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Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer - Topic Overview

Kidney cancer starts when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both kidneys. The kidneys camera.gif are two bean-shaped organs located on either side of the spine, just below the ribs. They filter wastes from the blood and help balance water, salt, and mineral levels in the blood.

Another name for kidney cancer is renal cancer. "Renal" means having to do with the kidney.

This topic is about renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer. About 8 or 9 out of 10 people with kidney cancer have this type.1, 2

Kidney cancer that is found early often can be successfully treated. But when it isn't found early, the cancer may spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, the lungs, the bones, or the liver.

Experts aren't sure what causes kidney cancer. But there are certain things that make you more likely to get this cancer. Your risk is higher if you:

  • Smoke. Experts estimate that around 24 to 30 out of 100 cases of kidney cancer are directly related to smoking.2
  • Have a job that regularly exposes you to certain chemicals or minerals, such as asbestos, gasoline, and cadmium (used in manufacturing).
  • Use too much pain medicine for a long time.
  • Have certain inherited conditions, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease.

Kidney cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms at first. It's often discovered by imaging tests—tests that produce pictures of the inside of the body—that are done for other reasons.

After it begins to spread, kidney cancer may cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • Blood in the urine.
  • A lump that can be felt in the lower back or belly.
  • Pain in the side or the back.

If your symptoms make your doctor think that you may have kidney cancer, he or she will order imaging tests. The pictures from these tests usually show whether there is cancer in your kidney and how far it may have spread.

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