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Kidney cancer: hard to detect, on the rise

Kidney cancer doesn't get a lot of attention. Rick Thompson never gave it a thought until one day in 2012 when his urine turned red and he started passing blood clots. He thought it was a kidney stone.

Three days later doctors told him it was renal carcinoma, kidney cancer, in both kidneys.

"I never drank, never smoked, never did drugs," the 67-year-old Orlando retiree said, adding with a laugh: "So much for clean living."

Each year, about 65,000 American adults learn they have kidney cancer. It strikes men twice as often as women; African-Americans are at slightly greater risk than whites. Most people are diagnosed between age 50 and 60.

"The scary thing is, it has no signs or symptoms in 75 to 80 percent of cases," said Dr. Philippe Spiess, a surgeon in the department of genitourinary oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and one of Thompson's physicians. "I've taken out tumors the size of your forearm which produced no symptoms. I removed a tumor this morning that weighed 15 pounds, no symptoms."

Most of the time, the cancer is picked up during testing, usually a CT scan or MRI study, ordered for some other medical problem. Sometimes, patients will develop back pain that may favor the area near a kidney. A few, like Thompson, may notice that their urine looks pink or red.

The exact cause of kidney cancer is unknown, but it may be linked to smoking, using or working around pesticides and insecticides and working with chemicals and substances involved in manufacturing.

A new study released this week by the American Cancer Society says a meat-rich diet, particularly if the meat is pan fried or grilled at high temperatures or over an open flame, may increase risk. Obesity also seems to be a factor.

"Something in obesity causes an abnormal change in one of the genes responsible for kidney cancer, triggering the cancer," Spiess said, noting that obese patients tend to have a less aggressive disease and a more favorable prognosis. He said the incidence of kidney cancer has been increasing about 3 percent a year for several years, possibly due to the rising incidence of obesity in the United States.

Thompson had surgery to remove a 3 ½-inch tumor from his left kidney and a 1 ½-inch tumor from his right kidney. Because the cancer was small and hadn't spread outside the kidneys, he didn't need further treatment, just annual checkups.

Thompson retired from the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin last February after a long career as the company's resident artist and technical illustrator. His work included creating original paintings of fighter jets, helicopters, cruise missiles and members of the armed forces and their families.

He still paints, but, as a pilot and airplane mechanic, most of his time now is spent restoring a 1934 Fairchild F-24 C8C airplane he found in Alaska.

Can you prevent kidney cancer? Not really. But it probably won't hurt to keep your weight in check and limit consumption of meat cooked at high temperatures. And don't ignore pink urine or persistent back pain.

"Get that evaluated," Spiess said.

Contact Irene Maher at

To learn more

The National Kidney Foundation of Florida is sponsoring a free community workshop on kidney cancer, led by Dr. Philippe Spiess, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 21 at Moffitt Cancer Center's Stabile Research Building, 12902 Magnolia Drive, Tampa. Register at

Kidney cancer: hard to detect, on the rise 11/12/15 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2015 3:47pm]
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