How Kidney Cancer Starts and What You Might Be Able to Do About It
There’s still a lot to learn about cancer, its roots and triggers, but experts know it begins with a gene mutation. That’s not to say kidney cancer is always genetic, but rather it starts with a malfunction in the cell’s basic building blocks.
However, what causes these mutations isn’t always clear and the sources are varied. Some people carry a specific gene that raises their risk, while others subject their cells to stress and damage that can trigger abnormal growth at some point.
Major Biological Risk Factors
There are certain things you just can’t change about yourself, and some of these will increase your kidney cancer risk. Body weight and gender are two prominent factors: men have double the risk of developing renal cell carcinoma (the most common form of kidney cancer) as women.
However, risk factors go beyond gender:
Those genetically predisposed to kidney cancer often experience the condition a bit differently than patients who don’t have that genetic element. For instance, those with inherited kidney cancer:
- Often have cancer in both kidneys
- May have several tumors in each kidney (instead of just one)
- Often develop the cancer at a younger age
These genetic conditions actually account for a very small percentage of kidney cancers. In most cases, the cancer can be blamed on other biological, disease or lifestyle factors.
Aging certainly brings some visible changes. You can clearly see that a person’s tissue “landscape” shifts over the years, becoming less dense in places and changing shape in others. As a body gets older, young cells aren’t as perfectly suited to working within it anymore, which means they can’t put up as much of a fight against cancer cells. In the worst cases, the cancer cells begin to thrive instead.
Those who have a first-degree relative (parents, siblings and children) with renal cell carcinoma are four times more likely to develop that cancer than the rest of the population. Experts report you’re most at risk if your sibling has been diagnosed with kidney cancer.
Diseases That May Lead to Kidney Cancer
Other chronic illnesses could also lead to kidney cancer in some people. Here are the top offenders:
High Blood Pressure
Unhealthy arteries lead to high blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to kidney disease in general. Recent research has also shown a link to renal cell carcinoma.
Those who take medicines to control hypertension seem to be at a greater risk for kidney cancer, and experts aren’t sure whether it’s the blood pressure itself or the medicine used to control it that’s the biggest problem. It’s possible the combination of the disease and the treatment is what raises cancer risk.
Studies have shown that diabetics are more likely to develop kidney cancer, and like hypertension, diabetes treatment seems to play a role. Those who use insulin to control their diabetes have a higher risk, compared to diabetics who use other diabetes medications.
Diabetes also appears to increase the fatality rate among kidney cancer patients. A study out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, found that diabetic patients with kidney cancer were over 30 percent more likely to die from their cancer than patients without diabetes.
Sometimes a certain cancer raises your risk of developing a second cancer — an unrelated cancer that can come along years later. People who have suffered from thyroid cancer have a higher chance of contracting kidney cancer, even if they’ve beaten their first bout of cancer.
Experts suspect gene changes common to both thyroid and kidney cancer are responsible for the link. In any case, thyroid cancer can make you up to seven times more likely to be diagnosed with kidney cancer down the line.
Perhaps not too surprising, kidneys that are already malfunctioning are more prone to developing cancerous growths. Anyone on dialysis (when the blood is periodically filtered by a machine) for a long time are more likely to develop cysts on their kidneys. While the cysts themselves may not be cancerous, their presence increases your risk of developing kidney cancer.
Lifestyle Factors Can Increase Your Risk
Naturally, a healthier life lowers your risk of cancer, and too much indulgence will raise it. How you choose to handle stress and pain can also play a part in your kidney cancer risk.
Obesity, which is classified as a body mass index over 30, accounts for about one quarter of all kidney cancers. Carrying too much weight can alter your hormonal balance, and since certain hormones are thought to help control the growth and death of tissue cells, an imbalance can lead cancer cells to multiply.
Smokers have a higher risk than non-smokers of developing kidney cancer, and the more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your risk rises.
In general, smokers have a 50 percent higher risk of kidney cancer, but those who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day can double their risk of developing renal cell carcinoma. They’re also more likely to develop cancer of the central area of the kidney — and of course, several other types of cancer, too.
Long-Term NSAID Use
Although painkillers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful and relatively mild on the system, long-term use has been linked to a slightly higher risk of kidney cancer. Fortunately, the specific drugs known to cause the most problems have been taken off the market, and taking any FDA-approved NSAID in low doses is very unlikely to cause a problem.
Preventing Kidney Cancer
While you can’t change your genes, you might be able to prevent some dangerous gene mutations by altering your lifestyle. Quitting smoking should be at the top of your list, and maintaining a healthy weight and lower blood pressure is equally as important. Even if you have genetic factors that can’t be changed, taking control of your daily health will always make a positive difference.