Kidney Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Additional Resources

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Renal cell cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in tubules of the kidney.

Renal cell cancer (also called kidney cancer or renal adenocarcinoma) is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the lining of tubules (very small tubes) in the kidney. There are 2 kidneys, one on each side of the backbone, above the waist. The tiny tubules in the kidneys filter and clean the blood, taking out waste products and making urine. The urine passes from each kidney into the bladder through a long tube called a ureter. The bladder stores the urine until it is passed from the body.

Cancer that starts in the ureters or the renal pelvis (the part of the kidney that collects urine and drains it to the ureters) is different from renal cell cancer. Refer to the PDQ summary on Transitional Cell Cancer of the Renal Pelvis and Ureter Treatment for more information).

Smoking and misuse of certain pain medicines can affect the risk of developing renal cell cancer.

Risk factors include the following:

  • Smoking.
  • Misusing certain pain medicines, including over-the-counter pain medicines, for a long time.
  • Having certain genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma.

Possible signs of renal cell cancer include blood in the urine and a lump in the abdomen.

These and other symptoms may be caused by renal cell cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. There may be no symptoms in the early stages. Symptoms may appear as the tumor grows. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Blood in the urine.
  • A lump in the abdomen.
  • A pain in the side that doesn't go away.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Anemia.

Tests that examine the abdomen and kidneys are used to detect (find) and diagnose renal cell cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
  • Urinalysis: A test to check the color of urine and its contents, such as sugar, protein, red blood cells, and white blood cells.
  • Liver function test: A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked to measure the amounts of enzymes released into it by the liver. An abnormal amount of an enzyme can be a sign that cancer has spread to the liver. Certain conditions that are not cancer may also increase liver enzyme levels.
  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP): A series of x-rays of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder to find out if cancer is present in these organs. A contrast dye is injected into a vein. As the contrast dye moves through the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, x-rays are taken to see if there are any blockages.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. To do a biopsy for renal cell cancer, a thin needle is inserted into the tumor and a sample of tissue is withdrawn.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the disease.
  • The patient's age and general health.

After renal cell cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the kidney or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the kidney or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for renal cell cancer:

Stage I

In stage I, the tumor is 7 centimeters or smaller and is found only in the kidney.

Stage II

In stage II, the tumor is larger than 7 centimeters and is found only in the kidney.

Stage III

In stage III, cancer is found:

  • in the kidney and in 1 nearby lymph node; or
  • in an adrenal gland or in the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney, and may be found in 1 nearby lymph node; or
  • in the main blood vessels of the kidney and may be found in 1 nearby lymph node.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer has spread:

  • beyond the layer of fatty tissue around the kidney and may be found in 1 nearby lymph node; or
  • to 2 or more nearby lymph nodes; or
  • to other organs, such as the bowel, pancreas, or lungs, and may be found in nearby lymph nodes.

Recurrent Renal Cell Cancer

Recurrent renal cell cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back many years after initial treatment, in the kidney or in other parts of the body.


Stage II

Stage II is divided into stage IIA, stage IIB, and stage IIC and is determined after a radical inguinal orchiectomy is done.

  • In stage IIA, cancer:
    • is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and
    • has spread to up to 5 lymph nodes in the abdomen, none larger than 2 centimeters.
    All tumor marker levels are normal or slightly above normal.
  • In stage IIB, cancer is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and either:
    • has spread to up to 5 lymph nodes in the abdomen; at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 centimeters, but none are larger than 5 centimeters; or
    • has spread to more than 5 lymph nodes; the lymph nodes are not larger than 5 centimeters.
    All tumor markers levels are normal or slightly above normal.
  • In stage IIC, cancer:
    • is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and
    • has spread to a lymph node in the abdomen that is larger than 5 centimeters.
    All tumor marker levels are normal or slightly above normal.
Stage III

Stage III is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC and is determined after a radical inguinal orchiectomy is done.

  • In stage IIIA, cancer:
    • is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and
    • may have spread to one or more lymph nodes in the abdomen; and
    • has spread to distant lymph nodes or to the lungs.
    The level of one or more tumor markers may range from normal to slightly above normal.
  • In stage IIIB, cancer:
    • is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and
    • may have spread to one or more nearby or distant lymph nodes or to the lungs.
    The level of one or more tumor markers may range from normal to high.
  • In stage IIIC, cancer:
    • is anywhere within the testicle, spermatic cord, or scrotum; and
    • may have spread to one or more nearby or distant lymph nodes or to the lungs or anywhere else in the body.
    The level of one or more tumor markers may range from normal to very high.

Recurrent Testicular Cancer Top

Recurrent testicular cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back many years after the initial cancer, in the other testicle or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service