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A Physician's Message about Kidney Cancer Awareness and Hope

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

It's easy to take our bodies for granted. Perfectly crafted from head to toe, every system in the body is designed to work in harmony, which allows us to focus on living our best life. But today, we're taking the time to bring special attention to two very important organs that deserve some appreciation: your kidneys.

More specifically, we're going to talk about kidney cancer in recognition of Kidney Cancer Awareness Month. We spoke with Inoel Rivera, MD, urologist oncologist, to understand why you should be aware of kidney cancer and why it deserves this month's spotlight.

Why you should thank your kidneys

Shaped like kidney beans, your two kidneys lie just under your back ribs, one on each side. They play the important role to keep your body in homeostasis, or balance. They are working for you every second of every day. And here's why you can be grateful for them:

  • They filter your blood and help your body get rid of waste products. 
  • They balance your body's fluid levels.
  • They make a hormone that can increase your blood pressure to get more blood to the body when necessary.
  • They signal your body to make more red blood cells when needed.
  • They produce vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium for healthy bones and teeth.

Amazingly, your body can adapt and function with only one healthy kidney if disease, injury or a living donation transplant is something that you face within your lifetime.

About kidney cancer

"Kidney cancer is the third most common malignancy, and accounts for six percent of pediatric kidney tumors," says Dr. Rivera.

"Based on our most recent data, there are an estimated 65,000 cases in the U.S. each year with a male to female ratio of three to two. More alarmingly, we're seeing a three to four percent increase in kidney cancer each year," Dr. Rivera continues.

Often not showing symptoms, kidney cancer has historically been a challenging cancer to diagnose and treat early when treatments are most successful. But this story is changing for the better.

Dr. River adds, "Diagnosis of kidney cancer by a CT scan or MRI is now equally as sensitive compared to a more invasive tissue biopsy. With advancements in radiology, we can diagnose a solid kidney mass with extreme accuracy by imaging tests alone."

With that in mind, physicians like Dr. Rivera are finding more cases of kidney cancer earlier and even incidentally. "Generally, there is a very positive prognosis when we find kidney cancer in early stages and it's localized within the kidney, which is about 50 percent of the time."

Where before, a patient might present with nonspecific symptoms and require a lot of diagnostic tests to diagnose kidney cancer, today, patients may present for something unrelated, such as a car accident or appendicitis, receive an imaging scan of the abdomen, and the kidney tumor is discovered while looking for something else.

While most kidney cancers are diagnosed in the sixth or seventh decade of life, they can affect younger people and even children.

Symptoms of kidney cancer

"Many don't have symptoms of kidney cancer until the cancer has spread," notes Dr. Rivera.

But some symptoms can include:

  • Back pain
  • Anemia
  • High hemoglobin
  • High blood pressure
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blood in the urine

"It's so important for you to get your annual check-ups with your primary care physician to monitor your routine lab values and any other symptoms of kidney cancer that you might not be aware of," advises Dr. Rivera. "Blood in the urine is a big one - anyone with this symptom should be evaluated by a physician."

This is especially true if you are at a higher risk for kidney cancer, which includes:

  • Smoking
  • Having a first- or second-degree relative with kidney cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure

Dr. Rivera explains, "The biggest controllable risk factors are smoking and obesity; if you stop smoking you cut your risk of kidney cancer by 50 percent, and 40 percent of kidney cancers are linked to obesity, so you can dramatically reduce your risk if you maintain a healthy body weight."

Advancements in treating kidney cancer

At the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute, many strides have been made in the successful diagnosis and treatment of kidney cancer. Dr. Rivera explains a few.

Robotic surgery

"The Florida Hospital Cancer Institute was the first to do robotic surgery to treat kidney cancer starting in 2004. Since then, we have only advanced our tools to treat kidney cancer. Florida Hospital completes the largest number of robotic partial nephrectomies, which offers tremendous benefits to our patients," Dr. Rivera explains. 

Opposed to removing the entire kidney, a partial nephrectomy allows partial removal of the kidney, sparing this important organ and offering patients important health advantages down the road.

"If we find a small tumor, many patients can be treated with just removing the tumor robotically and saving the kidney to improve health outcomes and survival rates - there is less risk for heart disease, dialysis, and renal failure in the future," confirms Dr. Rivera.

Furthermore, robotic surgery alone reduces healing time, explains Dr. Rivera. "With robotic surgery, patients generally experience a faster recovery. Open surgery is often followed by a week in the hospital and six to eight-week total recovery, where robotic surgery reduces this average time in the hospital to a few days and the recovery period to two to three weeks." 

A comprehensive cancer treatment team

Treating cancer and the whole person takes a team. At the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute, this team is well-coordinated and dedicated to assembling the best specialists and course of action for each patient. "We have a tumor board of physicians who meet to discuss our cases and we put our minds together to develop the best plan for our patients; what we do here is different," states Dr. Rivera.

He adds, "We also offer research protocols that can provide a better chance for a cure."

Physicians with a passion for compassion

There's a different mission at Florida Hospital; one filled with hope, uncommon compassion and the whole-hearted drive to help every person achieve whole health in body, mind and spirit.

"I always wanted to be a doctor, specifically a surgeon, and throughout my training, I developed an interest in urology and treating cancer with advanced robotic surgery, but at the core of this is my passion to help patients," shares Dr. Rivera.

He continues, "You realize you are involved in work that is so rewarding, and it's especially humbling each time you succeed and help a patient. We have been blessed; we think of each patient and their family as our own - and we want to help them improve quality of life and longevity just as we would one of our own family members." 

"One thing we hold on to here at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute is hope; we always focus on hope," he concludes.

Learn more about the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute and Dr. Inoel Rivera