kidneys and blood vessels anatomy
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How Does It Happen?

These organs' main job is to filter waste from your blood and make pee. But they also help control your blood pressure and make sure you have enough red blood cells. Kidney cancer, also called renal carcinoma, happens when cells in one or both of them start to grow out of control and form a tumor that crowds out healthy cells. This kind of cancer is one of the 10 most common in both men and women.

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ct scan of renal cell carcinoma
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Renal Cell Carcinoma (RCC)

While there are many kinds of kidney cancer, 9 out of 10 people who have it have this type. It’s usually one tumor inside one kidney, but there can be more than one, and they can happen in both kidneys.

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Who Gets It?

Most people diagnosed with kidney cancer are between 50 and 70 years old. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely to get it than women, and African-American people have a higher chance of getting it than other groups. High blood pressure, kidney disease, and certain problems with your genes, like von Hippel-Lindau disease, also can raise your chances. It can run in families, too.

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Other Things That Raise Your Odds

You’re more likely to get it if:

  • You smoke: This doubles your risk. It’s believed to cause 30% of kidney cancers in men and 25% in women.
  • You have extra weight: People who are overweight or obese are nearly twice as likely to get RCC.
  • You take too many over-the-counter meds: Too much aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen over a long period of time can play a role.
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doctor talking with young female patient
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Symptoms

If you have a small tumor, you might not notice any signs, but larger ones can cause these problems:

  • Blood in your pee
  • A lump on your side or lower back
  • Low back pain 
  • Feeling tired
  • Weight loss for no reason
  • Fever
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doctor talking with young female patient
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Diagnosis: Urine and Blood Tests

Your doctor will give you an exam. If he thinks you might have kidney cancer, he’ll probably start with urinalysis, which tests your pee for blood or cancer cells. He also might do a blood test to see how well your kidneys are working and a complete blood count to make sure you have a healthy number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. People with kidney cancer often have anemia -- when you don’t have enough red blood cells.

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ultrasound of kidneys
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Diagnosis: Imaging Tests

Your doctor may do scans to get a closer look at your kidneys:

  • Ultrasound: Sound waves make black-and-white images on a computer screen.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan: X-rays from different angles are put together to make a more complete picture.
  • Magnetic imaging resonance (MRI) scan: Magnets and radio waves make detailed images.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: Radiation makes 3-D color images.
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guided kidney biopsy
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Biopsy

Your doctor may recommend surgery to take a tiny sample from the tumor with a needle so it can be tested. This is called a biopsy, and it’s the only way to tell for sure if it’s cancer.

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kidney cancer cell
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Grades

If it turns out you do have cancer, your doctor will want to try to predict how fast it may grow. He’ll do this based on how much the cancer cells look like healthy ones. Kidney cancer can be grade 1, 2, or 3 -- grade 3 cells look very different from normal ones and tend to grow fastest.

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metastases of kidney cancer
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Staging

Your doctor will also try to tell how far the cancer has spread -- it can be stage I, II, III, or IV. A stage I cancer is only in your kidney, while a stage IV has spread to other parts of your body.

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Treatment Plan

Your doctor will make recommendations based on the type of kidney cancer you have, the grade and stage of the cancer, your age, and any other health problems you might have.

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doctor palpating womans abdomen
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Wait and See

Your doctor may suggest this approach if your tumor is small. He’ll want to do tests often to see if it starts to grow quickly or gets bigger than an inch and a half. 

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Surgery

This is the most common treatment. Your doctor may take out only the part of the kidney where the tumor is and let the healthy part keep working. In other cases, it may need to be removed -- most people do fine with only one.

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radiowaves heating tumor
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Tumor ‘Destroyers’

If you’re not able to have surgery to take out the tumor, your doctor may try to destroy it instead. He might use radio waves to heat the tumor or cold gases to freeze it. These can kill cancer cells without hurting your kidney. If your cancer is causing a lot of bleeding, he might block the artery that brings blood to the kidney. But that kills not only the tumor, but your kidney, too.

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Targeted Therapy

Kidney tumors make their own network of blood vessels that let them grow. A new kind of drug targets these vessels but leaves normal ones alone. Without blood, the tumor stops growing or even shrinks. This therapy is used to treat more advanced renal cell cancer.

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Immunotherapy

The idea with this is to boost your immune system so it can fight or kill cancer cells. But so far, it only seems to work for a small percentage of people with kidney cancer. Your doctor may suggest it if targeted therapy doesn’t work for you, or he may recommend that the two be used together.

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adjusting chemotherapy bag
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Chemotherapy

This is a combination of powerful drugs that’s used to kill cells that are growing fast. It doesn’t seem to work well against kidney cancer, but your doctor may try it if other treatments haven’t worked.

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woman receiving radiotherapy treatment
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Radiation

This treatment uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. But kidney cancer isn’t very sensitive to radiation, so it’s not done often. You may get it if you can’t have surgery or to help with symptoms like pain or bleeding. You also might have it if cancer has spread to other parts of your body, like your bones or brain.

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doctor talking with young female patient
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Clinical Trials

Researchers are working to find new treatments. If you volunteer to be part of a clinical trial, you may get cutting-edge treatment years before other people can. Talk to your doctor, or call the American Cancer Society’s clinical trial helpline at 800-303-5691 to find studies near you.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/31/2017 Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 31, 2017

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American Cancer Society: “Kidney Cancer,” “If You Have Kidney Cancer,” “What is Kidney Cancer,” “Active Surveillance for Kidney Cancer,” “Surgery for Kidney Cancer,” “Ablation and Other Local Therapy for Kidney Cancer,” “Biologic Therapy (Immunotherapy) for Kidney Cancer,”

“The Basics of Clinical Trials.”

American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Kidney Cancer Risk Factors and Prevention.”

National Cancer Institute: “Obesity and Cancer,” “Renal Cell Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) -- Patient Version.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Kidney Cancer Treatment.”

Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 31, 2017

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

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