Kidney cancer develops when cells in your kidneys change and grow out of control. People with kidney cancer may notice flank pain, high blood pressure, blood in their pee and other symptoms. Kidney cancer treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. As with all cancers, early detection is key for successful treatment.
Kidney cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in your kidney tissue. In time, these cells form a mass called a tumor. Cancer begins when something triggers a change in the cells, and they divide out of control.
A cancerous or malignant tumor can spread to other tissues and vital organs. When this happens, it’s called metastasis.
Kidney cancer is most common in people between the ages of 65 and 74. Men are twice as likely as women to develop the disease. It’s also more common in Native American and Black populations.
Kidney cancer is much less common in children. However, 500 to 600 children are diagnosed with a Wilms tumor (a type of kidney cancer) every year in the United States.
There are different types of kidney cancer, including:
Kidney cancer represents about 3.7% of all cancers in the United States. Each year, more than 62,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer. The risk of kidney cancer increases with age.
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Kidney cancer may not produce any noticeable symptoms in its early stages. But as the tumor grows, symptoms may begin to appear. For that reason, kidney cancer often isn’t diagnosed until it has begun to spread.
Kidney cancer symptoms may include:
The exact cause of kidney cancer isn’t known, but there are certain risk factors that may increase your chances of getting the disease. These include:
It depends. Some kidney tumors are benign (noncancerous). These tumors are generally smaller than cancerous tumors and don’t spread to other parts of your body. Surgical removal is the most common treatment for noncancerous kidney tumors.
Whether your kidney tumor is cancerous or noncancerous, you should move forward with treatment as soon as possible to avoid complications.
If you have kidney cancer symptoms, your healthcare provider will perform a complete medical history and physical exam. They also may order certain tests that can help in diagnosing and assessing cancer. These tests may include:
Most cancers are grouped by stage, a description of cancer that aids in planning treatment. The stage of a cancer is based on:
Your healthcare provider uses information from various tests, including CT, MRI and biopsy, to determine the stage of cancer.
Tumors are also graded, which is a way of rating a tumor based on how abnormal its cells look. Tumor grading can also tell your healthcare provider how fast the tumor is likely to grow. Tumors whose cells don’t look like normal cells and divide rapidly are called high-grade tumors. High-grade tumors tend to grow and spread more quickly than low-grade tumors.
Kidney cancer treatment depends on the stage and grade of the tumor, as well as your age and overall health. Options include surgery, ablation, radiation therapy, targeted drug therapy, immunotherapy and sometimes chemotherapy.
Surgery is the treatment of choice for most stages of kidney cancer. Several surgical options may be considered, including:
When one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney is usually able to perform the work of both kidneys.
Sometimes, heat and cold can destroy cancer cells. People who aren’t candidates for surgery may benefit from cryoablation or radiofrequency ablation.
Your healthcare provider may recommend radiation therapy if you only have one kidney or if you’re not eligible for surgery. Radiation therapy is most often used for easing kidney cancer symptoms, such as pain.
Targeted drug therapy blocks certain characteristics that help cancer cells thrive. For example, these drugs can stop the growth of new blood vessels or proteins that feed cancer.
Targeted drug therapy is often used when surgery isn’t an option. In some cases, these medications may be given after surgery to reduce the risk of cancer coming back.
Immunotherapy uses certain medications to boost your own immune system. In turn, this helps your body recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Immunotherapy may be given as a standalone treatment or along with surgery.
Chemotherapy isn’t a standard treatment for kidney cancer. But it can be helpful in some cases — usually only after trying immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy. Chemotherapy medications are taken by mouth or given through a vein (intravenously) and are generally well tolerated.
Because the exact cause of kidney cancer is unknown, there isn’t a way to prevent it altogether. However, you may be able to reduce your risk by not smoking and managing certain conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Your kidney cancer prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer (whether it’s just in your kidney or has spread to other places in your body). The chance of recovery also depends on your general state of health.
Like most cancers, kidney cancer is most treatable when found in its early stages. In general, if the cancer is detected early, before it breaks through the outer covering of your kidney, kidney cancer is often curable.
If you develop kidney cancer symptoms, such as pain in your side, a lump near your kidney or blood in your pee, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. They can run tests to determine the cause of your symptoms and develop a personalized treatment plan.
Learning everything you can about your kidney cancer diagnosis can empower you and help you make informed decisions about your treatment. Here are some questions to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Receiving a kidney cancer diagnosis can be scary, saddening and frustrating. Like most cancers, kidney cancer treatment is more effective when it’s diagnosed early on. Your healthcare provider can talk with you about your treatment and give you additional resources to help you understand your options. You may also want to join a local support group or seek the help of a counselor or social worker. These things can help you maintain a healthy emotional outlook during this challenging time.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/06/2022.
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