Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Kidney Cancer

Kidney Cancer

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Cancer is the result of mutations that cause otherwise normal cells to grow at an abnormal rate. A buildup of extra cells can result in the formation of kidney tumors, which can be malignant (cancerous). These malignant cells have the potential to leave the kidney and spread destructively throughout the body (metastasis).The most common type of kidney cancer in adults is called renal cell carcinoma, while a type of kidney cancer called Wilms tumor is the most common in children.

Risk Factors for Kidney Cancer
Symptoms of Kidney Cancer
Diagnosing Kidney Cancer
Treating Kidney Cancer

Risk Factors for Kidney Cancer
While the exact cause of kidney cancer is unknown, researchers have linked it to several risk factors. You may be at risk if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have a family history of kidney cancer or Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome, a rare disease caused by changes in the VHL gene

Symptoms of Kidney Cancer
Common symptoms of kidney cancer include:

  • Blood in your urine
  • Pain in your side that won’t go away
  • A lump or mass in your side or abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fever
  • Persistent fatigue

Keep in mind that these symptoms can also indicate conditions other than kidney cancer. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible so that the cause can be diagnosed and treated promptly.

Diagnosing Kidney Cancer
If your doctor suspects the possibility of kidney cancer, he or she may order one or more of the following tests:

  • Urine Tests: You will submit a urine sample, which the lab will check for blood or other signs of kidney cancer.
  • Blood Tests: You will submit a blood sample, which the lab will check for several substances. A high level of creatinine, for example, indicates that the kidneys are not functioning as they should.
  • CT Scan: This imaging method uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of your abdomen.
  • MRI: A scanner uses powerful magnets and pulses of radio wave energy to create pictures of your abdomen; your doctor may order a special dye (contrast material) to be injected to help show differences in the tissues of your kidneys, lymph nodes or other tissues.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor inserts a thin needle through your skin into the kidney to remove a small sample of tissue so it can be examined by a pathologist for the presence of cancerous cells.

Treating Kidney Cancer
Once kidney cancer has been diagnosed, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments.

  • Surgery: This is the most common treatment for kidney cancer.
    • A surgeon will usually need to remove only the part of the kidney where the tumor is located (partial nephrectomy), sparing the remaining kidney, which will continue to function.
    • In more advanced cases, it may be necessary to remove the entire kidney, the adrenal gland and the surrounding tissue (radical nephrectomy).

If one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney can do the work of both organs if it is healthy; if it isn’t, you may need ongoing dialysis or a kidney transplant. Today, the majority of kidney cancer surgeries can be performed using minimally invasive techniques such as laparoscopy and robotics, which result in less pain, less scarring and quicker recovery than traditional open surgical techniques.

  • Cryotherapy: Your doctor inserts a hollow probe directly into the tumor, then very cold gases are passed through the probe to create an ice ball that kills the cancer cells.
  • Radiofrequency Ablation: A surgeon inserts a special probe directly into the tumor, and an electrical current is sent through the probe to heat and kill the cancer cells.
  • Targeted Chemotherapy: This approach uses drugs to shrink a tumor or slow its growth by targeting specific characteristics of kidney cancer cells.
  • Biological Therapy (Immunotherapy): This therapy uses the body’s own natural immune defenses to destroy cancer cells. The treatment is usually given intravenously, either at the hospital or in your doctor’s office.


If diagnosed and treated at an early stage, most kidney cancers can be treated very effectively while maintaining good long-term kidney function. Unfortunately, advanced cases that have already spread outside the kidney at diagnosis can be very difficult to treat successfully. This underscores the importance of diagnosing kidney cancer early in the course of the disease.


Learn more about kidney disease and cancer: