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Kidney Cancer

  • Amy Scholten, MPH
Publication Type:


Kidney Cancer

(Renal Cell Carcinoma)


Kidney cancer is cancer that starts in the kidneys. The kidneys are found just above the waist, on each side of the spine. The kidneys filter blood and make urine. The main types of kidney cancer are:

  • Wilms tumor —happens mainly in children
  • Renal cell carcinoma—happens in adults; different types are based on where they start


Cancer is when cells in the body split without control or order. These cells go on to form a growth or tumor. Cancer refers to harmful growths. These growths can attack nearby tissues and also spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear exactly what causes this to happen. It is likely a mix of genes and the environment.

Cancer Cell Growth

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Risk Factors

Kidney cancer is more common in men and people 60 years old or older. Other things that raise the risk are:


Symptoms of kidney cancer may be:

  • Blood in the urine (pee)
  • Lower back pain
  • A lump in the belly
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Signs of anemia such as feeling tired, pale skin, or fast heart rate


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. Blood and urine tests may be done to rule out more common issues like UTI. Images of the kidneys may be taken with:

A growth on the kidney may also be found when taking images for other reasons. Cancer is confirmed with a biopsy. A sample of suspicious tissue is taken and tested in a lab.

The exam and test results help find out the stage of cancer. Kidney cancer is staged from 1 to 4. Stage 1 is a very localized cancer. Stage 4 is a spread to other parts of the body.


Treatment is based on the stage and type of kidney cancer and overall health. More than one treatment may be used.

Some small kidney cancers are slow growing. The doctor may monitor them to see if they grow and need treatment.

Most kidney cancers are treated with surgery. The goal is to remove as much cancer as possible. Nearby lymph nodes or other sites with cancer may also be removed. Surgery may be:

  • Partial nephrectomy—removal of part of the kidney to treat smaller tumors
  • Radical nephrectomy—remove entire kidney, adrenal gland, and nearby fatty tissue and lymph nodes

Surgery can also be used to partially remove tumors that are causing symptoms.

Other treatments for kidney cancer may include:

  • Ablation—a procedure that uses heat or cold to destroy the cancer. It may be used for small areas of cancer and for those who cannot have surgery.
  • Targeted therapy—drugs that target cancer cells. It may be used:
    • After surgery to lower the risk of cancer coming back
    • For cancer that cannot removed with surgery
  • Immunotherapy—drugs to help the immune system fight and kill cancer cells. It may be used for cancer that cannot be removed with surgery.
  • Chemotherapy—drugs given by pills or IV to kill cancer cells. It is not very effective against kidney cancer. It may be used if other treatments have not worked or cancer has spread to other organs.
  • Radiation therapy—high energy rays to kill cancer cells. It is not always used for kidney cancer. Radiation therapy is most often used to shrink tumors that are causing problems like pain or bleeding.


To help lower the risk of kidney cancer:

  • Do not smoke. If you do, ask the doctor about help for quitting .
  • Reach and keep a healthy weight with:
    • Regular physical activity
    • A well-balanced, healthful eating plan.
  • Avoid alcohol or limit it to no more than:
    • 1 drink per day for women
    • 2 drinks per day for men




  • General information about renal cell cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
  • Kidney cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
  • Renal cell carcinoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
  • Rini BI, Battle D, et al. The society for immunotherapy of cancer consensus statement on immunotherapy for the treatment of advanced renal cell carcinoma (RCC). J Immunother Cancer. 2019;7(1):354.
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.