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Home > Health Library > Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer
Kidney cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in one or both kidneys. Another name for kidney cancer is renal cancer. "Renal" means having to do with the kidney. Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer.
Experts aren't sure what causes kidney cancer. But there are certain things that make you more likely to get it. Your risk is higher if you smoke, are very overweight (obese), have high blood pressure, or have certain inherited conditions.
Kidney cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms at first. As it grows, it may cause symptoms, such as blood in the urine, a lump that can be felt in the lower back or belly, or pain in the side or the back.
You may get tests of your urine and blood. Imaging tests, such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI, can help show kidney cancer. Many cases of early kidney cancer are found during imaging tests that were looking for other problems. A small sample of the kidney may be removed to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment for kidney cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. The main treatment is surgery to remove the cancer. Other options may include using heat or cold to destroy cancer cells (thermal ablation), targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.
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Kidney cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms at first. As it grows, kidney cancer may cause one or more of these symptoms:
Kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body will cause different symptoms, depending on where it has spread. For example, cancer that spreads to the lungs may cause coughing and shortness of breath. Cancer that spreads to the bones may cause bone pain.
Kidney cancer that's found early can often be successfully treated. But when it isn't found early, it may spread to other parts of the body, like the lymph nodes, lungs, bones, or liver. After the cancer has spread, how long a person lives usually depends on how much it has spread.
To see if you may have kidney cancer, your doctor may do a physical exam. Then your doctor may order one or more tests to look for evidence of cancer. Tests include:
Many cases of early kidney cancer are found during imaging tests that were looking for some other problem.
If a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis, a small sample of the kidney may be removed to check the cells under a microscope.
Treatment for kidney cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. The main treatment is surgery to remove the cancer. Other options may include using heat or cold to destroy cancer cells (thermal ablation). If the cancer has spread beyond the kidneys (metastatic cancer), treatment may also include targeted therapy or immunotherapy.
Active surveillance may be an option for some people with very small tumors. Some very small tumors may never grow, and others may grow slowly. You'll have regular checkups and tests but won't have treatment unless the cancer gets worse.
Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.
Most people with kidney cancer have surgery. If you have early-stage cancer, the doctor may be able to remove all of it. No further treatment may be needed.
The main types of surgery are:
Surgery may be done through one cut (incision). This is called open surgery. Or it may be done through several very small cuts. This is called laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery.
Surgery may not be a good choice for some older adults or people who have serious health problems.
This treatment uses heat or cold to destroy (ablate) tumors. Using heat is called radiofrequency ablation. Using cold is called cryoablation.
Thermal ablation may be done when tumors are very small or surgery is not a good choice.
Surgery is sometimes done to remove cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Treatment may also include:
This treatment helps your immune system fight cancer. It may be given in several ways.
These medicines attack only cancer cells, not normal cells. They help keep cancer from growing or spreading.
Palliative care is a type of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Palliative care provides an extra layer of support that can improve your quality of life—not just in your body, but also in your mind and spirit. Sometimes palliative care is combined with curative treatment.
The kind of care you get depends on what you need. Your goals guide your care. You can get both palliative care and care to treat your illness. You don't have to choose one or the other.
Palliative care can help you manage symptoms, pain, or side effects from treatment. It may help you and those close to you better understand your illness, talk more openly about your feelings, or decide what treatment you want or don't want. It can also help you communicate better with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends.
It can be hard to live with an illness that cannot be cured. But if your health is getting worse, you may want to make decisions about end-of-life care. Planning for the end of your life does not mean that you are giving up. It is a way to make sure that your wishes are met. Clearly stating your wishes can make it easier for your loved ones. Making plans while you are still able may also ease your mind and make your final days less stressful and more meaningful.
Some people use complementary therapies along with medical treatment. They may help relieve the symptoms and stress of cancer or the side effects of cancer treatment. Therapies that may be helpful include:
Talk with your doctor about any of these options you would like to try. And let your doctor know if you are already using any complementary therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment. But they may help you feel better and cope better with treatment.
Relationships take on new importance when you're faced with cancer. Your family and friends can help support you. You may also want to look beyond those who are close to you.
Remember that the people around you want to support you, and asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.
Your friends and family want to help, but some of them may not know what to do. It may help to make a list. For example, you might ask them to:
Places to turn for support include:
Current as of:
May 4, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineJimmy Ruiz MD - Hematology, Oncology
Current as of: May 4, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Jimmy Ruiz MD - Hematology, Oncology
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