What is Renal Cell Carcinoma and How Is It Treated?

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is a type of kidney cancer that starts in the lining of the very small tubes in the kidneys, called tubules. A tumor usually grows in a single mass, but sometimes more than one tumor can grow in one or both kidneys. It is the most common type of kidney cancer in adults, most often affecting men ages 50 to 70 years old. 

How do the kidneys function?

The kidneys filter and clean blood by removing waste, water, and salt through urine. They are located to the left and right of the backbone, above the waist. The urine passes from the kidneys into the bladder through long tubes called ureters. The kidneys also help control blood pressure and regulate red blood cell production. 

What are risk factors for renal cell carcinoma?

Risk factors for kidney cancer may include smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, family history of kidney cancer, advanced kidney disease and long-term kidney dialysis, and occasionally some prolonged misuse of pain medications. A diet high in red meat or dairy can also be a risk factor, as well as certain genetic conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease or hereditary papillary renal cell carcinoma. Although these risk factors can increase the chance of getting RCC, it is not yet clear how they cause cancerous gene mutations.

Toni Choueiri, MD, Director of the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber.
Toni Choueiri, MD, Director of the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber.

What are signs and symptoms of renal cell carcinoma?

Symptoms do not usually appear in the early stages of kidney cancer, but once a tumor starts to grow the most common symptoms are blood in the urine (hematuria) and a lump in the abdomen. Other symptoms include pain in the side, abdomen, or back that doesn’t go away, loss of appetite, weight loss for no reason, anemia (low red blood cell count), swelling of the ankles and legs, and unexplained fever or fatigue.

What are the stages of kidney cancer?

The stage of cancer describes the extent of cancer in the body based on the size and spread of cancer beyond the kidneys and into other places in the body. It is the most important factor in developing a treatment plan.

In the case of stage I and stage II kidney cancers, the tumor remains in the kidney but varies in size. In stage III, the cancer cells may be found in the kidney and one nearby lymph node, an adrenal gland, tissue surrounding the kidney, or in the main blood vessels of the kidney. Finally, RCC is stage IV when the cancerous cells have spread beyond the tissue surrounding the kidney to one or more lymph notes or other organs.

What are treatment options for renal cell carcinoma?

In addition to overall health and age at diagnosis, treatment for kidney cancer depends largely on the stage and spread of the disease. A person can function with just one kidney, so early-stage RCC is often treated with surgery that removes a portion or the entire affected kidney. According to Toni Choueiri, MD, Director of the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber, surgery can sometimes be performed even in stage IV RCC. Patients with stage IV disease have several options, often integrating targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Clinical trials and targeted immune therapies may be recommended at any stage of the disease.

Learn more about the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

1 thought on “What is Renal Cell Carcinoma and How Is It Treated?”

  1. I had cancer on my kidney. It was removed. All went well. It’s been almost eight years. I don’t remember having any symptoms. It was discovered having an MRI checking for the growth of fibroids. I want others to know I received immediate feedback for the fibroids. It took three months to find out about the mass on my kidney found during the MRI for fibroids! I’m grateful for this knowledge. However, it should b explained that research apparently doesn’t stop because you take an MRI for one thing.

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