Once you reach a ‘certain’ age, you are horrified, but not surprised to get a cancer diagnosis, or hear about it in a loved one. That same cancer in a young person is even more horrifying, we instinctively know.
Most kidney cancers (and there are more types than we previously knew) are found in people in their 60s and 70s. Bad enough, but a cancer called by the same name and found in a younger person is often a very different cancer, with a very different prognosis.
Some new research recognizes that special attention should be paid to those RCCs found in patients 46 years of age and younger. Why is this?
The quick answer is that this may represent a more aggressive kidney cancer and/or be of a familial or hereditary nature. That important distinction has researchers strongly recommending that young patients be referred for genetic testing. This can explain those special risks and create more appropriate treatment plans, and alert other family members as to special monitoring. Critically it may change the approach to any removal of the kidney and/or tumor.
Typically a small renal mass might be monitored or removed by either surgery or some laser ablation. If removed, the tumor can be assessed by a pathologist–a look under the microscope.Without a prior biopsy, the ablated tumor will not be examined, and no genetic testing can be done.
BIG HOWEVER HERE: even with a good pathology report, that may tell only what that tumor looks like–not what pushed it to grow, i.e., the genetic drivers. And those genes don’t go away with the tumor, so the risk remains that more tumors will grow, maybe in the second kidney, or in the partially removed kidney. Plus the rest that can happen with cancer…
An 75 year old whose small renal mass is removed will likely function well with one kidney. That same tumor in a 35 year old creates another challenge. If that tumor is driven by familial genes–not just by sheer bad luck–more tumors on the other kidney may be in the works. A partial nephrectomy must be considered. The risk of more tumors emerging in that kidney AND the other kidney is high. The younger patient needs decades of good kidney functioning, but those decades carry the risk of the emergence of more mets.
What else should trigger a genetic testing?
Quick answer: anything that doesn’t look like the senior citizen with a single tumor in one kidney. More officially below:
Early onset of kidney cancer is 46 years or less.
Bilateral (two-sided) or Multifocal (many locations) kidney tumors
Family history of kidney cancer, 1 or more close relative, 2 or more in more distant relatives
Kidney cancer with either a mix of other tumor types roughly related to kidney cancer or with lung cysts or pneumothorax (air leaking out of lung into chest cavity)
Personal or family history of kidney cancer syndromes.
The above list is from Yale School of Medicine, Professor Brian Shuch, who work includes dealing with heredity forms of kidney cancer.
More small renal masses found at an earlier age in more patients, as our imaging techniques improve and more CTs scans are done. Not all will be hereditary, and many will be sporadic or out-of-the-blue kidney cancers. Those are likely due to the sheer chance. Things go wrong as trillions of cells divide and make DNA mistakes along the way. Years of environmental damage may overwhelm the body’s ability to correct those DNA mistakes–i.e., the immune system gets overwhelmed, tricked, tired, etc.
Kidney cancer found at an early age or with the bilateral/multifocal tumors simply must be tested as to it genetic origins. This gives information critical to protect the rest of the kidney(s) and to participate in treatment that is more helpful. Finding an effective treatment will still be a challenge, but proper treatment requires knowing exactly which kidney cancer you have. From there, a real plan can be developed.
Just as I remind all readers to work with an experienced RCC oncologist–not just a surgeon and/or urologist (sorry guys, we need a team)–those who fall into this early and hereditary renal cell carcinoma category must also work with super specialists.
The person to contact at NIH is genetic counselor Lindsay Middelton at (301) 402-7911. She is with the National Cancer Institute’s Urologic Oncology Branch. An introductory link is below to the NCI and two other rare kidney cancer organizations.
Other syndromes causing kidney cancer: