Medically reviewed by Bradley McGregor, MD
Kidney cancer occurs when the cells of the kidney acquire abnormal mutations in their DNA and then multiply. These cells may accumulate and form a tumor; in some cases, they metastasize and spread elsewhere in the body.
Can I inherit kidney cancer?
A family history of kidney cancer does not necessarily mean that you have inherited a gene that causes kidney cancer. The most common kidney cancer is renal cell cancer (RCC), which makes up 90% of all kidney cancer diagnoses. Inherited kidney cancers only occur about 5-8% of the time.
The specific genes that are linked to kidney cancer are also due to an underlying genetic syndrome associated not just with different types of kidney cancer, but other cancers and conditions as well. These genes are autosomal dominant, meaning the abnormal gene can be passed down even if only one parent carries and/or has the disease associated with it.
Some genetic conditions that can lead to kidney cancer include:
- Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL)
- Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome (BHD)
- Hereditary leiomyomatosis
- Renal cell cancer (HLRCC)
- Hereditary papillary renal carcinoma (HPRC)
All of these conditions, except for HPRC, have been associated with benign or malignant tumors in other organs. Researchers are continuing to study the genetics of kidney cancer.
Kidney cancer can occur in both sporadic and heritable forms; most kidney cancer is sporadic, meaning that to date there is no known inherited genetic cause. It’s suggested that a recessive gene can contribute to the sporadic formation of RCC in families, but this continues to be studied.
One indication of a hereditary kidney cancer is a diagnosis at a young age (below 50) or diagnosis with kidney cancer in multiple kidneys.
Heritable kidney cancers are often a result of one of the four major autosomal dominantly inherited syndromes listed above.
Other risk factors
Kidney cancer is more likely to occur due to other risk factors than genetics. Other risk factors include:
- Smoking, which doubles the risk of kidney cancer; increases to 30% for men and 25% for women
- Gender: men are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop kidney cancer than women
- Hypertension (high blood pressure), though this link continues to be explored
- Obesity/diet: a greater intake of dairy and red meat has been associated with RCC