What is Kidney Cancer? Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention

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Kidney cancer is a serious health condition that starts in the kidneys but can spread to other areas of the body. The good news is that with early treatment, most people have a good chance of recovering and living a normal life. Cancer can be a hard health condition to manage. It’s caused by abnormal cells that continue to live and replicate instead of being eliminated by the body. Over time, cancer cells may create tumors, which are masses or growths made out of abnormal cells. 

Eventually, these abnormal cancer cells will begin to affect kidney function or spread to other areas of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 3 people will develop cancer during their lifetime. 

Types of Kidney Cancers

You have two kidneys, one on either side of the spine. They are critical for removing waste from the blood by filtering it and producing urine (pee). Each kidney is about the size of a fist and shaped like a bean. In addition to waste removal, the kidneys help your body create red blood cells and regulate your blood pressure.  

Even though kidney cancer is most common in older adults between the ages of 65 and 75, it can occur in people of any age. Also, people with Black and Native American ancestry are more likely to get kidney cancer. It is more likely to affect males than females. 

There are several types of kidney cancers, although some forms of the disease are extremely rare. Some types of kidney cancer include clear cell carcinoma, papillary carcinoma, chromophobe carcinoma, and collecting duct carcinoma.

Benign kidney tumors can also occur; these are non-cancerous masses that will not spread to other organs. Your doctor performs tests to determine if the tumor is benign, especially if they need to remove the mass.

Kidney Cancer Symptoms 

Like many cancers, kidney cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages. Many people have no early symptoms, which gives the cancer cells time to replicate and spread before the disease is diagnosed. When symptoms of kidney cancer do occur, they most often include: 

  • Noticeable lump in the flank area (back and side of torso)
  • Pain in the flank area
  • Blood in the urine 

Less commonly and less specifically, kidney cancer can present with signs and symptoms of:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Tiredness and a general sense of not feeling well 
  • Fever 
  • Night sweats
  • Bone pain
  • Anemia (not enough healthy red blood cells in the body)
  • High blood pressure
  • High calcium levels in the blood

What Causes Kidney Cancer? 

Cancer cells occur when genes change within a cell. Although there are some known causes of cancer, it is not always easy to identify the cause of kidney cancer. Research has shown that some risk factors include: 

  • Genetic predisposition 
  • Smoking 
  • Being overweight 
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Previous cancer treatments with radiation 
  • Dialysis treatments (used to replace kidney function), especially long-term use
  • Certain diseases, such as tuberous sclerosis and Von Hippel-Lindau disease 


Many people don’t experience symptoms in the early stages of the disease; so how do doctors diagnose it? In many cases, many people discover it incidentally during diagnostic testing for other health problems. 

If you have symptoms, your doctor may order various tests to check for kidney cancer and rule out other conditions. Initial testing may involve blood and urine tests to assess how the kidneys are functioning. 

Imaging is frequently used to check for tumors in the kidneys. Types of imaging may include ultrasound, CT scan and/or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). 

If a tumor is found, a biopsy might be recommended. During a biopsy, a needle is inserted into the mass to remove cells for testing. Looking at the cells under a microscope, a pathologist will try to determine if they are cancerous. 

Although biopsies help diagnose kidney cancer, it’s important to note that they are not completely reliable and are typically used in addition to other diagnostic protocols. 

Kidney Cancer Treatment

Kidney cancer treatments usually involve removing the affected tissue surgically. Your body can function with only one kidney, so the entire organ can be removed if necessary unless you have only one remaining kidney. 

Generally, surgery alone is enough to treat kidney cancer in its early stages. If only part of the kidney is removed, the procedure is known as a partial nephrectomy. If the entire kidney is removed, it is a radical nephrectomy. More advanced cases of kidney cancer may involve in-depth surgery to remove the affected kidney and other cancer cells that have spread. 

Late-stage kidney cancer treatments or therapies for patients with only one kidney may involve immunotherapy or targeted therapies to increase the patient’s comfort. Chemotherapy is generally not used for treating kidney cancer. 

Outlook for Patients with Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer survival rates are generally very good with surgical treatment. It is estimated that 3 of 4 people will live at least 5 years after their diagnosis. However, many different factors are involved in a person’s prognosis, and kidney cancer survival rates vary. The type of cancer and the patient’s cancer stage (how advanced the disease is and how far it has spread) can greatly impact the chances of survival.

Next Steps 

Getting a cancer diagnosis can be a scary experience. If you have been diagnosed with kidney cancer, you probably have many questions. Talk to your doctor about resources to help you understand what is happening, and think about joining a support group to help you cope with the emotions surrounding a cancer diagnosis.

Your doctor will also likely refer you to an oncologist (cancer specialist) and urologist (urinary specialist) to discuss your outlook and treatment options. Making a plan and pursuing kidney cancer treatment as soon as possible helps ensure you get the best outcome.

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