What is kidney cancer?

Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer: Overview

Kidney cancer is when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both of the kidneys. Your doctor will do tests to see if the cancer is in the kidney only or has spread to other parts of the body. Then you and your doctor can decide on treatment.

Most people who have kidney cancer have surgery to remove the cancer and all or part of the kidney. Your treatment options will depend on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread.

  • For very small tumors, active surveillance may be an option. This means you will have tests on a regular basis and only have treatment if the cancer grows.
  • Small tumors may be treated with heat or cold to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body may be treated with radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy (with or without surgery).

Many people still have the use of one or both kidneys after treatment for early kidney cancer. If you do not have a working kidney after treatment, you will need to have your blood cleaned by a machine (dialysis) or have a kidney transplant. Being treated for cancer can weaken your body, and you may feel very tired. Home treatment can help you feel better.

What happens when you have kidney cancer?

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.

What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?

Kidney cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms at first. As it grows, kidney cancer may cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • Blood in the urine. Blood can often be seen with the naked eye. But sometimes it's there in just microscopic amounts, so the urine has to be tested to find the blood cells.
  • A lump that can be felt in the lower back or belly.
  • Pain in the side or the back.
  • Unexpected weight loss.
  • A fever that keeps coming back.
  • Anemia.
  • Extreme tiredness.

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.

How is kidney cancer treated?

Treatment for kidney cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. Treatment options may include:


This is the main treatment. The doctor may remove only the part of the kidney with the tumor or the whole kidney.

Thermal ablation.

This uses heat or cold to destroy tumors. It may be done when tumors are very small or surgery isn't a good choice.

Active surveillance may be an option for some people with very small tumors.

If the cancer has spread beyond the kidneys, treatment may also include:

This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Targeted therapy.
These medicines target cancer cells and may cause less harm to normal cells.
This treatment helps your immune system fight cancer.

Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.

How is kidney cancer diagnosed?

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:

  • A urine test.
  • Blood tests, such as a complete blood count and a creatinine test.
  • Tests that show pictures of your kidneys (imaging tests), such as:
    • A CT scan. Dye may be injected through a catheter in your vein to make the picture clearer.
    • An ultrasound.
    • An MRI. Dye may be injected in your vein to make the picture clearer.

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.

How can you care for yourself when you have kidney cancer?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You may get medicine for nausea and vomiting if you have these side effects.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions to relieve pain. Pain from cancer and surgery can almost always be controlled. Use pain medicine when you first notice pain, before it becomes severe.
  • Eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. Drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein. Try to eat your main meal early. Your doctor also may recommend a special diet.
  • Get some physical activity every day, but do not get too tired. Keep doing the hobbies you enjoy as your energy allows.
  • Get enough sleep. Try using a sleep mask and earplugs at night, and keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make kidney cancer worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Take steps to control your stress and workload. Learn relaxation techniques.
    • Share your feelings. Stress and tension affect our emotions. By expressing your feelings to others, you may be able to understand and cope with them.
    • Consider joining a support group. Talking about a problem with your spouse, a good friend, or other people with similar problems is a good way to reduce tension and stress.
    • Express yourself through art. Try writing, crafts, dance, or art to relieve stress. Some dance, writing, or art groups may be available just for people who have cancer.
    • Be kind to your body and mind. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and taking time to do things you enjoy can contribute to an overall feeling of balance in your life and help reduce stress.
    • Get help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor or counselor.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea:
    • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other clear liquids. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
    • When you are able to eat, try clear soups, mild foods, and liquids until all symptoms are gone for 12 to 48 hours. Other good choices include dry toast, crackers, cooked cereal, and gelatin dessert, such as Jell-O.
  • If you have not already done so, prepare a list of advance directives. Advance directives are instructions to your doctor and family members about what kind of care you want if you become unable to speak or express yourself.

What is kidney 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.

What causes 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: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have symptoms of a urinary infection. These may include:
    • Pain or burning when you urinate.
    • A frequent need to urinate without being able to pass much urine.
    • Pain in the flank, which is just below the rib cage and above the waist on either side of the back.
    • Blood in your urine.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.