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Understanding the Differences between Kidney Failure and Kidney Cancer: A cheat sheet


Kidney failure and kidney cancer are two serious medical conditions that affect the kidneys, but they are fundamentally different in their causes, symptoms, treatments, and implications. Understanding these differences is crucial for effective diagnosis, treatment, and management of each condition.

What is Kidney Failure?

Kidney failure, also known as renal failure, occurs when the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste products and excess fluids from the blood effectively. According to National Kidney Foundation of Malaysia, there are three main types:

Acute Kidney Failure: A sudden and often temporary loss of kidney function, typically caused by factors like severe dehydration, low blood pressure after an injury, infection, or certain medications. This is more common in men than in women.

Chronic Kidney Failure: A gradual and irreversible decline in kidney function, often due to long-term conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or chronic glomerulonephritis. This requires dialysis treatment.

End Stage Kidney Failure: At this stage, kidneys have failed completely and no longer can support bodily functions.

What is Kidney Cancer?

Kidney cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the kidneys. The most common type is renal cell carcinoma, which starts in the lining of the small tubes within the kidney. Other types include transitional cell carcinoma and Wilms' tumour, which primarily affects children. Men are more likely to develop the disease than women.

Symptoms of kidney cancer often appear in later stages and can include blood in the urine (haematuria), persistent pain in the side or back, a lump or mass in the abdomen, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and fever.

Key Differences of the Diseases

Nature of the disease:
A functional disorder where the kidneys fail to filter blood properly. A malignant condition characterised by the uncontrolled growth of cells in the kidney.
Symptoms related to reduced kidney function such as fluid retention and toxin buildup. Symptoms often include blood in the urine, pain, and lumps, related to tumour growth.
Often related to chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Linked to genetic factors, lifestyle choices (smoking, obesity), and sometimes unknown factors.
Diagnosed through blood and urine tests, imaging, and sometimes biopsy. Diagnosed through imaging tests and confirmed with a biopsy.
Managed through medication, lifestyle changes, dialysis, or transplantation. Treated with surgery, radiation, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.

While both kidney failure and kidney cancer impact the kidneys, they are distinct conditions with different risk factors, symptoms, and treatments. Kidney failure is primarily a functional problem often stemming from chronic health issues, while kidney cancer involves the abnormal growth of cells.

Early detection and appropriate treatment are crucial for managing both conditions effectively. Understanding these differences helps in ensuring timely and accurate medical intervention, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

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National Kidney Foundation Malaysia. (n.d.). Facts about kidney failure

National Kidney Foundation Malaysia. (n.d.). Causes of kidney failure

Cleveland Clinic. (May 6, 2022). Kidney Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatments.

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). If You Have Kidney Cancer Guide | American Cancer Society.

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