There are a number of management strategies for patients with clinically-localized, small renal masses (SRM, clinical stage T1) including radical nephrectomy (RN), nephron-sparing surgery (NSS; includes partial nephrectomy, PN, and ablative technologies), and active surveillance. Fortunately survival rates are excellent regardless of treatment . And with recent level I evidence indicating no difference in oncologic or renal-functional outcomes for healthy patients undergoing PN and RN,[2,3] quality-of-life (QOL) is becoming an increasingly important consideration for these patients.
This blog will review what is known regarding QOL in the management of SRM.
Radical Nephrectomy versus Nephron-Sparing SurgeryMost of the studies evaluating QOL in patients undergoing RN and NSS evaluate patients undergoing open surgery (in fact, there are no studies evaluating patients undergoing minimally-invasive PN). In addition, most of these studies employ a cross-sectional survey in which all patients from a given institution were sent a QOL questionnaire at some time period after surgery. Very few studies evaluate patients undergoing surgery in the more ideal, prospective fashion.
Cross-Sectional StudiesIt is generally understood that patients undergoing RN and PN are very different patient populations. RN patients are often older, have more comorbidities and larger tumors. Patients undergoing PN are subjected to a higher risk surgery, but have the benefit of preservation of a kidney.
Despite these differences, a study of the baseline QOL in patients undergoing RN and PN found no difference in general perceived health or QOL among the groups. A more in-depth analysis indicating that patients undergoing PN had better QOL scores related to physical health, while patients undergoing RN had better mental health QOL scores at baseline.
A number of studies indicate that overall QOL is similar following RN and PN.[5-7] The study by Poulakis et al. indicated that patients undergoing PN had higher physical health QOL scores , and while the study by Clark et al. did not demonstrate a difference in QOL between RN and PN, those patients with more renal parenchyma (tissue) saved had higher QOL scores. In general, these studies found that while NSS did not predict QOL, comorbidities, tumor size and renal function after surgery related strongly to overall QOL.
In contrast, a study by Ficarra et al. found that patients undergoing PN had improved QOL. Specifically they found lower rates of anxiety and depression in patients undergoing PN; and fewer patients had an impairment of their general health.
Prospective StudiesIn a study comparing radio-frequency ablation (RFA) to laparoscopic RN, Onishi et al. found that patients undergoing RFA were older and sicker with resultant lower QOL scores at baseline. However, over the course of six months following surgery, patients undergoing RFA had improvements in QOL while those undergoing RN had a significant detriment to physical functioning, physical health, pain and general health. In the study by Parker et al., patients undergoing RN had improved cancer-related QOL (indicating less fear of cancer recurrence). However, many domains of QOL (including physical health and fear of recurrence) were related to renal function – which was significantly better in patients undergoing PN.
Minimally-Invasive versus Open SurgeryAs stated above, most studies evaluate open RN and NSS. Studies evaluating laparoscopic and open surgery indicate that patients undergoing laparoscopic surgery have a quicker return to baseline QOL, but at one year both groups achieve similar QOL. A recent systematic review of this literature indicates that:
- With regard to RN, laparoscopic surgery has improved perioperative outcomes and related QOL.
- With regard to NSS, PN results in better preservation of renal function and related QOL regardless of approach. 
Active Surveillance and Watchful WaitingLittle QOL data exists in the SRM literature regarding active surveillance (AS) or watchful waiting (WW) programs. Analogous data from prostate cancer AS programs suggest that men do not fare worse in terms of their mental and physical wellbeing compared to those that choose to undergo active intervention [12-15], however there may be increased anxiety, particularly if tumor growth or progression is found.
In a two-year study of patients undergoing WW, greater illness uncertainty was related to poorer general health, cancer-related QOL and higher distress. While physical health-related QOL decreased over the two-year period, intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors improved; and mental health-related QOL did not change with time.
In an ongoing prospective study of AS and surgery for SRM, early data indicates that physical health-related QOL is significantly higher at baseline for patients who undergo surgery. While this difference persists throughout follow-up, mental health-related QOL (including depression and anxiety) is not adversely affected for patients undergoing AS over time and when compared to surgery patients.
SUMMARYWhile there are many shortcomings in the data regarding QOL in the management of SRM, the little data that exists indicates that:
- There is likely little difference in QOL for healthy patients undergoing RN and PN.
- A perceived QOL benefit to PN (and other NSS) may be related to preservation of renal function and tissue.
- While there is no long-term difference in QOL related to open or laparoscopic surgery, patients undergoing laparoscopic surgery may have a quicker return to baseline QOL on average.
- WW and AS for SRM does not appear to adversely affect mental health-related QOL.
This blog was written by Phillip M. Pierorazio, MD, Assistant Professor of Urology and Oncology.
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