Renal cell carcinoma is the most common kind of kidney cancer; it's most frequently diagnosed in men between the ages of 50 and 70 years old. Unfortunately, chemotherapy and radiotherapy--two of the mainstays of cancer treatment--seem largely ineffective against renal cell carcinoma, so doctors typically rely on surgery for localized tumors but may try different approaches if the tumor invades other organs. The survival rate depends greatly on how far the disease has progressed at the time of diagnosis.
Tumor Node Metastasis
Staging means determining how far a cancer has progressed. Doctors use a system called tumor node metastasis (TNM) to stage renal cell carcinoma. The T component describes the size of the primary tumor and is measured on a scale of 0 to 4. The N component measures on a scale of 0 to 3 the degree to which the cancer has invaded nearby lymph nodes. The M component measures the degree to which the cancer has metastasized or spread to distant organs. The combination of TNM is used to assign the cancer to a specific stage.
A TNM of T1, N0, M0 corresponds to stage I, meaning the cancer is less than 7 cm in diameter and hasn't spread beyond the kidney. Stage I is quite curable since doctors can surgically excise part or all of the kidney (a procedure called a nephrectomy) to remove the tumor. Doctors often describe life expectancy for different stages in terms of five-year survival rate. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for stage I is 81 percent, meaning that 81 percent of patients with stage I cancer are alive after five years.
Stage II corresponds to T2, N0 M0 and means the tumor is more than 7 cm across but is still confined to the kidney. Again, since these tumors are operable there is a high success rate. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate is 74 percent for patients diagnosed with stage II renal cell carcinoma.
Stage III corresponds to T3, N0 M0 or T1-T3, N1, M0; it means either that the tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes, or it has spread into a major vein or the tissue around the kidney. Stage III is more difficult to treat successfully than stage II or I; according to the American Cancer Society, stage III has a five-year survival rate of 53 percent.
Stage IV is the least curable and most difficult to treat; it means either that the tumor has metastasized and invaded other organs (M1) or that it's grown through the fibrous layer surrounding the kidney (T4). According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for stage IV is only 8 percent. Doctors may try chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery to treat secondary tumors in other organs; although, as of 2009, the odds of success with currently available technology was unfortunately still quite low.
The sooner the cancer is caught the better--stage I and II are much more treatable and the life expectancy/survival rates are much better than for stage III or IV. Regardless of how far the disease has progressed, living with renal cell carcinoma is a difficult experience. Consider joining a support group where you'll meet other people who are facing the same challenge and know what you're going through. If you have any questions about your condition, the best person to consult is your doctor.