- Medically reviewed by
- AKF's Medical Advisory Committee
- Last updated
- November 5, 2021
What is kidney cancer?
Kidney cancer, also called renal cancer, is a type of cancer that starts in the kidneys. Cancer is a disease that happens when cells in your body grow out of control and form a tumor. The most common type of kidney cancer in adults is called renal cell carcinoma. The most common type of kidney cancer in children is called Wilms' tumor.
Each year, about 76,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with kidney cancer.
What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?
In the early stages of kidney cancer, you may not have any signs or symptoms. In later stages you may notice some symptoms, including:
- Blood in your urine (i.e., your pee)
- Swelling in your ankles or legs
- Pain in your side that gets worse or does not go away
- A lump in your side or belly area
- Weight loss that happens without a reason
- Feeling less hungry than normal
- Fever that lasts for a long time and is not caused by a cold or other sickness
- Feeling very tired
Kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of your body can cause other symptoms, including:
- Trouble catching your breath
- Coughing up blood
- Pain in your bones
Having one or more of these symptoms does not mean you have kidney cancer. Other kidney or urinary tract problems can also cause many of these symptoms.
If you notice a combination of any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. Finding and treating kidney cancer early can help prevent other serious health problems.
Who has a higher chance of getting kidney cancer?
Doctors do not know what causes kidney cancer., but However, there are some things that might give you a higher risk of getting kidney cancer, including:
- Being overweight
- Having high blood pressure
- Having a family history of kidney cancer
- Having certain inherited or genetic diseases
- Long-term treatment for kidney failure
Having one of these problems does not mean you will get kidney cancer.
How will I know if I have kidney cancer?
Sometimes kidney cancer is found when your doctor is doing tests for other conditions, before you have any symptoms.
To find out if you have kidney cancer, your doctor might do one or more tests, such as:
- Physical exam to measure your height and weight, take your blood pressure and listen to your heart, in addition to other exams
- Blood tests to help find out how well your kidneys still work
- Urine tests to check for blood in your urine or other signs of problems
- Imaging tests to look at your kidneys, such as an ultrasound, CT scan, x-ray or MRI
- Kidney biopsy is a procedure where your doctors take a small piece of your kidneys to look at it closely under a microscope.
If these tests show that you have kidney cancer, you will need to see another doctor to learn about your treatment options and choose a treatment plan. This may be a urologist (a doctor who treats people with urinary tract diseases) or an oncologist (a doctor who treats people with cancer).
What serious health problems can kidney cancer cause?
If you need to have all or part of one of your kidneys removed, and your other kidney is not working well enough to clean your blood, you will need dialysis or a kidney transplant. If you need dialysis or a kidney transplant, you may have some of the health problems of kidney failure, also called end-stage renal disease (ESRD) or end-stage kidney disease (ESKD).
Kidney cancer can spread to other parts of your body or come back after it looks like it is gone. Treatments for kidney cancer may also cause other health problems.
Talk to your doctor about what you can expect during and after your kidney cancer treatment.
How long can I live with kidney cancer?
How long you may live with kidney cancer (your life expectancy) depends on many things, such as:
- Your stage and age when diagnosed
- Your treatment plan
- Other health problems you have
What are the stages of kidney cancer?
If tests show that you have kidney cancer, the next step is to figure out the stage of the cancer. To figure out the stage, doctors may do more imaging tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan, X-ray or MRI.
The stages of kidney cancer are from I (one) to IV (four). A lower stage means that the cancer has not spread outside the kidneys. By stage IV, the cancer is considered advanced, which means it has spread to other parts of the body (such as bones, lymph nodes, other organs, etc.). Stage IV kidney cancer can often, but not always, cause death (terminal).
How do doctors treat kidney cancer?
The most common treatment for kidney cancer is surgery. The type of surgery you have depends on the stage of the cancer and any other health problems that might affect your life after surgery, such as if you have already had one kidney removed.
If surgery is not an option, your doctor might recommend another treatment option, such as:
- Treatment to kill cancer cells by freezing them or heating them, or with radiation
- Medicine that works with your immune system to fight the cancer (immunotherapy)
- Medicines that prevent cancer from growing
How can I prevent kidney cancer?
It is not always possible to prevent kidney cancer, but you can take these steps to lower your chance of getting it:
- Quit smoking or using tobacco.
- Keep a healthy weight. Talk with your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you.
If you have high blood pressure, follow your treatment plan. If you take blood pressure medicine, take it as your doctor prescribes, and do not skip doses.