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Kidney Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments


Several different types of cancer can form in the kidneys. The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs that sit on each side of your lower back. The kidneys’ job is to get rid of wastes and extra liquid in your body. They turn these substances into urine. The kidneys are also important for maintaining healthy bones and blood cells and normalizing your blood pressure.

When kidney cells become abnormal and begin growing out of control, cancer can form.

Kidney cancer, also called renal cancer, has become more common in recent years. This may be because more people are getting tests like CT scans that can find kidney cancer. About 79,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with this cancer in 2022. Around the world, kidney cancer makes up about one out of 50 cancer diagnoses, affecting more than 400,000 people per year.

Kidney cancer symptoms

Many people with kidney cancer don’t know they have it. It doesn’t usually cause symptoms until it has started growing and becoming more advanced.

Advanced kidney cancer may lead to:

  • Lower back pain
  • Pain in your sides underneath your rib cage
  • Red, pink, or brownish urine, caused by blood in the urine
  • Swelling in your abdomen or side
  • Loss of appetite or unexpected weight loss
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • A general feeling of sickness

Other conditions can also cause these symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you notice these or any other changes to your health.

What causes kidney cancer?

Experts don’t yet fully understand why kidney cancer develops. However, they have found that certain risk factors can increase your chances of developing this disease, including:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Long-term use of certain painkillers, including phenacetin, acetaminophen, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen
  • Having kidney disease
  • A hepatitis C infection
  • Kidney stones
  • Being diagnosed with genetic conditions like Birt Hogg Dube syndrome, von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, or hereditary papillary carcinoma
  • Exposure to chemicals like trichloroethylene, asbestos, or cadmium
  • Obesity
  • Having a family history of kidney cancer

You may be able to reduce your risk of kidney cancer by eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, avoiding smoking, treating your high blood pressure, and using proper protection when working with chemicals.

Types of kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is divided into different types based on which type of cell the cancer developed from. Types of kidney cancer include:

  • Renal cell carcinoma (RCC): Most adults with kidney cancer have this subtype. RCC forms in the renal tubules — the tubes in the kidney that help keep important nutrients in the body rather than being expelled in the urine. There are also several subtypes of RCC. The most common type is clear cell renal carcinoma, which is made up of cells that look clear under a microscope.
  • Transitional cell carcinoma: This type of kidney cancer, also called urothelial carcinoma, develops from the cells in the area between the kidneys and the ureters (the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder). Transitional cell carcinomas are often caused by smoking or chemical exposure.
  • Renal sarcoma: This rare tumor forms in the cells that make up the blood vessels within the kidney. It can also form in the outer lining of the kidney or the fat that surrounds this organ.
  • Wilms tumor: This type of kidney cancer develops in children. It can spread to other places within the body, such as the liver, bone, or lungs.

Kidney cancer treatments

Your treatment plan will depend on which type of kidney cancer you have. It may include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy (high-energy particles or beams that can damage and destroy cancer cells)
  • Chemotherapy (drugs that can poison the cancer cells)
  • Targeted therapy (medication that recognizes molecules found on cancer cells and blocks them in order to kill the cells)
  • Immunotherapy (treatments that help the immune system become better at killing cancer)

RCC is typically treated with surgery to remove the tumor and some or all of the kidney. After surgery, you may need to get regular imaging tests to help detect whether the cancer has returned. If cancer has already begun to spread throughout your body, surgery may be followed by radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

Transitional cell carcinoma is usually treated with surgery. If the cancer is only present in the lower part of the ureter, just this area may be removed. If transitional cell carcinoma is more widespread, the kidney, ureter, and tissue that connects the ureter to the bladder may all need to be removed.

Renal sarcoma is also generally treated with surgery. Chemotherapy may help reduce the risk of having the cancer come back.

Wilms tumors and other types of kidney cancer that affect children are often treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Many medication options have been approved for use in children. Clinical trials may also be a good option for children with kidney cancer.

Survival rates for kidney cancer

Overall, more than three out of four people diagnosed with kidney cancer will survive their disease for at least five years.

If you have kidney cancer, your prognosis (outlook) depends on many factors. About two-thirds of kidney cancer cases are found before the cancer has begun to spread, which generally leads to a very good prognosis— 93 percent of people diagnosed at an early stage live for five years or more. However, if your kidney cancer has already begun to spread around the body by the time it is discovered, you will likely have a worse prognosis.

Other factors that can affect your prognosis include things like your type of kidney cancer, your cancer grade (how quickly your cells are growing), and your overall health. Your doctor can help you better understand your unique prognosis and guide you towards a treatment plan that offers you the best chance of having a good outcome.

Key takeaways

Kidney cancer or renal cancer is an increasingly common condition that leads to tumors in the kidneys.

Early-stage kidney cancer doesn’t often cause any symptoms, while later-stage disease can lead to back or side pain, bloody urine, and loss of appetite.

Risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, using pain medication, certain genetic conditions, and obesity can make kidney cancer more likely to develop.

Kidney cancer is often treated with surgery. Other treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy can also help destroy cancer cells or keep them away.

Resources:

American Cancer Society. What Is Kidney Cancer?

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Kidney Cancer: Introduction.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kidney Cancer.

International Journal of Cancer. Analgesic Use and the Risk of Kidney Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Epidemiologic Studies.

Mayo Clinic. Kidney Cancer: Symptoms & Causes.

National Cancer Institute. Cancer Stat Facts: Kidney and Renal Pelvis Cancer.

National Cancer Institute. Renal Cell Cancer Treatment (PDQ)-Patient Version.

National Cancer Institute. Transitional Cell Cancer of the Renal Pelvis and Ureter Treatment (PDQ)-Patient Version.

National Cancer Institute. Wilms Tumor and Other Childhood Kidney Tumors Treatment (PDQ)-Patient Version.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Your Kidneys & How They Work.

National Kidney Foundation. Kidney Cancer.

StatPearls. Renal Cancer.

World Journal of Oncology. Epidemiology of Renal Cell Carcinoma.

World Journal of Urology. Prognostic Factors and Prognostic Models for Renal Cell Carcinoma: A Literature Review.

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