Kidney cancer is on the rise, yet many people are unaware of the warning signs.
More than 3000 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer in Australia each year. It makes up around 2.5 per cent of all cancers. It is twice as common in men than in women and is the ninth most diagnosed cancer for Australian men. The risk of kidney cancer increases with age, and most cases occur in people over 50.
It’s thought the rise in cases is partly due to lifestyle factors, such as smoking, unhealthy diets and obesity, which are linked to around 42 per cent of kidney cancers. However, wider use of diagnostic imaging techniques (scans) may have contributed to more cancers being detected, too.
People aged 45 to 50 are also at higher risk of kidney cancer, as well as those with a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) with a history of the disease. Certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease, are also linked with raised risk levels.
The disease can often be cured if found early – but as many people are unaware of the symptoms, diagnosis often doesn’t occur until the cancer has progressed. And as the kidneys filter waste from the blood, create urine, control blood pressure and create red blood cells, damage to these vital organs can be extremely serious.
Dr Ekaterini Boleti, a medical oncologist, outlines five of the most common symptoms of kidney cancer.
1. Blood in urine
“One of the most common symptoms of kidney cancer is blood in the urine, medically named haematuria. It’s not always easy to spot as the blood may not present as red, and can appear in your urine as pink or even brown. The presence of blood in your urine may also be inconsistent, appearing about every other day. And for some people, the amount of blood will be so small, it can’t be detected by the human eye,” says Dr Boleti.
Remember though, spotting blood in your urine doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer, but it is definitely something you want to get checked out quickly.
“There are several other more common causes of blood in the urine, including bladder or kidney infections, kidney stones, cysts, or injury to the kidney. It’s unlikely that it will be cancer, but you should always see a doctor if you spot blood in your urine,” she adds.
“If you fall within the at-risk bracket for kidney cancer (i.e. aged over 40, a smoker, overweight, have a family history of the condition and/or have high blood pressure), you should organise a urinalysis (a laboratory test that can help doctors detect any blood in your urine).
2. Anaemia and fatigue
“Fatigue is a common symptom of any number of cancers. Of course, busy lives and hectic schedules can cause anyone to feel tired – but cancer fatigue is different from just feeling tired due to lack of sleep. Cancer-related fatigue is persistent and interferes with daily activities. It also tends to intensify as time goes on,” says Dr Boleti.
“Anaemia is another common symptom of kidney cancer, meaning many people with the condition will experience a low red blood cell count, and this can also lead to fatigue. Normally functioning kidneys signal to your body to make red blood cells, however, cancer can make the kidneys behave differently and interfere with this signalling. Symptoms of anaemia include shortness of breath, dizziness, and pale skin.
3. Abdominal lump
Dr Boleti says: “Some people with kidney cancer may notice a lump or a mass in the abdomen, side or back. This can feel like a hard, thickening or bulging bump under the skin.
“Kidney lumps can be hard to feel, especially in the early stages, because the kidneys sit deep in the abdomen. If a lump is discovered, the doctor will likely order diagnostic tests (usually an ultrasound or a CT scan). These tests may help to determine the cause of the lump, but in most cases, a biopsy will be required to confirm the diagnosis.
“It’s important to remember that not all lumps are cancer, but it’s always important to see a doctor if you’re concerned about a new lump anywhere in or on your body.”
4. Lower back pain
“There are lots of different reasons why you may be experiencing back pain,” says Dr Boleti. “One of the less common causes is kidney cancer, but it’s always worth having back pain checked out to rule out an underlying problem, and get the right treatment for your symptoms.
“Back pain caused by kidney cancer can range from a dull ache to a sharp stab below the ribs on your back, or on one side of your flank,” she adds. “The flank is the area between your lower back and the bottom of the backside of your ribs. This may also feel like side pain.
“If you experience any sudden pain that’s persistent and lasts more than a few days, you should visit a doctor to get to the bottom of it, even though it’s unlikely to be cancer.”
5. Unexpected weight loss
“Unexplained weight loss is another key characteristic of nearly all cancers – so it’s definitely a symptom to look out for,” says Dr Boleti. “In kidney cancer, a lot of people that have the condition will report weight loss. You may also suddenly lose interest in eating, which can contribute to this.
“If you’re experiencing symptoms of kidney cancer, it’s key to see your GP – particularly if you have risk factors for the disease.”
Were you aware of those warning signs? Is kidney disease on your radar because of lifestyle or family connections? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.