No one wants to look for extra trouble after having been diagnosed with kidney cancer, even if the tumor is small. Horrified already by the cancer, it is more horrifying to realize that there are no guarantees, even when told by a reassuring surgeon that he “got it all”. The reality is that even small masses can have sent out cells to other sites, in the rest of the kidney, should it have remained, or to distant sites. (In cancer, ‘distant’ is never as distant as it should be, as that means there is cancer in some area away from the primary tumor. Could be lungs, bones or brain, sorry to say.) So now what do you do? And what can you do?
With the more sensitive imaging techniques, x ray, ultrasound, CT scans, and MRIs, more smaller tumors are being found. The hope is that finding and removing them will be completely curative, and there are plenty of papers to say that is the case. But is it really true? Unfortunately, finding tumors sooner also means that they may need to be “followed” or monitored longer than has been done in the past.
Consider the situation where a tumor about 2 inches in size is found, and scheduled to be monitored for five years. Though with no symptoms, the patient gets that “last” scan, only to find a newly visible met. Not visible at the year four scan, it may have been slowly growing , unseen for 2-3 years There may be further monitoring, and perhaps a surgery to remove it or one of the newer drugs is given, in hopes of downsizing or stabilizing the met. Happily the five year plan worked to catch this one.
Had that same tumor been found two years earlier, maybe just 1 inch in size, and monitored for five years, no further met would have been found. The monitoring may well stop at five years, while the slow-growing met continues to grow, still not visible to the scan. It may only be symptoms at year 7 or 8 which brings the patient back to the doctor, and this time with larger and perhaps more mets, not visible at the year five.
Older monitoring schedules were based on the low and grim expectations for kidney cancer patients. There was little thought to tracking patients for more than five years. After five years there weren’t that many patients!
With earlier detection, and more treatment options, now is the time to review monitoring to capture recurrent disease, which we patient call, “It came back.”
We do look to the five year mark, thrilled to have made it, especially so if we have been cancer-free. Not quite like graduation, but more like the beginning of summer vacation. But we (and our doctors) must be reminded to keep checking back in with the school principal/CT scan. We need to be sure no leftover bunch of cancer cells have become a measurable metastasis.
Let’s talk about size, as it really matters. So does the attitude–aggressive or indolent–of the cells of even the tiniest tumors. Some may well have sent out their own colonists, looking for areas to set up housekeeping. Clear cell RCC most often goes to the lungs, so lungs deserve close attention. X-rays can only see a pea-sized met, about 1 centimeter in size, so a CT scan, with and without contrast is best to find new mets.
What are the chances of finding mets, either sooner or later, with a small renal mass? Lots of stats and some terminology here, so take notes as needed. Better yet, grab your own post-surgery report, or the imaging reports so you know where you stand.
Measuring Small Renal Masses
Primary kidney tumors are measured on a T (for primary Tumor) scale that runs from TX–no primary tumor found, to T4, which is any tumor 10cm or larger(There are 2.54cm to the inch, so that is 10cm/2.54cm=3.9 inches. Think four inches, and remember that it can be shaped like a potato, not a ball or a pancake. They can be measured at a different spots in different scans. That is why measurements can vary from report to report.
T1 tumors are divided into T1a and T1b, and are limited to the kidney. T1a tumors can be up to 4cm in size, using the largest dimension. Officially this is the small renal mass. Volume counts in the real world, but a 4cm x 2cm will be described as the same size as a 4cm x 4cm tumor.
Tumors which are named at T1b size are still limited to the tumor, but can be up to 7cm in the longest dimension, so about 2 3/4 inches long. The officially small renal masses No longer described as small, it SOUNDS small by the name. Assuming that there is no other evidence of cancer outside these masses, this is Stage I cancer. Given the grade of the biopsied tumor, it may be considered to be low or high grade, which is a measure of the aggressive nature of the tumor.
Tumors in the T2 range are also divided into T2a and T2b. These are still limited to the kidney, with the division at the 7cm mark. T2a tumors are over 7 centimeters (think 3+ inches), and up to 10 centimeters, nearly 4 inches