Kidney Cancer: The Basics
Kidney cancer is caused by kidney cells that grow out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form a tumor. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell cancer. There are many types of renal cell cancer:
- Clear cell renal cell carcinoma.
- Papillary renal cell carcinoma.
- Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma.
- Rare types.
Other types of kidney cancer are transitional cell carcinomas, renal sarcoma, and Wilms Tumor (often found in children, but is rare in adults). Cancer that has spread to the kidney from another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.
Risk factors related to kidney cancer are:
- Workplace exposure to cadmium, some herbicides, and some organic solvents.
- Family history of kidney cancer.
- Other risk factors may be: high blood pressure, hereditary diseases including von Hippel-Lindau disease and polycystic kidney disease.
There are no screening tests for kidney cancer.
Signs & Symptoms of Kidney Cancer
Signs and symptoms of a tumor in the kidney may be:
- Hematuria (blood in the urine).
- Pain in your low back, often on one side.
- A mass you can feel on your side or lower back.
- Feeling tired.
- Not feeling as hungry.
- Losing weight.
- Anemia (low red blood cell count).
Signs and symptoms of kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body can be:
- Night sweats.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Higher levels of calcium level in the blood.
- Liver problems.
Diagnosis of Kidney Cancer
When your healthcare provider thinks you may have kidney cancer, they will order tests to find out the extent of the cancer to help choose your treatment.
- CT scan.
- Blood tests.
- Urine tests.
- Biopsy to see if the mass is cancer or not. A pathology report reviews the results of the biopsy and is sent to your healthcare provider. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.
Staging Kidney Cancer
To guide treatment, kidney cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:
- Where and how big the tumor is.
- If cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
- If cancer cells are in other areas of the body.
Stages range from stage I (smallest) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other areas of the body). The stage and type of kidney cancer will guide your treatment plan.
These treatments may be used:
- Surgery is the main choice of treatment. Either part of the kidney, or the whole kidney, is removed. This is called a partial or complete nephrectomy.
- Radiation therapy can be used for patients who can’t tolerate surgery.
- Targeted therapy is medication used to treat cancer by targeting a receptor found on the cancer cells and destroying it. This is a type of chemotherapy.
- Immunotherapy is the use of medications to boost the body’s immune system to fight and destroy cancer cells.
This article is a basic guide to kidney cancer. You can learn more about your type of kidney cancer and treatment by using the links below.
Kidney Cancer: Staging and Treatment
American Cancer Society. Kidney Cancer. 2020. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/kidney-cancer.html
NCCN Guidelines Version 1.2021 Kidney Cancer. 2020. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/kidney.pdf (log in required).
Chandra, A., Snider, J. T., Wu, Y., Jena, A., & Goldman, D. P. (2015). Robot-assisted surgery for kidney cancer increased access to a procedure that can reduce mortality and renal failure. Health Affairs, 34(2), 220-228.
De Meerleer, G., Khoo, V., Escudier, B., Joniau, S., Bossi, A., Ost, P., ... & Spahn, M. (2014). Radiotherapy for renal-cell carcinoma. The Lancet Oncology, 15(4), e170-e177.