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Treatment of Stage I – III Renal Cancer

Stage I Renal Cancer:  Patients with stage I renal cell cancer (RCC) have a primary cancer that is less than 7 centimeters in size (about 3 inches). The cancer is contained within the kidney and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Patients with stage I renal cell cancer are curable with surgical removal of the cancer. Partial nephrectomy, which is removal of only the cancer and a small border of normal tissue, is the standard treatment for the smallest renal cancer (less than 4 centimeters in diameter). Depending on the size of the cancer and the function of the second kidney, some surgeons may recommend radical nephrectomy, or removal of the entire kidney. However, partial nephrectomy appears to be as effective as radical nephrectomy and preserves kidney function. Results of clinical trials have shown that 75-96% of patients with Stage I renal cancers are curable with surgery alone.1

Stage II Renal Cell Cancer:  Patients with stage II renal cell cancer have a primary cancer that is larger than 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) in diameter. The cancer is limited to the kidney and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Patients with stage II renal cell cancer are curable with surgical removal of the cancer. Radical nephrectomy, or removal of the entire affected kidney, is the standard treatment for cancers of this size. However, removal of only the cancer and a small border of normal tissue, a procedure known as a partial nephrectomy is being evaluated in the treatment of larger cancers that are surgically accessible.  Results of clinical trials have shown that 63-95% of patients with stage II renal cancers are curable with surgery alone.2

Radical nephrectomy: Surgery for stage II renal cell cancer historically has involved removing the entire affected kidney and the attached adrenal gland, a procedure called a radical nephrectomy. Less invasive surgeries are being perfected and may be an option for many patients.

In some cases, the adrenal gland may not need to be removed. The adrenal glands are complex organs that work with the brain to produce and regulate important hormones, including adrenaline for coping with physical and emotional stress, corticosteroids for suppressing inflammation, and cortisol for controlling the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.

Researchers have reported that patients who underwent nephrectomy but did not have the adrenal gland removed survived as long as patients who underwent nephrectomy with removal of the adrenal gland and were not at any higher risk of postoperative complications.2

Stage III Renal Cell Cancer: Though stage III renal cell cancers vary in size, they share a defining feature of spread of the cancer to a single lymph node. The cancer may also have spread to nearby blood vessels—including the renal veins or vena cava—but has not spread to distant sites in the body.

Treatment for stage III renal cell cancer typically involves surgery to remove the affected kidney, affected lymph nodes, and any other cancer that may have spread near the kidney plus the attached adrenal gland and fatty tissue. This surgery is known as a radical nephrectomy. Results from clinical trials have shown that 38-70% of patients with stage III renal cell cancer are curable with surgery alone.1 However, patients with stage III disease have cancer that has spread outside the kidney, which places them at higher risk for cancer recurrence.

Partial nephrectomy (nephron-sparing surgery)

Removing only the cancer and some surrounding healthy tissue—a procedure called a partial nephrectomy—is now considered the standard of care for the treatment of small renal cancers. The benefits of this approach are shorter hospitalization and recovery time and, importantly, kidney function is preserved, which is particularly valuable for patients who already have poor function or only one kidney. Preserving the affected kidney is also valuable in the event that the cancer should recur in the opposite (contralateral) kidney.

The benefits and safety of this approach have been repeatedly demonstrated in the treatment of patients with Stage T1a renal cancer, which is defined a cancer that is less than 4 centimeters in diameter.2,3

Partial nephrectomy also appears to be a viable treatment option for patients with Stage T1b cancers (which are 4-7 centimeters in diameter) if an adequate amount of normal tissue surrounding the cancer can be removed.4 Patients with these slightly larger stage I cancers who are treated with partial nephrectomy have been shown to live as long and experience a similar cancer-free duration as patients treated with radical nephrectomy.5

However, longer follow up aimed at confirming these findings are ongoing. For those patients with stage T1b cancer that is more centrally located or those with multiple tumors, radical nephrectomy may be a better option.

Laparoscopic surgery

Laparoscopic surgery is a technique that is less extensive and invasive than traditional, open surgery. During a laparoscopic surgery for renal cancer, the surgeon makes small, one-centimeter incisions in the abdomen and side. The surgeon then inserts a very small tube that holds a video camera, which creates a live picture of the inside of the patient’s body. This picture is continually displayed on a television screen, so that surgeons can perform the entire surgery by watching the screen.

Both radical nephrectomy and partial nephrectomy may be conducted using laparoscopy. In the case of a radical nephrectomy, the incision is enlarged to allow passage of the kidney. A small bulk of tissue is removed with a partial nephrectomy and the incision can remain small.

Laparoscopic radical nephrectomy has emerged as an alternative to open surgery in the management of smaller (less than 8 centimeters in diameter), localized renal cancers. Patients treated with the laparoscopic approach do not appear to be at greater risk for cancer recurrence 5-10 years after treatment compared to patients treated open radical nephrectomy. The two approaches have also been shown to result in similar survival.6 However, patients who are candidates for laparoscopic radical nephrectomy would also do well with partial nephrectomy. The advantages of laparoscopic radical nephrectomy (shorter hospital stay and faster recovery) must be balanced with the advantage of partial nephrectomy, which is better long-term renal function.6,7,8,9,10,11,12

Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy appears to provide outcomes comparable to conventional open partial nephrectomy. Results of a clinical trial involving 100 patients with an average cancer size of 3.1 cm who underwent laparoscopic surgery showed that all patients survived three and one-half years or more after treatment without evidence of cancer recurrence.8 Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy is a specialized technique and should only be conducted by a surgeon who is experienced in this procedure.

Adjuvant Therapy

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved one treatment for the adjuvant treatment of adult patients at high risk of recurrent RCC following nephrectomy.

The approval of the medication Sutent (sunitinib malate) was based on a multi-center, clinical trial in which 615 patients with high risk RCC were treated with surgical nephrectomy and then received additional treatment either Sutent once daily, 4 weeks on treatment followed by 2 weeks off, or no additional therapy and directly compared. The average duration of survival without cancer recurrence for patients taking Sutent was 6.8 years compared with 5.6 years years for those receiving no additional treatment. Sutent is the first medication approved for use following surgery in high risk renal cell cancer.13



1 Lam JS, Shvarts O, Pantuck AJ. Changing concepts in the surgical management of renal cell carcinoma. European Urology. 2004; 45:692-705.

2 Joniau S, Vander Eeckt K, Van Poppel H. The indications for partial nephrectomy in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma. Nature Clinical Practice Urology. 2006;3(4):198-205.

3 Becker F, Siemer S, Humke U, et al. Elective nephron sparing surgery should become standard treatment for small unilateral renal cell carcinoma: Long-term survival data of 216 patients. European Urology. 2006;49(2):308-13.

4 Leibovich BC, Blute ML, Cheville JC, et al. Nephron sparing surgery for appropriately selected renal cell carcinoma between 4 and 7 cm results in outcome similar to radical nephrectomy. Journal of Urology. 2004;171(3):1066-70.

5 Dash A, Vickers AJ, Schachter LR, et al. Comparison of outcomes in elective partial vs radical nephrectomy for clear cell renal cell carcinoma of 4-7 cm. British Journal of Urology International.2006;97(5):939-45.

6 Permpongkosol S, Chan DY, Link RE, et al. Long-term survival analysis after laparoscopic radical nephrectomy. Journal of Urology. 2005; 174:1222-1225.

7 Matin SF, Gill IS, Worley S, et al. Outcome of laparoscopic radical and open partial nephrectomy for the sporadic 4 cm. or less renal tumor with a normal contralateral kidney. Journal of Urology. 2002;168(4 Pt 1):1356-9.

8 Moinzadeh A, Gill IS, Finelli A, et al. Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy: 3-year followup. Journal of Urology. 2006;175(2):459-62.

9 Varkarakis IO, Allaf ME, Takeshi I, et al. Percutaneous radio frequency ablation of renal masses: results at a 2-year mean followup. Journal of Urology. 2005; 174:456-460.

10 Schwartz BF, Rewcastle JC, Powell T, et al. Cryoablation of small peripheral renal masses: a retrospective analysis. Urology. 2006;68(1):14-8.

11 Lam JS, Shvarts O, Pantuck AJ. Changing concepts in the surgical management of renal cell carcinoma. European Urology. 2004; 45:692-705.

12 Siemer S, Lehmann J, Kamradt J, et al. Adrenal metastases in 1635 patients with renal cell carcinoma: outcome and indication for adrenalectomy. Journal of Urology. 2004;171(6 Pt 1):2155-9.


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