Surgery (and other treatments) For The Kidney Tumor

Surgery is the cornerstone (and usually the whole shooting match – see my article on Adjuvant Therapy) of treatment for renal cell cancer localized to the kidney. Taking care of the primary tumor offers an excellent chance of a cure with smaller less advanced cancers and still a good shot at it in most cases even when the cancer is locally advanced.

Taking care of the primary tumor almost always means surgery to remove it but I didn’t call this article, “Surgery for Localized Kidney Cancer” because a few patients, who for one reason or another can’t have surgery, can be treated with innovative energy based ablation techniques instead of surgery, something I cover in detail later in this article.

More and more kidney cancers are being diagnosed when small. Very often the patient had no symptoms at all and their tumor was picked up on scans being done for another reason. In many other areas of medicine, it’s the big complicated problems where new science and technology is bought to bear, but interestingly these small tumors are the current focus for innovations in treating the kidney tumor. Newer forms of surgery can save most of the affected kidney or be easier to recover from, or maybe even both. These aren’t options for all patients but they are for many, particularly those with small tumors.

Anyway, this surveys the options for dealing with the kidney tumor including several types of surgery and energy ablation. Some of these options are exotic but a quick read might clue you into some options you didn’t know you had. For detailed information on getting through surgery, see our Nephrectomy Tips. Towards the end of the article, I also suggest solutions for special situations such as “inoperable” tumors and multiple tumors.

Major Goals of Treating the Kidney Tumor

There are two major goals:

  • Completely removing or destroying the tumor or tumors.
  • Preservation of adequate kidney function.

The good news is that for most people very standard treatments accomplish both goals well without any serious permanent after-effects and the choice between options is not critical. In my view, people whose tumors can be easily taken care of with standard treatment should be careful about new treatments, careful about risks of compromising the goals of treatment, unless they are satisfied the treatment will be highly effective and has other real advantages to you such as a less painful or shorter recovery.

If there is a question of whether the tumor can be removed or whether removing the tumor will leave you with adequate kidney function, the situation is quite different. Here, in depth research of your options may make an absolutely critical difference. You could find a way to preserve your kidney function or “get” your tumor even if you’ve been told these goals are impossible to accomplish.

Urologists are primarily responsible for surgical and ablative treatment of kidney tumors so I went to the 2004 American Urological Association conference to get more information on treating the kidney tumor. What I learned there is a major source for this article.

Major Goals of Treating the Kidney Tumor

There are two major goals:

  • Completely removing or destroying the tumor or tumors.
  • Preservation of adequate kidney function.

The good news is that for most people very standard treatments accomplish both goals well without any serious permanent after-effects and the choice between options is not critical. In my view, people whose tumors can be easily taken care of with standard treatment should be careful about new treatments, careful about risks of compromising the goals of treatment, unless they are satisfied the treatment will be highly effective and has other real advantages to you such as a less painful or shorter recovery.

If there is a question of whether the tumor can be removed or whether removing the tumor will leave you with adequate kidney function, the situation is quite different. Here, in depth research of your options may make an absolutely critical difference. You could find a way to preserve your kidney function or “get” your tumor even if you’ve been told these goals are impossible to accomplish.

Laparoscopic kidney surgery uses a video camera / light source and instruments placed into the abdomen through several small punctures (called ports) to perform the surgery. Ports are usually only half an inch or so in diameter and can be smaller than that. Laparoscopic surgery is less invasive than open surgery, but still definitely requires general anesthesia.

In laparoscopic nephrectomy the kidney is removed through a somewhat larger incision (but still much smaller then for open nephrectomy). Often one of the ports is enlarged to make this incision.

Advantages of laproscopic surgery include:

Shorter hospital stay
Less time to complete recovery
Less pain during recovery
Less blood loss
Smaller scars
Disadvantages include:

Possibly longer operating time
Less ability to address complex cases (which are still done with open surgery)
Specialized skills required of the surgeon
Hand Assisted: In hand assisted surgery a somewhat larger incision is made for a special port which allows the surgeon to use a hand in the surgery. The major advantage of this technique that it makes the surgery less technically demanding for the surgeon. This is at the cost of a larger scar and incision though the incision is still much smaller than with open surgery and all or most of the advantages of laparoscopic surgery are retained. I know of no specific advantage to the patient compared to total laparoscopic surgery; it seems a reasonable compromise if total laproscopic surgery is hard to find. If you have a large tumor which would require a somewhat larger incision for extraction anyway, hand assisted laparoscopic surgery may not result in a larger incision since the tumor is extracted through the hand port and then there is no disadvantage for you at all.

Morcellation: This is a technical term for chopping up the kidney into bits (think "slice and dice") inside a special bag before extracting it from the patient. Morcellation allows a slightly smaller incision for extraction, but there are some disadvantages. First, you lose the ability to do accurate staging. This could even prejudice the possibility of getting into an adjuvant clinical trial, since trials have specific stage requirements. It would also make it impossible to use the tumor for a vaccine. Although done properly by an experienced surgeon this is very rare, rupture of the morcellation bag is a catastrophe. Morcellation also makes the operation a little longer. At the 2004 AUA meeting one of the world experts in kidney cancer surgery, Dr. Andrew Novick, specifically opposed morcellation for kidney cancer surgery. I understand a few experienced surgeons do use it, but I would investigate closely if your surgeon proposes to use morcellation.


Open surgery has been the “gold standard” for many years, but more and more patients are having their surgery done laparoscopically instead of open because it offers a faster recovery with less scarring. Where feasible (and it isn’t always) laparoscopic nephrectomy is becoming the standard technique for nephrectomy in an increasing number of centers. You should be aware that there is a dilemma between laparoscopic nephrectomy and open partial nephrectomy for some patients with smaller tumors. See below for a detailed discussion.

Open Nephrectomy

In the standard radical nephrectomy, the entire kidney, along with the associated adrenal gland, and regional lymph nodes are removed.

Many patients with smaller tumors get less radical surgery. My understanding is that when the tumor does not involve the upper part of the kidney near the adrenal, the adrenal can be left in place. Extended lymph node removal is increasingly being skipped for smaller tumors which are quite unlikely to have regional lymph node metastasis.

There are some cases in which an open nephrectomy is still necessary which I will discuss under laparoscopic nephrectomy below. These are mainly larger and more complex situations.

Involvement of the Inferior Vena Cava

One case which deserves special consideration here is tumor growth into the Inferior Vena Cava (IVC). Kidney cancer can actually get into the main vein draining the kidney and start growing inside the vein. This is called “tumor thrombus” (a thrombus is a clot). If this continues, the tumor thrombus will reach the IVC, which is the main vein draining the lower part of the body. The tumor thrombus can continue growing inside the IVC and it will grow in the direction of flow, upward towards the heart. In some cases, the tumor thrombus may even reach the heart. While all of this sounds both grim and gross, it turns out that removing the tumor thrombus is almost always possible. This is stage III not stage IV RCC and while serious there is also a real chance of cure or a long remission. Also surprisingly to me, the obstruction of the IVC does not cause severe problems. You may have a variocele, a benign mass of veins in the scrotum (I had IVC involvement and had this symptom).

You should know that complete removal is almost always possible even if tumor thrombus reaches all the way to the heart. If the thrombus is extensive you may need to be put on heart lung machine while the thrombus is extracted. Also sometimes a section of the IVC may have to be replaced by an artificial “graft”. Particularly if involvement of the IVC is extensive you should find a surgeon at a major center with lots of experience doing this operation. Over the years I’ve encountered a few patients who were told that surgery was not possible. If you are in this situation, you definitely need to get a second opinion from an expert in this, no matter how extensive your IVC involvement.

Laparoscopic Nephrectomy

Laparoscopic nephrectomy can be done when the tumor is small to medium sized usually up to about 8 cm. A few experts have done laparoscopic nephrectomy on huge tumors and if you have a large tumor and are going to have laparoscopic surgery anyway, you definitely want it from an expert (open surgery is also a good option). Laparoscopic surgery isn’t always possible. If you have lymph node metastasis in the area around the kidney, if you have tumor growing inside the renal vein or vena cava, or if the tumor directly invades nearby organs laparoscopic surgery is not an option and you will need open surgery. There are many other factors which influence whether laparoscopic surgery will be feasible, so to be sure, you need an opinion from a surgeon with experience in laparoscopic nephrectomy.

The faster recovery, shorter hospital stay, and minimal scarring with laparoscopic nephrectomy are very real advantages but they are short term or cosmetic. If you have a relatively simple case but are going to get a total nephrectomy rather than a partial nephrectomy, I recommend laparoscopic surgery if you can get it from an experienced surgeon. Laparoscopy is also a specialized skill with a real learning curve. Many urologists see relatively few cases of kidney cancer, so be sure your surgeon has real experience with laparoscopic nephrectomy.

I also think that because the advantages of laparoscopic nephrectomy are usually not critical, long term advantages, you shouldn’t feel as though it’s necessary to go through heroic efforts to get this type of surgery (in most cases). The good news is finding someone in your area with experience may not be difficult and if you can travel certainly you can get this surgery if it’s feasible in your case. If you are elderly or frail, though the advantages of an easier surgery could be very important and it would be especially worthwhile to seek out laparoscopic surgery. Again because the advantages of laparoscopic surgery are short term reasons, I don’t recommend pushing the limits of laparoscopic nephrectomy with large tumors or otherwise complex cases, or any case which is at the margin of experience for your surgeon.

Partial Nephrectomy

Particularly for small tumors, an increasing number of surgeons are doing partial nephrectomies rather than removing the whole kidney, although this is still far from standard practice for patients with normal kidney function. There may be some long term benefit from preserving more kidney mass, but keep in mind that most people do live a normal or near normal life span with one kidney as long as it’s functioning normally, and healthy people are even allowed to donate a kidney to a relative.

I commonly have seen 4cm given as the size limit for partial nephrectomy for people with otherwise normal kidney function, one study at the 2004 AUA conference showed that this limit could be extended to 7cm. Whether that will become the standard I don’t know. If it’s a matter of keeping you off dialysis surgeons will push the limits, and you should also push the limits by finding an expert’s expert if you’re in this situation.

Whether a partial is possible depends on more than just size. The location of the tumor is important too. Tumors in the center of the kidney are harder to get out, but very experienced experts can get more of these tumors. If you need a partial nephrectomy to retain kidney function and your tumor is centrally located you need to see an expert’s expert. Involvement of the renal vein or Inferior Vena Cava, or direct extension to nearby organs, preclude partial nephrectomy.

Partial nephrectomy becomes a truly important option when preserving kidney function is an issue. Some cases where partial nephrectomy may be an important option:

  • Solitary Kidney: If you already only have one kidney, saving part of your kidney will keep you off of dialysis. You can live a normal life with less than half of a single kidney.
  • Tumors in Both Kidneys: If you have tumors in both kidneys, then partial nephrectomy for at least one and if possible both will keep you off dialysis.
  • Hereditary Kidney Cancer: People who have hereditary kidney cancer are usually prone to developing multiple kidney tumors over the course of their life. Even if there happens to be only one tumor now or tumors in only one kidney people who are known to prone to developing multiple tumors should try to preserve as much kidney as possible.
  • Diseases Which Reduce Kidney Function: If you already have reduced kidney function due to some other disease, partial nephrectomy may help stave off dialysis.
  • Diseases Which Increase Risk of Kidney Failure: Diabetes and High Blood Pressure increase the risk of kidney failure in the future and would increase the chance of getting a major benefit from keeping part of the kidney. This is not as strong an indicator as the above, but still makes partial nephrectomy worth considering when reasonable.

If you are interested in partial nephrectomy, I think it’s important to find a surgeon who has a lot of experience with this technique because the surgery is substantially more complex than a regular nephrectomy.

Partial nephrectomy may carry a small risk of local recurrence in the remaining kidney due to cells which had escaped the main tumor. I recommend that follow-up after partial nephrectomy include special attention to the remainder of the kidney including appropriate imaging studies such as abdominal CT scan.

References on Partial Nephrectomy

Ghavamian R, Zincke H.
Open surgical partial nephrectomy.
Semin Urol Oncol. 2001 May;19(2):103-13. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Novick AC.
Nephron-sparing surgery for renal cell carcinoma.
Annu Rev Med. 2002 ;53:393-407. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Laparoscopic Partial Nephrectomy

Can laparoscopic surgery and partial nephrectomy be combined? According to a presentation at the 2003 Kidney Cancer Association meeting, the answer is yes. Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy is possible but requires special skill. It is necessary to cut-off the blood supply to the kidney while the tumor is being removed to prevent bleeding, and this strictly limits the amount of time to finish the job. In addition, controlling bleeding can be very difficult laparoscopically. The extremely technical nature of this surgery does not mean it is harder for the patient. If everything goes right, the operation still retains all of the advantages of laparoscopic surgery, faster recovery and minimal scarring.

Unfortunately, the best published report I have on this suggests a significantly higher rate of complications and failure to “get it all” for laparoscopic partials. At the 2004 AUA meeting Dr. Gill updated his experience and it appears that with improved methods of controlling bleeding and more experience, he has been able to greatly reduce the rate of complications and appears to have eliminated cases with positive margins. At the same time every presentation I attended at AUA 2004 strongly emphasized what a technically difficult and advanced procedure this is, along with its “steep learning curve”. A steep learning curve means the risk of problems is much greater in the surgeons early cases.

My recommendation is to stay away from laparoscopic partial unless there is a specific reason this is important in your case or unless you are in the hands of one of the few world experts in this surgery. If you are one of the few who really would need a laparoscopic partial, you want one of those world class experts. I recommend asking how many procedures your surgeon has done, and what the rates of complications and positive margins have been.

References on Laparoscopic Partial Nephrectomy

Gill IS, Desai MM, Kaouk JH, Meraney AM, Murphy DP, Sung GT, Novick AC.
Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy for renal tumor: duplicating open surgical techniques.
J Urol. 2002 Feb;167(2 Pt 1):469-7; discussion 475-6. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Gill IS, Matin SF, Desai MM, Kaouk JH, Steinberg A, Mascha E, Thornton J, Sherief MH, Strzempkowski B, Novick AC.
Comparative analysis of laparoscopic versus open partial nephrectomy for renal tumors in 200 patients.
J Urol. 2003 Jul;170(1):64-8. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]


Comment: This group of some of the world's most experienced experts in advanced kidney surgery had a higher rate of both complications and positive surgical margins (not "getting it all") for laparoscopic partial nephrectomy compared to open partial nephrectomy. While most of the complications were only a temporary setback for the patient, re-operation, or even losing the kidney also happened in a few cases.

At AUA 2004, Dr. Gill presented updated results with another 200 cases of laparoscopic partial and it appears he's worked out many of the bugs. There were no more cases of positive margins and also improved techniques greatly reduced the rate of complications due to bleeding. I think there are very few surgeons who could duplicate Dr. Gill's results right now, but over time I expect the ability to do this surgery with consistently excellent results will spread.

Kaouk JH, Gill IS.
Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy: a new horizon.
Curr Opin Urol. 2003 May;13(3):215-9. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Phelan MW, Perry KT, Gore J, Schulam PG.
Laparoscopic partial nephrectomy and minimally invasive nephron-sparing surgery.
Curr Urol Rep. 2003 Feb;4(1):13-20. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Treatment of Small Tumors: A Dilemma

At the 2004 AUA conference there were two posters, back to back, each proclaiming different surgeries to be the new “gold standard” for smaller kidney tumors. They were laparoscopic nephrectomy and open partial nephrectomy. The thing is, each treatment has a different advantage over open nephrectomy.

If both treatments are an option for you, you are faced with mutually exclusive options, preserving the most kidney tissue versus the easiest recovery and a smaller scar. In some cases it will be obvious which is more important. If you have conditions which threaten kidney function then preserving kidney mass is most important. If your medical condition is such that major surgery will be particularly debilitating, then surgery which is easier on the patient is most important. For most patients the advantages of laparoscopic surgery are almost entirely short term and tactical. Preserving kidney function is a long-term strategic advantage. Whether saving kidney mass with a partial nephrectomy in the absence of any specific threat to kidney function is really a significant advantage I’m not sure of yet, but I do think long term strategic advantages are more important than short term tactical advantages.

Of course, in theory, laparoscopic partial nephrectomy is the best of both worlds, but as I discussed above, this technique is still in development, hard to find, and carries additional risks. For selected patients with both a threat to kidney function and who would find open surgery particularly debilitating, getting this treatment from an expert is an option.

Energy Based Ablation

I cover ablation in some detail even though it is appropriate for only a few patients because this is one of those things which is not be universally known and which could be very important for those few who need the information.

Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) and Cryoablation are techniques for destroying tumors through the application of energy which have shown promise in treating smaller kidney tumors. Although equipment for both RFA and cryosurgery are FDA approved devices, these techniques are definitely experimental for treatment of kidney tumors. Both involve inserting a probe into the tumor usually using an imaging scan (CT, MRI, or ultrasound) to place the probe into the tumor. Cryoablation destroys the tumor by freezing it, while RFA destroys it by heating. The RFA probe isn’t actually hot, but instead transmits radiofrequency energy which heats up the tissue surrounding it.

These techniques have two major advantages

  • “Minimally Invasive”: In some cases ablation can be done by inserting a probe through the skin into the tumor under CT or MRI guidance. This “percutaneous” ablation can be done when the tumor to be ablated isn’t too close to any adjacent organ and when no organs are in the path of the probe as would the case for tumors on the part of the kidney closest to your back (“posterior”) or closest to your side (“lateral”). Percutaneous cryoablation still usually requires general anesthesia, perhaps because of the thickness of the probe, but percutaneous RFA can be done with IV sedation. This could be important if you have medical problems which make general anesthesia risky. Percutaneous ablation even with general anesthesia has a faster recovery than laparoscopic surgery. Sometimes percutaneous RFA can even be an outpatient procedure while percutaneous cryoablation usually requires an overnight in the hospital.Ablation can be also be done laparoscopically and has to be when the location of the tumor precludes percutaneous ablation. Frankly, I see little advantage to this over laparoscopic partial nephrectomy (if available from an expert) which offers more certain tumor destruction though laparoscopic partial nephrectomy is more technically difficult to perform.
  • “Nephron Sparing”: The objective of ablation is to destroy the tumor along with a safety margin of normal tissue while sparing the rest of the kidney, so this also has the benefits of partial nephrectomy.


  • Size: Currently ablation is usually limited to tumors about 4cm or smaller. Because both technology and technique are improving rapidly, I expect this to be relaxed in the future.
  • Tumor Location: Tumors located in the center of the kidney or close to it are difficult to treat and those which are invading the urine collecting system, or close to it, probably cannot be treated by ablation. Attempts to treat these tumors have had a high complication and failure rate. According expert in ablation who I talked to at the 2004 AUA conference, only rarely could a tumor be gotten with ablation that couldn’t also be gotten with partial nephrectomy (assuming the patient could withstand either procedure).

There are many other factors which might affect whether ablation is technically feasible so of course you need an opinion from an expert to be sure.

Serious Uncertainties

  • Uncertain Tumor Destruction: With surgery. whatever is removed is most assuredly completely gone! With ablation it is possible that some cancer cells in the ablation zone survive the process. In fact, two recent studies where experimental radiofrequency ablation was followed by surgery to remove the entire tumor showed that some cancer cells survived in most cases [Michaels 2002Rendon 2002]. Another study [Matlaga 2002] was much more reassuring, but I don’t think there is enough data to give good advice about what makes for effective total ablation. I found only one similar study for cryosurgery [Edmunds 2000]. Although unlike RFA all of the tumors were completely ablated in this study, the study was limited to such small tumors (<2cm) that it’s not enough to prove that Cryosurgery is more effective than RFA. It is good evidence for true tumor kill with cryosurgery in very small tumors.
  • Difficulty Assessing Tumor Destruction: With surgery, the pathologist examines the edges of the removed tissue to determine if the whole tumor was removed. With ablation, all you get are imaging results – during and after the procedure. There is no way to be sure whether the entire tumor was destroyed or whether there are viable cells in the ablated zone. More often then not, the lesion does not completely go away on CT scan – not even after months. Most studies rely on whether the area of the tumor still “enhances” after contrast CT scan after the procedure. If it does, they consider the treatment to have failed, but no enhancement can’t guarantee an actual success. In some cases areas which were missed can simply be retreated. In the end, only time will tell whether the tumors have really been definitively treated but it could take years for tumors to regrow from a single cell that escaped ablation and most of these studies have rely primarily on CT scans and have very, very short follow-up, sometimes much less than even one year.

One significant mitigating factor is that very small kidney tumors (under about 3cm) metastasize only rarely. With careful follow-up of the kidney, any local recurrence could probably be re-treated before it was dangerous. This is under the assumption the tumor was small to begin with. If you had ablation for a larger tumor it is possible that the cells have become more aggressive and that regrowth could be more dangerous.

Cryosurgery Versus RFA

Based on the published literature it appears to me that Cryosurgery has a better success rate (however measured) than RFA (see the commented references below), however because the technologies are new and evolving rapidly, it’s impossible to know which is better. It will certainly depend on the practitioner’s methods and experience as well your situation. Again, neither treatment comes with a guarantee.

On the other hand, RFA has the advantage that it can be done without general anesthesia in some cases. Unless you can’t withstand general anesthesia, right now I think the slightly better success rate for cryo makes it the better option.

If ablation doesn’t appear to be unusually complicated – e.g. small non-centrally located tumor, then I think either technique might completely destroy your tumor. For most people, “might” isn’t nearly good enough since surgery will almost certainly eliminate the tumor. For a few with special situations which make surgery unattractive, “probably” may be a great advance over the alternative.

Some Situations In Which Ablation Could be Appropriate

  • Can’t Withstand Surgery: Ablation can make sense for patients with small tumors who might not be strong enough to withstand surgery due to medical problems or advanced age. I think this is the most important reason for ablation at this time since these patients might not be able to have curative surgery other than by ablation.
    • An Interesting Story: On a cross country ski trip not too long ago I met a man whose elderly father was planning to get RFA for a very small kidney tumor that had just been found. His tumor was only one or two centimeters. The patient was in his mid 80s but in reasonable health. The risk of metastasis is very low with such small tumors, and they figured it made a lot of sense to take a small risk with the new technology to avoid the certain risks and quality of life costs of major surgery at his age, even though he probably would have survived surgery.
  • Multiple Tumors: Ablation of small tumors could be used to avoid multiple open surgeries over time in patients who tend to develop multiple primary tumors over time, perhaps due to a hereditary kidney cancer syndrome. What is unclear to me is whether there are cases where ablation can better preserve renal mass significantly better than surgery. It’d be worth getting an opinion about this from an expert.

Follow-Up After Ablation: Since energy ablation is new and is also a less definitive way of eliminating tumors than surgery, long-term very careful follow-up of the kidney to detect local recurrence is critical.

References on Ablation

General References and Reviews

Desai MM, Gill IS.
Current status of cryoablation and radiofrequency ablation in the management of renal tumors.
Curr Opin Urol. 2002 Sep;12(5):387-93. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Janzen N, Zisman A, Pantuck AJ, Perry K, Schulam P, Belldegrun AS.
Minimally invasive ablative approaches in the treatment of renal cell carcinoma.
Curr Urol Rep. 2002 Feb;3(1):13-20.[PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Murphy DP, Gill IS.
Energy-based renal tumor ablation: a review.
Semin Urol Oncol. 2001 May;19(2):133-40.[PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]


Edmunds TB Jr, Schulsinger DA, Durand DB, Waltzer WC.
Acute histologic changes in human renal tumors after cryoablation.
J Endourol. 2000 Mar;14(2):139-43.[PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This is the only study I've found on cryosurgery which tested removing the tumors after ablation to see if the procedure really killed all of the tumor cells. Very much unlike some of the studies for RFA, every tumor was completely killed. However, the study was limited to tiny tumors - less then 2cm - and I'm not sure the same result couldn't have been had with RFA for these tumors. So while I can't conclude from this that it proves cryosurgery is more effective than RFA it is reassuring news that cryosurgery can result in total tumor kill.

Gill IS, Novick AC, Meraney AM, Chen RN, Hobart MG, Sung GT, Hale J, Schweizer DK, Remer EM.
Laparoscopic renal cryoablation in 32 patients.
Urology. 2000 Nov 1;56(5):748-53. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: Though the more recent percutaneous procedure is less invasive, this is one of the major cryosurgery papers due to the number of patients treated and relatively long follow-up (which averaged 16 months). Patients required 1-5 days in the hospital and the median time to recovery was two weeks. By the measurements they used, CT scan and needle biopsy, every procedure successfully destroyed the tumor. Complications were not a problem.

Khorsandi M, Foy RC, Chong W, Hoenig DM, Cohen JK, Rukstalis DB.
Preliminary experience with cryoablation of renal lesions smaller than 4 centimeters.
J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2002 May;102(5):277-81. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This reports on cryosurgery done during open surgery. The authors argue that open cryosurgery is safer and more controllable and that more areas of the kidney can be accessed with open surgery but I do not see that their results are superior. However, they had good follow-up in some patients, 8 of 17 had more than 20 months follow-up and in only one of their 17 patients was there any suspicion of incomplete ablation. This is more evidence that freezing effectively destroys the tumor though subject to the usual uncertainty associated with these procedures. They had two controllable complications which they attributed to learning curve and the use of multiple probes. They switched to single probe cryosurgery part way through the study. It remains unclear to me whether cryosurgery preserves more of the kidney than partial nephrectomy - if not there would seem to be no advantage to open cryosurgery.

Lee DI, McGinnis DE, Feld R, Strup SE.
Retroperitoneal laparoscopic cryoablation of small renal tumors: intermediate results.
Urology. 2003 Jan;61(1):83-8. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This paper has longer follow-up than some others which is important. Half the patients had two years or more. In one case they apparently missed the lesion (mistaking something else for it) but in all other cases they thought the ablation had gone well. Postoperative CT showed residual enhancement in two cases but very interestingly with long term follow-up both of these disappeared completely. In fact, in many of the cases with long term follow-up the tumor resolved completely by CT scan. I think the complete resolution of tumors seen here longer term follow-up bodes well for cryosurgery.

Shingleton WB, Sewell PE Jr.
Percutaneous renal tumor cryoablation with magnetic resonance imaging guidance.
J Urol. 2001 Mar;165(3):773-6. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This is one of the more important papers on cryoablation. The use of open MRI to position the probe and monitor the freezing process seems to be a significant advance. Although this was apparently successful, follow-up was less than a year in most cases. The one apparent failure was in a patient with a larger tumor than they planned to accept (5cm) and residual tumor was handled by retreating. They used general anesthesia in most cases but made exceptions for patients too sick to tolerate it. They hospitalized their patients overnight for observation.

Shingleton WB, Sewell PE Jr.
Cryoablation of renal tumours in patients with solitary kidneys.
BJU Int. 2003 Aug;92(3):237-9. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: In this study there were two failed ablations as judged by CT scans out of 12 cases, one of which was in a larger than usual tumor, while the other was using an earlier technique. Several patients required more than one treatment to get a total ablation. Follow-up for most patients was a at least a year with 4 patients out two years or more.

Radiofrequency Ablation

Farrell MA, Charboneau WJ, DiMarco DS, Chow GK, Zincke H, Callstrom MR, Lewis BD, Lee RA, Reading CC.
Imaging-guided radiofrequency ablation of solid renal tumors.
AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2003 Jun;180(6):1509-13. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This is one of the largest RFA papers and certainly the most successful - all patients were thought to have a complete ablation by CT scan though follow-up was short. Most patients were treated percutaneously and almost all of them were able to go home the same day, even though general anesthesia was used in most cases. There were some complications caused by placement of the probe - in particular nerve damage. This was temporary in two of three patients with this complication, but one was still in pain 9 months after the procedure.

Gervais DA, McGovern FJ, Arellano RS, McDougal WS, Mueller PR.
Renal cell carcinoma: clinical experience and technical success with radio-frequency ablation of 42 tumors.
Radiology. 2003 Feb;226(2):417-24. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This important RFA study claimed an 85% success rate based on CT imaging which is a bit low, but most of the failures involved tumors close to or in the center of the tumor (and half of these were scheduled to undergo another ablation which might finish the job). My impression from this paper is that these doctors were willing to attempt more difficult cases than most, including larger and more centrally located tumors. They also used advanced techniques such as multiple ablation zones and multiple ablations when needed though some of this may have been to compensate for earlier versions of the equipment. Follow-up was variable averaging a little over a year but up to 42 months. No patient judged to have a technically successful ablation had growth or recurrence although most tumors didn't shrink much after treatment. Four patients had complications which included permanent kidney damage in some.

Matlaga BR, Zagoria RJ, Woodruff RD, Torti FM, Hall MC.
Phase II trial of radio frequency ablation of renal cancer: evaluation of the kill zone
J Urol. 2002 Dec;168(6):2401-5. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This study removed the tumor surgically immediately after RFA. It was similar in design to Michaels 2002 below, but had much better results. In 8 of 10 cases the pathological examination of the tumor showed complete destruction. Of the two failures one was an 8cm tumor, far beyond the size RFA can treat. Actually, I think studies of this sort would be excellent for defining and expanding the maximum tumor size which can be treated.

Michaels MJ, Rhee HK, Mourtzinos AP, Summerhayes IC, Silverman ML, Libertino JA.
Incomplete renal tumor destruction using radio frequency interstitial ablation
J Urol. 2002 Dec;168(6):2406-9; discussion 2409-10 [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: This one is scary. They removed the tumor surgically immediately after doing RFA and found by that there were potentially viable cells remaining in the ablated area every case. It is possible that these cells would have died over time due to disruption of their blood supply and so forth. It is also possible that some of the cells which looked like they could be alive were actually not viable. Technique and equipment might also play a role here as suggested by Matlaga 2002 above, but it's hard to advise what is better. In sum, this study screams caution about RFA.

Pavlovich CP, Walther MM, Choyke PL, Pautler SE, Chang R, Linehan WM, Wood BJ.
Percutaneous radio frequency ablation of small renal tumors: initial results.
J Urol. 2002 Jan;167(1):10-5. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: Interestingly, all of the patients in this paper from NCI had hereditary RCC (which tends to form multiple tumors). 5 of the 24 tumors were considered to be failures based on CT follow-up and 4 of these 5 were due to inadequate heating which was observed at the time of the ablation. Follow-up time was astoundingly short - only two months which makes this report extremely preliminary. No major complications.

Rendon RA, Kachura JR, Sweet JM, Gertner MR, Sherar MD, Robinette M, Tsihlias J, Trachtenberg J, Sampson H, Jewett MA.
The uncertainty of radio frequency treatment of renal cell carcinoma: findings at immediate and delayed nephrectomy.
J Urol. 2002 Apr;167(4):1587-92. [PubMed Abstract (will open in new window)]

Comment: Like Michaels 2002, this study found evidence of incomplete ablation after RFA by removing the tumor surgically after ablation and examining it for viable cancer cells. What is unique is that they did percutaneous ablation on 6 patients and removed the tumor a week later, which should give a more accurate picture of the success of the ablation after any delayed cell death. They also ablated 5 patients during open surgery and removed the tumor immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, in both cases a substantial fraction had incomplete ablation. Interestingly, all of the viable tumor was at the edge of the lesion which suggests technique and equipment might solve the problem. Also of the three patients who had viable tumor after percutaneous RFA, two showed no enhancement in a CT scan taken right before surgery. This means using non-enhancement by CT as a measure of success for RFA, as so many of these studies do, is dangerous.

Special Situation: “Inoperable”

Surgery is possible for almost everyone with localized disease, even when they have large tumors or other complications, and in fact relatively few are told they are inoperable, but if you are one of the few it is absolutely critical to take action! Anyone without metastasis who is told they are “inoperable” should vigorously seek second opinions and other options for treating the tumor since surgery is by far your best chance of cure. Leave no stone unturned! If you are in an HMO you should insist on opinions at major centers from experts in urological surgery, even if it’s out of network, or if necessary pay for an opinion yourself.

  • Very Large Tumors: Size alone is no bar to surgery! Huge kidney tumors are routinely removed. This should not be a reason you can’t have surgery.

  • Vena Cava or Renal Vein: Almost all of these tumors can be removed – see my discussion under open nephrectomy above.

  • Would Lose Kidney Function: If removing the kidney would cause you to need dialysis, partial nephrectomy or non-surgical ablation could be options for you. See the discussion of these techniques above.

  • Would Not Withstand Surgery: If you have other medical conditions and are told the surgery itself is too risky, you should consider the risk of the disease which is often curable if the surgery can be done and usually incurable if it metastasizes, which is the expected result without treatment. Non-surgical ablation or laparoscopic surgery might be options and another surgeon might have a different opinion of whether you could tolerate the surgery. Note that since very occasionally laparoscopic surgeries have to be converted to open, most surgeons would still require that you could withstand an open surgery even if it is not desirable.

  • Direct Extension to Other Organs: Here the tumor has grown out of the kidney and directly invaded other nearby organs such as the liver. This is a different situation than metastasis where cells which have escaped from the kidney tumor have started new tumors elsewhere in the body. Sometimes direct extension really is inoperable, but definitely don’t accept the first judgment you get on that.

  • Metastatic Disease: If you have been told you kidney tumor is “inoperable” because you have metastatic disease this does not mean it would actually be impossible to have a nephrectomy. Instead, nephrectomy alone is not a useful treatment once the disease has spread. In some cases, initial nephrectomy as part of an integrated plan which combines the surgery with immunotherapy has been advocated. This is an extremely complex and difficult area – see my article Surgery & Immunotherapy for the details.

Special Situation: Tumors In Both Kidneys or Multiple Kidney Tumors

If you have multiple tumors either in both kidneys or a single kidney, it is important to try to preserve enough kidney mass to allow you to live a normal life without dialysis. The presence of multiple primary tumors suggests that you have a pre-disposition to develop kidney tumors, which suggests you could develop more in the future, which in turn makes it even more important to preserve kidney mass to the extent possible. Multiple primary tumors can sometimes be a sign of Hereditary Kidney Cancer. Anyone in this situation definitely needs to be in the care of experts at a major center. The US National Cancer Institute has special expertise in this area.

Several techniques such as partial nephrectomy (including surgery to basically cherry pick “enucleate” multiple small tumors) or energy based ablation may be used separately or in combination to preserve as much of your kidneys as possible. In addition, careful follow-up of the kidneys to detect new or recurring tumors is important so they can be treated while they are still small. In people with many small masses it’s not possible too rush into surgery the instant something new is discovered so patients are followed closely and only treated when their biggest tumor approaches 3cm, a size below which hereditary cancers don’t seem to metastasize (and rarely for any kidney cancer).

Special Situation: Only One Kidney or Reduced Kidney Function

If at all possible get a partial nephrectomy. See Partial Nephrectomy above!

This CancerGuide Page By Steve Dunn. © Steve Dunn
Page Created: August 22, 2003, Last Updated: June 2, 2004