Overview

What is kidney cancer? An expert explains

Learn more from urologic oncologist Bradley Leibovich, M.D.

I'm Dr. Brad Leibovich, urologic oncologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of kidney cancer: What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or for someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. First, let's talk about the kidney. You have two of these bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They sit right behind your abdominal organs with one on each side of the spine. It's their job to filter excess water, salt, and waste products from your body, turning those substances into urine. Like other organs, kidneys are made up of cellular tissue. Sometimes the cells in this tissue behave irregularly. Changes in their DNA make them grow in abnormal ways, forming tumors. This is how cancer develops. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma. About nine out of 10 kidney cancers are this type. With improvements in technology, thankfully, come improvements in treatment. So in an encouraging turn, kidney cancer has never been more treatable than it is today.

The average age of those diagnosed with kidney cancer is 64. It is about twice as common in men as it is in women. The exact causes of kidney cancer, like many other cancers, are not known. However, we do know that certain things can increase your chances of developing kidney cancer. Older age, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, long-term dialysis, and a family history of kidney cancer can all increase your risk.

Unfortunately, kidney cancer is often hard to diagnose, as it doesn't have clear signs or symptoms in its early stages. Over time, the following may develop: Blood in your urine, which may appear pink, red or cola colored. Pain in your back or side that does not go away. Loss of appetite. Unexplained weight loss. Persistent tiredness. Fever. Or night sweats. If you're worried that you may be experiencing these symptoms, please talk to your doctor.

The way doctors evaluate kidney tumors may include one or more of the following tests and procedures: Blood and urine tests. Imaging tests like ultrasounds, x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, which can help visualize the tumor or abnormality. On occasion, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. This involves removing a small sample of tissue from the tumor with a needle for further testing. If it's determined that you have kidney cancer, the next step is staging that cancer. Staging is a medical term to describe how advanced your cancer is. Specific tests for staging could include further CT scans or other imaging tests. Once the doctor has enough information, they'll assign a Roman numeral ranging from 1 to 4 to indicate the stage of your cancer. The lower end means your cancer is confined to the kidney. The higher means the cancer is considered advanced and may have spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body.

There are a few small upsides to kidney cancer versus others. The fact that we have two kidneys, and our bodies typically only need one to function normally, means that in many occasions, if the kidney cancer is localized and hasn't spread to other parts of the body, not only are the odds of surviving very good, but typically we do not have any negative impact on quality of life from the treatment for kidney cancer. For most, surgery is the first step. Depending upon the stage and severity of cancer, surgeons may remove the affected kidney altogether - a procedure known as a nephrectomy or radical nephrectomy. Sometimes they may opt to remove the tumor from the kidney. This is known as a partial nephrectomy or kidney-sparing or nephron-sparing surgery. In addition to surgery, some kidney cancers are destroyed by non-surgical methods. Cryoablation is a treatment that freezes and kills cancerous cells. Radiofrequency ablation is a treatment that causes the mutated cells to heat up, in effect disintegrating them. The best treatment for you depends on a handful of factors, including your overall health, the kind of kidney cancer you have, whether the cancer has spread and your preferences for treatment. Together, you and your medical team can decide what's right for you.

Learning you've been diagnosed with cancer is never easy. But there are ways to cope with the daily challenges of processing your disease, treatment and recovery. Learning about your condition can help you feel comfortable when it comes to making decisions. Taking care of yourself is another. Stay active. Sleep well. Eat healthy. And if you feel up to it, keep doing the things you enjoy. Reach out to others. Your doctor can help you find a support group. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, depressed or anxious. Sometimes talking to a mental health specialist can make all the difference. Remember, with the right treatment, the right team and the right mindset, there's always a road forward. If you'd like to learn even more about kidney cancer, here are our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.

Kidney cancer is cancer that begins in the kidneys. Your kidneys are two bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They're located behind your abdominal organs, with one kidney on each side of your spine.

In adults, renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer. Other less common types of kidney cancer can occur. Young children are more likely to develop a kind of kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor.

The incidence of kidney cancer seems to be increasing. One reason for this may be the fact that imaging techniques such as computerized tomography (CT) scans are being used more often. These tests may lead to the accidental discovery of more kidney cancers. Kidney cancer is often discovered at an early stage, when the cancer is small and confined to the kidney.

Symptoms

Kidney cancer usually doesn't have signs or symptoms in its early stages. In time, signs and symptoms may develop, including:

  • Blood in your urine, which may appear pink, red or cola colored
  • Pain in your back or side that doesn't go away
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Fever

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you.

Get the latest health information from Mayo Clinic’s experts.

Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

Causes

It's not clear what causes most kidney cancers.

Doctors know that kidney cancer begins when some kidney cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to grow and divide rapidly. The accumulating abnormal cells form a tumor that can extend beyond the kidney. Some cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to distant parts of the body.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase the risk of kidney cancer include:

  • Older age. Your risk of kidney cancer increases as you age.
  • Smoking. Smokers have a greater risk of kidney cancer than nonsmokers do. The risk decreases after you quit.
  • Obesity. People who are obese have a higher risk of kidney cancer than people who are considered to have a healthy weight.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure increases your risk of kidney cancer.
  • Treatment for kidney failure. People who receive long-term dialysis to treat chronic kidney failure have a greater risk of developing kidney cancer.
  • Certain inherited syndromes. People who are born with certain inherited syndromes may have an increased risk of kidney cancer, such as those who have von Hippel-Lindau disease, Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma or familial renal cancer.
  • Family history of kidney cancer. The risk of kidney cancer is higher if close family members have had the disease.

Prevention

Taking steps to improve your health may help reduce your risk of kidney cancer. To reduce your risk, try to:

  • Quit smoking. If you smoke, quit. Many options for quitting exist, including support programs, medications and nicotine replacement products. Tell your doctor you want to quit, and discuss your options together.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Work to maintain a healthy weight. If you're overweight or obese, reduce the number of calories you consume each day and try to be physically active most days of the week. Ask your doctor about other healthy strategies to help you lose weight.
  • Control high blood pressure. Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure at your next appointment. If your blood pressure is high, you can discuss options for lowering your numbers. Lifestyle measures such as exercise, weight loss and diet changes can help. Some people may need to add medications to lower their blood pressure. Discuss your options with your doctor.

Kidney cancer care at Mayo Clinic

June 25, 2020
  1. Kidney cancer. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/default.aspx. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  2. Partin AW, et al., eds. Malignant renal tumors. In: Campbell-Walsh-Wein Urology. 12th ed. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  3. Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Cancer of the kidney. In: Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  4. Renal cell cancer treatment (PDQ). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/kidney/patient/kidney-treatment-pdq. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  5. Distress management. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/default.aspx. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  6. Alt AL, et al. Survival after complete surgical resection of multiple metastases from renal cell carcinoma. Cancer. 2011; doi:10.1002/cncr.25836.
  7. Lyon TD, et al. Complete surgical metastasectomy of renal cell carcinoma in the post-cytokine era. The Journal of Urology. 2020; doi:10.1097/JU.0000000000000488.
  8. Dong H, et al. B7-H1, a third member of the B7 family, co-stimulates T-cell proliferation and interleukin-10 secretion. Nature Medicine. 1999;5:1365.
  9. Peyronnet B, et al. Impact of hospital volume and surgeon volume on robot-assisted partial nephrectomy outcomes: A multicenter study. BJU International. 2018; doi:10.1111/bju.14175.
  10. Hsu RCJ, et al. Impact of hospital nephrectomy volume on intermediate- to long-term survival in renal cell carcinoma. BJU International. 2020; doi:10.1111/bju.14848.
  11. NCCN member institutions. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/members/network.aspx. Accessed May 20, 2020.
  12. Locations. Children's Oncology Group. https://www.childrensoncologygroup.org/index.php/locations. Accessed May 20, 2020.