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How to Decide if Your Kidney Tumor is Dangerous

by | Apr 30, 2024 | Urology

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Kidney tumors are abnormal growths that can either be benign (non-cancerous) or  malignant (cancerous). The distinction between these types is crucial for determining  the appropriate management and treatment strategy.  

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Understanding Kidney Tumors 

A kidney tumor originates from different types of kidney cells and can grow to affect  kidney function or spread to other parts of the body. Kidney tumors can be malignant  such as renal cell carcinoma (RCC), or benign tumors like angiomyolipoma. Symptoms may include blood in the urine, lower back pain, and unexplained weight loss, though most kidney tumors may be asymptomatic and discovered incidentally during imaging  for unrelated reasons. 

Factors Determining the Danger of Kidney Tumors 

The danger posed by a kidney tumor is influenced by its size, location, histological type,  and whether it has spread. Malignant tumors, especially those that are larger or have  spread beyond the kidney, can affect survival. 

Diagnosing Kidney Tumors 

Diagnosis involves imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scans, or MRI scans to  visualize the tumor’s size and location. Blood and urine tests assess quality of kidney  function, while a biopsy may be performed to determine the cancer’s type and grade.  Genetic testing can identify hereditary syndromes that increase kidney cancer risk in  family members. 

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Small Kidney Tumors 

Kidney tumors smaller than 4 cm are classified as T1a according to the TNM (Tumor,  Node, Metastasis) staging system, indicating they are localized and have not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs. This categorization is crucial because it generally signifies a lower risk profile. Such tumors have a reduced likelihood of being  aggressive or metastasizing.  

Is It Cancer or Benign? 

Not all small kidney tumors are malignant. A significant number of these masses turn  out to be benign upon further investigation, posing little to no threat to the patient’s  health if left untreated.  

However, the potential for cancer cannot be overlooked. The likelihood of renal cell  carcinoma subtly increases with the tumor’s size, even within the small scale of less  than 4 cm. 

Treatment Options for Small Kidney Tumors 

  • Observation and Active Surveillance: This conservative approach is particularly suited for patients at higher surgical risk due to age or comorbid conditions. It involves regular monitoring of the tumor through imaging studies to detect any  growth or changes in the tumor. 
  • Kidney Biopsy: Conducting a biopsy involves using a needle to collect a small tissue sample from the tumor to distinguish between benign and malignant tumors. While biopsies carry some risks, such as bleeding or infection, they are  helpful to avoid unnecessary surgery for benign conditions. 
  • Partial Nephrectomy: This surgical technique entails removing only the tumor and a small margin of healthy tissue around it while preserving the rest of the healthy kidney. It is the gold standard for treating small renal masses suspected to be  cancerous, as it balances cancer control while preserving kidney function. Partial  nephrectomy is highly recommended for patients with a single kidney, pre existing kidney disease, or tumors in both kidneys. 
  • Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA): RFA offers an alternative for patients who may not tolerate surgery well. It uses heat generated by radio waves to kill tumor cells, conducted through a needle inserted into the tumor. RFA is less invasive,  and has a shorter recovery period, though it may carry a higher risk of the tumor  recurring, or incomplete treatment of tumor.  

Making the Decision: Dangerous or Not? 

Deciding on the best course of action for a small kidney tumor depends on several  factors, including the tumor’s size, growth rate, histological analysis, patient’s overall health, and treatment preferences. The primary goal is to treat potentially dangerous  tumors effectively while avoiding unnecessary treatment for benign conditions.  

This article has been fact-checked by Dr Chong Kian Tai, urologist at Surgi-TEN Specialists,  Farrer Park Hospital, Singapore.

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