Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer develops when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and form a tumor in the kidneys, an organ pair attached to the backside of the abdomen. The kidneys are responsible for filtering blood to remove excess water, salt and waste products. This pair of organs also helps regulate blood pressure and the production of red blood cells. Kidney cancer is among the 10 most common cancers in both men and women1.

Credit: American Cancer Society

What different types of kidney cancer exist?

There are several types of kidney cancer that affect the different cells of this organ. Read more about the types of kidney cancer at:

What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer is difficult to detect in its earlier stages. Also, symptoms may be mild or nonexistent if only one kidney is affected. The most common symptoms of kidney cancer are:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Pain in the side of the abdomen or the back
  • A lump in the abdomen
  • High blood pressure or anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Fever not due to illness
  • Swelling of the ankles & legs

How is kidney cancer diagnosed?

Physical exams include an examination of the abdominal region for swelling or lumps, which may be an indication of kidney cancer.

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnets, sound waves or radioactive chemicals to produce pictures of the inside of the body. For kidney cancer, these tests may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans and ultrasounds.

Biopsies consist of removing cells from the kidney and examining them under the microscope to detect cancer. For kidney cancer, biopsies are usually a secondary diagnostic test when imaging test results are unclear.

Urinalysis is performed on a sample of urine to determine the microscopic and chemical composition of the urine. Abnormal urine compositions may indicate the presence of kidney cancer.

Blood tests for kidney cancer include complete blood counts (CBCs). CBCs measure the amount of different types of cells present in the blood, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The results of CBCs are usually abnormal in people with kidney cancer. Blood counts are also used to determine if a patient is healthy enough for surgery to treat kidney cancer. Blood chemistry tests detect abnormalities in blood chemistry associated with kidney cancer and its metastasis (spreading) behavior.

What are the different stages of kidney cancer?

The most common staging system for kidney cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s (AJCC’s) TNM system. Kidney cancers that start in the renal pelvis are staged using another TNM system maintained by the AJCC.

The TNM system describes 3 key pieces of information:

  • T indicates the size of the main (primary) tumor and whether it has grown into nearby areas.
  • N describes the extent of spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-sized collections of immune system cells to which cancers often spread first.
  • M indicates whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body. (The most common sites of spread are to the lungs, bones, liver, brain, and distant lymph nodes.)

What are the treatments for kideny cancer?

This kidney cancer treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments used for this type of cancer.

Primary treatment options:

  • Active surveillance is the close monitoring of kidney cancers that are slow growing and/or small. This close monitoring entails periodically checking on the cancer to for evidence that the disease is worsening.
  • Surgery is the full or partial removal of the cancerous kidney. If the cancer has not metastasized (spread) surgery may be the only necessary treatment.
  • Radiofrequency ablation is the insertion of an electrified needle into the tumor to destroy the cancer via electrical current.
  • Cryoablation is the freezing of kidney cancer cells with a metal probe inserted through a small incision. This freezing action kills the cancerous cells and surrounding tissue.

Secondary Treatment options:

  • Targeted therapy targets specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that promotes kidney cancer growth and survival. Targeted therapy blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells, and it limits healthy cell damage.
  • Immunotherapy boosts a patient's immune system to attack cancerous kidney cells.

What are the risk factors of kidney cancer?

  • Age: The risk of developing kidney cancer increases with age.
  • Smoking: Smokers are at higher risk of developing kidney cancer than are nonsmokers. The risk of developing kidney cancer decreases after quitting.
  • Obesity: People who are obese are at a higher risk of kidney cancer.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension): High blood pressure is associated with higher rates of kidney cancer.
  • Previous treatment for kidney failure: Long-term dialysis for chronic kidney failure puts patients at a higher risk for kidney cancer.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease: This inherited disorder may lead to the development of several kinds of tumors, including kidney tumors.
  • Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma: This inherited condition is associated with a greater possibility of developing one or more types of kidney cancer.

How is kidney cancer prevented?

  • Quitting or avoiding smoking
  • Eating a healthy diet containing fruits and vegetables
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling high blood pressure 
Mikayla D. Williams , BS student, Nursing , The University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , The University of Arizona
Expert Reviewers: 
Cheryl Lacasse, MS, RN, OCN , Clinical Professor , College of Nursing, The University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Kidney Cancer.
Works Consulted: 
American Society of Clinical Oncology (2014). Kidney Cancer.
MD Anderson Cancer Center (2014). Kidney Cancer : Cancer information.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (2014). Kidney Cancer.