Renal Cell Carcinoma

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 24, 2024
5 min read

It's the most common type of kidney cancer. Although it’s a serious disease, finding and treating it early makes it more likely that you’ll be cured. No matter when you’re diagnosed, you can do certain things to ease your symptoms and feel better during your treatment.

Most people who have renal cell carcinoma are older, usually between ages 50 and 70. It often starts as just one tumor in a kidney, but sometimes it begins as several tumors, or it’s found in both kidneys at once. You might also hear it called renal cell cancer.

Doctors have different ways to treat renal cell carcinoma, and scientists are testing new ones, too. You’ll want to learn as much about your disease as you can and work with your doctor so you can choose the best treatment.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes renal cell carcinoma. They know that most kidney cancers start when something goes wrong in the genes in the kidney. No one can say for certain why that happens.

Several things can raise your chances of getting the disease, like:

  • Smoking
  • Being very overweight
  • Taking a lot of pain medicine, like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, for a long time
  • Having hepatitis C
  • Exposure to certain dyes, asbestos, cadmium (a metal), herbicides, and solvents
  • Having acquired cystic kidney disease (especially in dialysis patients)
  • Some inherited conditions, especially von Hippel-Lindau disease

Early on, renal cell carcinoma doesn’t usually cause any symptoms. As the disease gets more serious, you might have warning signs like:

Your doctor will want to find out more about your symptoms to figure out what’s going on. First, they’ll give you a physical exam and ask you questions like:

  • When did you first notice a problem?
  • Is there blood in your urine?
  • Have you been having any pain? Where?
  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Has anyone in your family had von Hippel-Lindau disease? What about kidney cancer?

From there, they’ll do some tests that could include:

  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy
  • Tests to see how well your liver is working
  • Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to make a picture of the organs inside your body
  • CT scan, a test that uses a powerful X-ray to make detailed pictures inside your body
  • Nephrectomy, when doctors remove part of one of your kidneys, or sometimes the whole kidney, to check it for renal cell carcinoma. You’ll have this test if your doctor has already spotted a tumor, but doesn’t know if it’s cancer.

If the results show that you have renal cell carcinoma, your doctor will find out what stage it’s in, so you can decide on the best treatment options. The stage of cancer depends on how large your tumor is and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. You may have tests to take a closer look inside your chest and belly, like:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of the inside of your body
  • Bone scan
  • What stage is my cancer? What does that mean for me?
  • Do I need any more tests?
  • Do I need to see any other doctors?
  • Have you ever treated this kind of cancer before?
  • What kinds of treatments are there? Which would you recommend?
  • How will those treatments make me feel?
  • When should I start treatment?
  • How will we know if it works?
  • What will my recovery be like?
  • What would you expect for me?
  • Are there any clinical trials I can sign up for?

There are a few different ways doctors can treat renal cell carcinoma. You may need to try several before finding one that works. The best plan for you depends on the stage of your cancer, how healthy you are overall, and any side effects you might have. Your options may include:

Many kinds of cancer are treated with radiation or chemotherapy, or sometimes both. These treatments usually don’t work well for renal cell carcinoma. In some cases, your doctor may still prescribe them to ease your symptoms or if other treatments haven’t worked. Talk with them about these options and how they might make you feel.

Scientists also are looking for new ways to treat renal cell carcinoma in clinical trials. These trials test new drugs to see if they're safe and if they work. They often are a way for people to try new medicine that isn't available to everyone. Your doctor can tell you if one of these trials might be a good fit for you.

It’s important to treat your disease, but also to make sure you're comfortable. Tell your doctor if you’re feeling any pain. They can give you medicines to ease your symptoms.

You can do things during and after your treatment to feel stronger physically and emotionally.

  • Eat well. You need calories and nutrients to stay strong for treatment. If it’s hard for you to eat, try smaller meals every few hours instead of three big meals.
  • Keep moving.Exercise is good for your body and your mind. Your treatment may leave you feeling tired, so be sure to balance activity with rest.
  • Follow your treatment plan. Keep your doctor in the loop about any changes in how you’re feeling.
  • Get support. It’s important to take care of your emotional health, too. Trained counselors and support groups can offer safe places to talk about how you and your loved ones feel. Also, ask for help from family, friends, and members of your community.

Your outlook depends on the stage of your disease. The earlier you find and treat renal cell carcinoma, the better your progress will be. Treatment helps many people fight the cancer, and you have several good options to ease pain and other symptoms.

To get more information on renal cell carcinoma, visit the web site of the American Cancer Society.