March is Kidney Cancer Awareness Month: Why You Shouldn't Ignore It
There's a month for everything these days. There's Oatmeal Month and Salad Month and Class Reunion Month. (Yes, really.) We are oversaturated with narrowly focused subject matter months. That unfortunately makes it tempting to overlook the ones that really do matter.
March is Kidney Cancer Awareness Month. And yes, there's an awareness month for every type of cancer too. Pink ribbons, blue ribbons, orange ribbons, green ribbons - who can keep up with what color belongs to what cancer? Is all this really necessary?
It's easy to forget that the statistics we read in the newspaper or hear on news broadcasts aren't just numbers. They're real people with real families and real hopes and dreams whose lives were cut short or profoundly altered by three short words: "You have cancer."
That used to be a death sentence. But it's not always anymore. Funding and research have yielded new treatments that are prolonging and saving lives. That funding and research is a result of more awareness, about the causes and symptoms, and the treatments, what works and what doesn't.
So don't roll your eyes when you see another announcement about a cancer awareness month. Knowing the facts could save your life or the life of someone you love.
Who gets kidney cancer and what are the risk factors?
Men, mostly, over age 45. But just like any cancer, it can happen to anyone. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2012, there will be 64,770 new cases of kidney cancer and 13,570 deaths from kidney cancer in this country. The lifetime risk of getting kidney cancer is 1 in 67, with the risk being higher for men than for women.
Risk factors can include smoking, age, family history, being overweight and high blood pressure.
What are the symptoms?
Frighteningly, the American Cancer Society says there often aren't any. A tumor can be very large without causing any pain or other symptoms.
This was the case with my uncle Doug. If he hadn't developed an odd taste that made eating unpleasant, he never would have known he had kidney cancer.
During routine testing prior to having sinus surgery in hopes of correcting the unpleasant taste and smell he was experiencing, a chest x-ray showed spots on Doug's lung. After the sinus surgery, his doctor recommended a CT scan of his chest to further investigate the spots. The end result was that the doctor said no worries on that. But the CT scan did give the doctor cause for concern. The scan picked up what looked like a growth on Doug's left kidney. The scan only showed part of the upper abdomen, so a full abdominal scan was ordered.
" A few days later my phone rang and rather than the doctor's nurse on the phone it was my doctor," Doug said. "He asked me how I was doing. I still remember my reply: I said
that if I were talking to his nurse I probably would be doing a whole lot better."
The CT scan had revealed a large mass in his left kidney. Both Doug's family doctor and a urologist recommended removal of the kidney.
"During the time before the surgery even though I had support from family, friends and my friends on CSN (Cancer Survivors Network),I was still scared to death," Doug said.
It was during an appointment with his family doctor of 20 years, himself a cancer survivor, that Doug finally got a measure of peace.
"I guess we talked medical for half an hour but it was what he said to me afterwards that has helped me the most," Doug said. "He said, 'Be where you are supposed to be, do what
you're supposed to do, and let God take care of the healing.'"
On October 25, 2011, Doug had his left kidney removed, along with three masses, together totaling about 10 centimeters. Two of the tumors were Stage 2; the largest was Stage 3. The good news was the urologist said the cancer had been contained to the kidney and had not metastasized. Though the largest mass had expanded past the kidney, it had not left the Gerotas fascias, the connective tissue that encapsulates the organ. A follow-up brain scan was clear. Two months after surgery, Doug was on a 10-day trip to Disney World with our family!
Follow-up tests have revealed three cysts on Doug's right kidney that his doctor is monitoring. But if there is no change after testing in April he will be able to wait six months before the next round of tests. There is about a 25 percent chance of recurrence of the cancer.
"To think if a bad taste and smell of everything hadn't started a year ago I would have never known about the cancer," Doug said, referring to the symptoms that prompted the sinus surgery. "The Lord works in mysterious ways. I am letting God take care of the healing but still the waiting between each test is trying on one's self. I have learned to cherish each day and to really see what is important to me: My wife and all of my family. I hope my story can help others who may walk the same mile. Everyone needs to be aware."
Diagnosing kidney cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, there are no recommended screenings to look for kidney cancer, unless an individual has a family history or is deemed high-risk. The cancer is often found, as in Doug's case, during tests related to other medical issues. Because the kidneys are buried deep in the body, doctors usually can't feel tumors during physical examinations. Some symptoms that can be present, particularly during later stages of the disease, include:
* Blood in the urine
* Low back pain on one side that did not result from an injury
* A mass or lump on the side or lower back
* Unexplained weight loss
*Fever that doesn't go away after a few weeks and that is not from an infection
* Swelling of ankles and legs
If you notice these symptoms or any other unexplained physical changes, consult with a physician. Be sure that your physician knows if you have a family history of kidney cancer.
Causes of kidney cancer in many cases aren't known and often the cancer is not preventable, according to the American Cancer Society. But ways to reduce risk are to stop smoking, start exercising and eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables to maintain a healthy weight, and get treatment for high blood pressure.
I have kidney cancer - now what?
Clear-thinking doesn't usually follow a cancer diagnosis. Patients may forget to ask the most basic questions while caught up in the emotional outfall. But having a treatment plan and understanding it can ease some anxiety. Take a family member to the doctor and/or have questions in writing and carry a pen and blank sheet of paper to write down the answers. The American Cancer Society recommends asking the following questions:
* Would you please write down the exact kind of kidney cancer I have?
* Do you think my cancer spread?
* What is the stage of my cancer, and what does that mean in my case?
* What treatment choices do I have?
* What do you recommend and why?
* What is the goal of this treatment?
* What are the chances of the cancer coming back with the treatment you recommend?
* What are the risks or side effects of treatment?
* Based on what you've learned about my cancer, what is my long-term outlook?
* What should I do to be ready for treatment?
* How soon should I be treated?
* What kind of follow-up will I need after treatment?
* Are there any clinical trials I should think about?
Kidney cancer can be diagnosed with ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs. Once diagnosed, treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, immuno therapy, or a combination of therapies.
During and after treatment, the American Cancer Society recommends following a healthful diet plan and exercising if possible and at a tolerable pace. For more information on how to incorporate exercise and healthy eating into your treatment plan, click on the following links: Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment
Getting emotional support can also help cancer patients through treatment. It's not uncommon to think more about death and worry about the effect the cancer is having on your family, friends and career. It's also normal to feel anxious when your health improves and you require less monitoring by your health care team, and to worry over a recurrence of cancer.
Seek support from cancer support groups, either in-person or online, church or spiritual groups, a private therapist, family and friends.
The American Cancer Society provides assistance to cancer patients in need of support through its toll free number, 1-800-227-2345. For additional information about kidney cancer, visit www.cancer.org/Cancer/KidneyCancer/index.