At MD Anderson, your kidney cancer treatment is personalized to include the most-advanced therapies with the fewest possible side effects. Our experts work together – and with you – to give you the highest chance for successful treatment and recovery.
While the average oncologist probably sees fewer than 10 kidney cancer cases each year, MD Anderson doctors see several hundred. This gives us an extraordinary level of experience and expertise.
Experience is Vital
This level of knowledge is especially important in kidney cancer surgery. Because it is important to save as much of the kidney as possible, the specialized skill of the surgeon can make a crucial difference. Our surgeons are among the most experienced in the country at kidney cancer surgical procedures.
MD Anderson offers some of the most advanced therapies for kidney cancer, many of which are available at only a few centers in the country. These include minimally invasive surgeries that can mean less pain and quicker recovery.
We’re leading the way to discovering groundbreaking treatments that fight kidney cancer at the molecular level. Our researchers helped develop several targeted therapies for kidney cancer, including sunitinib and sorafenib. And, as one of the most active research programs in the country, MD Anderson is able to offer a range of clinical trials of new treatments.
If you are diagnosed with kidney cancer, your doctor will discuss the best options to treat it. This depends on several factors, including the stage of the cancer and your general health. Your treatment for kidney cancer at MD Anderson will be customized to your particular needs. One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.
Tumors that are confined to the kidney or to the area around the kidney usually are surgically removed. It’s important for the surgeon to leave as much of the kidney as possible. When your surgeon has a high level of experience in this type of surgery, your outcomes are likely to be better.
At MD Anderson, these surgeries sometimes can be minimally invasive (done with a laparoscope and robotic technology).
You can usually live with one kidney, but if both kidneys are removed or not working you will need kidney dialysis (a way to clean the blood with a machine). A kidney transplant may be an option for some patients.
The main types of surgery for kidney cancer include:
Radical nephrectomy is removal of the entire kidney along with the surrounding fatty tissue. Sometimes the adrenal gland and nearby lymph nodes are removed too. One of the following methods will be used, depending on the size of the tumor and other factors that your surgeon will consider.
Standard or "open" surgery: A four- to eight-inch incision (cut) is made in the front of the abdomen. The surgeon removes the entire kidney through the incision.
Laparoscopic radical nephrectomy (LRN): A small incision is made to insert a laparoscope. Other tiny incisions are made for miniature surgical instruments to remove the kidney. Benefits of this procedure include a shorter hospital stay (one to two days vs. five to seven days), shorter recovery time and less blood loss than with open surgery. Surgeon experience is important for this procedure.
Partial nephrectomy (or kidney-sparing surgery): Only the cancerous portion of the kidney is removed, along with a margin of healthy tissue around it. High quality pre-treatment imaging is used to determine what will be removed, and ultrasound can be used to look for additional tumors during surgery.
Candidates for partial nephrectomy are chosen based on favorable tumor location, co-existing health problems that may affect the treatment outcome, the condition of the kidneys and the patient's desire to save the kidney. Partial nephrectomy is best for kidney cancer tumors that are 4 centimeters or less in size. They can be done for larger tumors when necessary. Recurrence rates for stage 1 cancers removed by either radical or partial nephrectomy are about 5%.
Partial nephrectomy can be done by traditional or laparoscopic robotic methods. Robotic partial nephrectomy (RPN) offers a shorter hospital stay (one to two days instead of four to five days) and quicker recovery.
Energy Ablative Techniques
Other minimally invasive surgery techniques use either heat or cold to treat tumors in place, without having to remove the kidney. RFA and cryoablation are ideal for smaller kidney tumors in patients considered at high risk for surgery.
Cryoablation freezes the tumor to -140 degrees Centigrade with a long, thin probe inserted into the tumor. Intensive follow-up with X-rays or other imaging procedures is required to ensure that the tumor has been destroyed.
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is similar to cryoablation, but heat is used to destroy the tumor instead of cold.
Radiation has a limited role in the treatment of kidney cancer. Kidney tumors are not very sensitive to radiation, but healthy kidneys are, so radiation as a frontline treatment is not advisable. In some cases, radiation may be used to help relieve pain and other symptoms when kidney cancer has spread to the bone, brain, or other parts of the body.
Kidney tumors are very vascular, meaning they have a large number of blood vessels. The tumors use a process called angiogenesis to create their own network of blood vessels, enabling the cancer to thrive and grow.
These blood vessels are vulnerable to anti-angiogenic drugs, which are developed to take advantage of this process. This new generation of drugs targets the blood vessels leading to the tumor without harming normal blood vessels.
A number of agents have been developed, including Sutent® (sunitinib), Nexavar® (sorafenib), Votrient® (pazopanib) and Avastin® (bevacizumab). Another drug, Torisel® (temsirolimus), has shown promise in patients with more aggressive kidney disease.
Renal cell carcinoma is occasionally responsive to immunotherapy, and is one option for kidney cancer that has metastasized (spread). These therapies have only a general, non-targeted effect on the immune system, and their side effects are not well tolerated by many patients.
Two types of immunotherapy are used to treat renal cell cancer:
Interferon-alpha (IFN) is a protein produced by white blood cells in response to a viral infection. It increases antigens on the surface of cancer cells, making them more susceptible to attack by the immune system. IFN is rarely used today.
Interleukin-2 (IL-2) is a protein that stimulates the growth of immune cells and activates them to destroy tumor cells. High-dose IL-2 therapy is given by IV, and treatment requires a five-day hospital stay. Side effects include hypotension (low blood pressure), flu-like symptoms (fever, muscle aches, headache and nasal congestion), decreased urine production, nausea and diarrhea. IL-2 can cause a complete shrinkage of disease in 5% to 10% of patients with clear cell tumors. For that reason, it is still offered as an option to patients with appropriate tumor characteristics who are in excellent overall physical condition.
Most traditional chemotherapy is generally ineffective against kidney tumors, with a few exceptions. A combination of gemcitabine and capecitabine is sometimes used to treat metastatic renal cell cancer.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering
promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.
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BY Ted Nelson
I thought I knew about MD Anderson and its mission to end cancer. But
until I became one of the treated, I realized I knew people who were
patients there, but I didn’t really know much about the institution
and the qualities that set it apart.
In late September 2009, I was diagnosed with a large tumor on my left kidney. In my urologist’s words, these tumors are “almost always malignant” and no matter what, it had to come out. My wife, Kathryn, at the urging of a dear friend, insisted that we see if “they” would look at my case at MD Anderson.
“They” did accept me as a patient. That was more than five years ago, and I remain a renal cell carcinoma survivor. I’m not cured, but my prognosis remains excellent due to the exceptional care I have received and continue to receive at MD Anderson. I can’t say enough wonderful things about Dr. Chris Wood and his talented team of surgeons, who excised my volleyball-sized tumor; Dr. Ara Vaporciyan, who removed some of the renal cell lesions from my left lung; Dr. Patrick Hwu and his IL-2 team; and now, my wonderful oncologist and friend, Dr. Nizar Tannir and the entire team of genitourinary oncologists, who lead the way in renal cell and other genitourinary cancer research.
Getting to know you
For me, however, the most amazing part of my story hasn’t been the exceptional treatment, but rather the unique opportunity to get to know this huge, living, breathing institution known as MD Anderson. It’s become the most meaningful and unbelievable experience in my life: having the privilege to understand more about MD Anderson’s mission and to interact with this huge family of caring employees, almost 20,000 team members who share the common goal of lifting the lives and spirits of its thousands of patients and their families.
I’ve been amazed at the heartfelt care and compassion put forth by each one of these professionals. I sincerely mean that every team member is a professional, no matter his or her role. The very core of their mission is to be professional and caring in every sense of the words and to make our visits and treatment the best that they can be.
My cancer has never made me feel sick. My surgeries, the IL-2 treatment and the drug I’m now taking haven’t been fun. But when I look at so many fellow patients and survivors who are coping with much worse, I’m reminded of just how lucky I am. It’s truly been a life-changing event for me.
MD Anderson has been and continues to be a beacon of hope for those who’ve been stricken with that six-letter word that no one ever wants to hear. Hundreds of thousands of us are still alive, leading hopeful lives because of this wonderful institution and its doctors, nurses and researchers. There’s an effervescent hope that we’ll one day conquer this dreaded disease. I’m thankful to those who came before us and had the vision and foresight to establish MD Anderson in 1941 and to those who continue to make MD Anderson the exceptional place that it is.