Kidney Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Written by: Dana-Farber Editorial Team

It is important to know the symptoms of kidney cancer and be aware of risk factors for the disease. Kidney cancer is more treatable the earlier it is spotted and diagnosed.

However, early diagnosis remains difficult because the tumors can grow quite large without causing pain. In addition, because kidneys are located deep inside the body, they cannot be seen or felt during a physical exam. However, the earlier a change in your body is reported to a medical professional, the earlier it can be addressed.

What are the symptoms of kidney cancer?

• Blood in the urine: This is the most common symptom of kidney cancer. Keep in mind, however, that it’s also a symptom of many other conditions and does not necessarily indicate cancer.
• A lump in on your side or lower back
• Pain that doesn’t go away in the side, abdomen, or lower back
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss for no known reason
• Anemia
• Swelling of the ankles and legs
• Fever or fatigue

What does the kidney do?

You have two kidneys — one on each side of your torso just above the waist and under the stomach and liver. These fist-sized organs filter the blood and remove waste from the body by producing urine. They also produce two important hormones: renin, which helps control blood pressure, and erythropoietin, which helps bone marrow produce red blood cells.

Kidneys are located on each side of the spine below the ribcage.
Kidneys are located on each side of the spine below the ribcage.

How is kidney cancer diagnosed?

With recent advancements in detection, more than 60 percent of kidney cancer cases are discovered before they reach an advanced stage. The methods of detection include:

• Physical exam
• Blood test
• Liver function test
• Urine test
• Ultrasound
• Biopsy
• FNA or fine needle biopsy
• CT Scan

Learn more about how kidney cancer is diagnosed.

What are the risk factors for kidney cancer?

There are a variety of factors that can increase the chances of a person’s developing kidney cancer. They include:

• Smoking
• High blood pressure
• Gender: Twice as many men than women are diagnosed with kidney cancer
• Age
• A family history of kidney cancer
• Long-term dialysis
• Diet: A diet high in red or processed meat
• Genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma

Is kidney cancer hereditary?

Yes, it can be. There are a variety of genetic predispositions that can cause mutations in cell DNA that trigger pancreatic cancer. These include:

von Hippel-Lindau disease: People with this condition often develop tumors and cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in the kidneys, brain, pancreas, or spinal cord.
• Hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma: This condition causes lumps known as papillae on bodily organs.
• Hereditary leiomyoma-renal cell carcinoma: This condition causes smooth muscle tumors called leiomyomas that are linked to renal cancer.
• Birt-Hogg-Dube (BHD) syndrome: This condition causes benign skin tumors and increases the risk of kidney tumors.
• Cowden syndrome: This condition increases the risk of breast, thyroid, and kidney cancer.

How can I reduce my risk of kidney cancer?

Stop smoking: Dana-Farber offers several strategies to help you stop smoking. You can get specific treatment recommendations by calling the Smokers’ Helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Eat a healthy diet: This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein such as poultry and fish, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil. It is also good to limit your consumption of red meat, high-fat dairy, saturated fats, and sugar.
Maintain a weight that’s right for you: Experts agree that “healthy weight” is a highly individualized number. The common sense answer is that many of us will benefit from regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Control high blood pressure: You can do this through a combination of diet, lifestyle, exercise, and in some cases, medication. Consult with your doctor as to whether your blood pressure is in the healthy range.

What is the treatment for kidney cancer?

There are a variety of successful treatments for kidney cancer, depending upon the stage and extent of the cancer.

• Surgery: Early-stage kidney cancer can often be treated successfully with surgery. Because a person has two kidneys — and can usually function fine with just one — it is possible to remove an entire kidney as long as the other is cancer-free. Surgery can also be helpful after the cancer has metastasized (spread to other organs), to relieve pain or remove cancer where it has spread.
• Radiofrequency ablation: This procedure destroys the tumor without surgery by inserting needles that send out radio waves to destroy cancerous tissue cells.
• Cryotherapy: This procedure uses extremely cold liquids or gasses, inserted through probes, to kill malignant cells.
• Targeted therapies: These involve drugs that locate and attack cancerous cells without harming healthy cells.
Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
• Clinical trials: Dana-Farber offers one of the largest and most active clinical trial programs available.
• Chemotherapy: This form of treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from dividing. It is not usually used for kidney cancer.
• Radiation therapy: This procedure uses radiation to kill cancer cells. While previously it was used rarely in kidney cancer, it is not used more frequently to control kidney tumors or metastases. It is also used for pain relief in the later stages of cancer.

For more information on kidney cancer, visit the website for the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.