Kidney Cancer

Your kidneys remove toxic substances from your blood, help to control blood pressure, and make urine. Sometimes their work can be disrupted by cancerous tumors.

What is Kidney Cancer?

We typically have two kidneys—each located above the waist on either side of the backbone. The kidney’s job is to remove waste from our blood through tiny filters called tubules. Kidney cancer, also called renal cell carcinoma, is a malignant growth that originates in these tubules. This is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults.

Although you might not hear that much about kidney cancer, it’s actually among the 10 most common cancers in both men and women. Overall, the lifetime risk for developing kidney cancer in men is about 1 in 46, and 1 in 80 for women.

What causes Kidney Cancer?

Oftentimes, there is no clear cause for kidney cancer. However, the following may increase your risk of developing kidney cancer:

  • Smoking: The increased risk seems to be related to how much you smoke. The risk drops if you stop smoking, but it takes many years to get to the risk level of someone who never smoked.
  • Obesity: Being very overweight may cause changes in certain hormones that can lead to kidney cancer.
  • High blood pressure: This risk does not seem to be lowered even if someone is taking medicines to treat the high blood pressure.
  • Family history of kidney cancer: This risk is highest for people who have a parent, brother, or sister with the cancer. It’s not clear whether this is due to shared genes, something that both people were exposed to in the environment, or both.
  • Workplace exposures: Many studies have suggested that workplace exposure to certain substances, such as trichloroethylene, increases the risk for kidney cancer.
  • Gender: Kidney cancer is about twice as common in men as in women. Men are more likely to be smokers and are more likely to be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals at work, which may account for some of the difference.
  • Race: African Americans have a slightly higher rate of kidney cancer than do white people. The reasons for this are not clear.
  • Age: As people age, their risk of kidney cancer increases.
  • Certain medicines: Some studies have suggested that ibuprofen and naproxen, common pain medicines, may be linked to an increase in the risk of kidney cancer.


Common symptoms include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Mass in the sides or back of your midsection
  • Pain in your midsection and/or bones
  • High blood pressure
  • Anemia or low blood counts
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Low grade fevers

How is Kidney Cancer diagnosed?

What to know before your visit to Michigan Institute of Urology in Southeast Michigan:

  • During your visit, your doctor will ask you questions regarding your medical history and will perform an exam.

Other tests that may be performed during or after your visit:

  •  Labs and urine testing
  •  Ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI of the midsection to better identify the abnormality
  •  Biopsy of the kidney mass may be performed although is not required prior to surgery

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, further tests (blood test to check the health of the liver, chest X-ray, bone scan) can help determine if the cancer has spread beyond the kidney.

Knowing the stage of the disease helps inform the treatment plan:

  • Stage I: Growth or tumor no larger than 7 cm found in kidney.
  • Stage II: Tumor is larger than 7 cm found only in kidney.
  • Stage III: Cancer is in the kidney and extends into major veins and surrounding tissue.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread beyond the kidney.

How is Kidney Cancer treated?

If you are diagnosed with kidney cancer, the type of treatment(s) your doctor recommends will depend on the stage of the cancer and on your overall health.

Treatments for stages I and II include:

  • Active surveillance: Small renal tumors (less than 3cm) and elderly patients with multiple medical issues may elect to take an active surveillance approach, with follow-up to monitor symptoms and physical examination. Repeat imaging will observe the mass for growth and other changes. Further treatment may eventually be needed if the cancer grows or spreads.
  • Surgery: Depending on the tumor’s size, the stage of the disease and the overall condition of the patient, the surgeon removes all or part of the kidney surrounding the tumor. This surgery is by far the most common treatment. Minimally invasive techniques using laparoscopy or robotics can often replace larger-incision approaches, reducing pain, hospitalization, and recovery time.
  • Percutaneous therapy: Small tumors are treated with cryoablation (freezing) or radiofrequency (heating) ablation.
  • Systemic therapy: Many new and promising immunologic therapies and targeted molecular approaches are available to treat renal cancer that has spread outside the kidney. In some cases, additional treatment with immunotherapy may be used to help decrease the risk of recurrence.


Treatment for stages III and IV:

  • Surgery: While not a cure, surgical removal of the kidney prior to starting immunotherapy or chemotherapy may improve the effectiveness of the treatment.
  • Chemotherapy and immunotherapy: New treatments are available for kidney cancer, with encouraging results.
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