTH: Kidney cancer always needs treatment.

“Some kidney cancers are actually very slow growing, and although we diagnose someone [with] cancer, there may be times we choose to just watch it very closely,” says Dr. Pazona. “The reason for this is sometimes treatments are more dangerous than the actual disease.”

When a patient and doctor decide to do close surveillance instead of treatment, the doctor will take regular X-rays and blood tests to monitor the cancer. In some cases, treatment may never be necessary. In other cases, treatment may eventually be used if the cancer begins growing more rapidly.

As with all types of cancer, the earlier it’s caught and diagnosed, the higher the chance of a positive treatment outcome. Thankfully, kidney cancers are commonly found at an early stage, and survival rates are high.